General Studies IIIndia and NeighborhoodINTERNATIONAL RELATION


Glimpse of look East Policy:

  • India’s Look East policy is an effort to cultivate extensive economic and strategic relations with the nations of Southeast Asia to bolster its standing as a regional power and a counterweight to the strategic influence of the People’s Republic of China.
  • Initiated in 1991, it marked a strategic shift in India’s perspective of the world.
  • It was developed and enacted during the government of Prime Minister Narsimha Rao (1991–1996) and rigorously pursued by the successive administrations of Atal Bihari Vajpayee (1998–2004) and Manmohan Singh (2004–2014).
  • The success of Look East policy enthused the Mandarins of South-Block to develop the policy into more action oriented, project and outcome based policy.
  • After a couple of decades, India’s Act East Policy, which was announced in 2014 by the Prime minister Narendra Modi’s administration, became a successor to the Look-East Policy.

Background of look East Policy:

  • Ever since the Sino-Indian War of 1962, China and India have been strategic competitors in South and East Asia.
  • China has cultivated close commercial and military relations with India’s neighbour Pakistan and competed for influence in Nepal and Bangladesh.
  • After Deng Xiaoping’s rise to power in China in 1979 and the subsequent Chinese economic reform, China began reducing threats of expansionism and in turn cultivated extensive trade and economic relations with Asian nations.
  • China became the closest partner and supporter of the military junta of Burma, which had been ostracised from the international community following the violent suppression of pro-democracy activities in 1988.
  • In contrast, during the Cold War, India had a relatively hesitant relationship with many states in Southeast Asia as such diplomatic relations were given relatively low priority.
  • India’s “Look East” policy was developed and enacted during the governments of prime ministers P.V. Narasimha Rao (1991–1996) and Atal Bihari Vajpayee (1998–2004).
  • Along with economic liberalisation and moving away from Cold War-era policies and activities, India’s strategy has focused on forging close economic and commercial ties, increasing strategic and security cooperation and the emphasis of historic cultural and ideological links.
  • India sought to create and expand regional markets for trade, investments and industrial development.
  • It also began strategic and military cooperation with nations concerned by the expansion of China’s economic and strategic influence

Important Facts about Look East Policy of India

  1. The look east policy tends to connect to ASEAN and the East Asian nations with an asianisation content.
  2. India has made several multilateral agreements with East Asian nations that have boosted India’s act east policy.
  3. The significant bilateral relationships are mentioned below:

  1. India-China Relations
  2. India-Myanmar Relations
  3. India-Sri Lanka Relations
  4. Other forums, regional groupings or platforms that have supported India’s look east policy are mentioned below:
    • BCIM – Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar Economic Corridor
    • BIMSTEC – Bay of Bengal Initiative of Multisectoral Technical and & Economic Cooperation
    • SAFTA – South Asian Free Trade Area
    • ASEAN – Association of South Eastern Asian Nations
    • EAS – East Asia Summit
    • MGC – Mekong-Ganga Cooperation
  5. The first Trans Asian Car rally from Guwahati to Batam (Indonesia) passing through North Eastern States of India, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia and Singapore in 2004 was an important sign for the advent of India’s Look East Policy.
  6. Several governmental initiatives that boosted India’s Look East Policy are:
    • Trans Asian highway starting from Singapore to Istanbul passing through India
    • Trans Asian Railway from Delhi to Hanoi
    • 800 km long Trans-National Gas Pipe Line between Myanmar, Bangladesh and India

Significance of India’s Look East Policy

  1. The North-Eastern states of India were given a direct role under the Look East Policy.
  2. Opening the doors for maritime oriented look east policy by bringing in pictures the coastal states of East India. This way it will help to build relations with southeastern nations that are dominantly coastal.
  3. The look east policy was seen as a step towards competing China’s presence in East Asia.

About India’s Act East Policy

  • It was launched at the 12th ASEAN-India Summit in 2014 held in Myanmar. The policy is based on the 4 C’s – Culture, Commerce, Connectivity, and Capacity Building. 
  • It is an effort of India to cultivate extensive economic and strategic relations with the nations of Southeast Asia and further strengthen its relationship with the Indo-Pacific
  • India’s focus under Act East remains on 
    • Enhancing economic relations with ASEAN
    • Ensuring greater infrastructural connectivity and foreign direct investment  
    • Augmenting regional development in northeastern India 
    • It is the successor of the 1992 Look East Policy.

Difference between Act East Policy (2014) and Look East Policy (1991)

Both the policies are 2 succeeding phases, in the evolution of India’s policy towards South East Asia and East Asia.

Some of the major differences in the ‘Act East’ Policy and ‘Look East’ Policy of India are mentioned in the below table.

Act East PolicyLook East Policy
Act East Policy was launched in 2014Look East Policy was launched in 1991
It was launched by the Current Prime Minister of India – Narendra ModiIt was launched by former Prime Minister of India – PV Narasimha Rao
India was in a very favorable position from the perspective of economic might when the Act East Policy was launched in 2014.India had a very fragile economy when Look East Policy was launched, due to the 1991 Economic crisis. India was in a transition phase to a liberalized economy.
Focus is more on boosting economic co-operation, building infrastructure for greater connectivity, importantly strategic & security tiesFocus more on boosting economic co-operation.
This was initiated to tackle the changing Geo-political scenario due to dominance by China, in the South China Sea and its increasing influence in the Indian Ocean Region.The Indian economy was heavily dependent on the Soviet Union, but the fall of the Soviet Bloc propelled India to look at alternative regions, i.e. South East Asia to sustain the economy. India realized there was immense scope for growth in the region, as Japan and China had already become major economic players in the region.
Act East Policy has a greater strategic and political angle to the cooperation. Relationships with Japan, South Korea,  Vietnam, Malaysia, Australia have been upgraded to a strategic partnership to counter the dominance of China in the entire region.The focus was more on boosting trade and investment relations with Southeast Asian countries. There was not much focus on Quad – India, USA, Japan, and Australia or up-gradation to the strategic partnership with other nations in the region.
Focusing more on historical, cultural, linguistic, and religious ties through more people-to-people exchanges.Historical ties between India and ASEAN were not given much prominence and therefore not capitalized in its Look East Policy.
Heavy focus is being given to the development of the North East region. India believes that the North East region of India can be the gateway to East Asia and Southeast Asia. Japan is helping India by providing funds for many infrastructure projects.North East of India was neglected in its plans of forging deeper ties with East Asia.
India is collaborating with Japan in developing infrastructure in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and BangladeshIndia did not focus on developing infrastructure in other countries.
Greater focus on defense cooperation Not much focus on defense cooperation

Progress made under the Act East Policy

  • Engagement with ASEAN: ASEAN-India engagement has become deeper and has scaled new heights. India is now the 4th largest trading partner of ASEAN. Southeast Asian countries favour India’s increased involvement to counter China’s expansionist policies in the region. India has allocated $1 billion for promoting connectivity at the India-ASEAN Summit.
  • Cooperation on Regional Initiatives: India is steering a number of sub-regional programmes and projects such as the BBIN corridor, Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway, Kaladan multimodal project etc.
  • North-East development: The Act East Policy focuses mainly on the Northeast region. The Government of Japan has decided to invest around Rs 13,000 Crore in several ongoing, as well as new projects in different states of India’s North-Eastern region.
  • India-Japan Act East Forum was established in 2017. It will identify specific projects for the economic modernization of India’s North-East region.
  • Further, India and Japan have institutionalised 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue.
  • Security Engagement: Defence cooperation has increased with East Asian countries. In 2014, India and Vietnam signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that opened up a line of credit for Vietnam to purchase defence equipment from India. 
  • Both Japan and South Korea—two major pillars in India’s  Act  East policy. A vast array of institutional mechanisms binds their partnership in such forums like the annual summit, strategic dialogue, defence dialogue, and numerous forums on energy cooperation, counter-terrorism, U.N. reforms, cybersecurity, and maritime cooperation.
  • Since 2015, India has carried out joint maritime law enforcement patrols and military exercises with ASEAN countries. 
  • Similarly, the first summit of QUAD grouping took place in 2021.
  • Far East involvement: Recently, India has reached out to Far East economies especially Russia. India has announced to extend a $1 billion line of credit towards the development of the Russian Far East. This is important as it is an energy-rich region and would help India’s economic growth.

Reality vs Expectations

  • First, there has been a growth in China’s influence combined with growing China-India tensions. Both China’s direct influence and that of ethnic Chinese in the region are on the rise.
  • Further the civil society is impressed with the way China has handled the pandemic and provided aid to the region.
  • On the other hand, Sino-India relations are undergoing severe stress as seen in the 2020 Galwan valley clash.   
  • Second, there is disappointment in the region with India’s economic policies. Important economic agreements signed between India and East Asian countries are rather scarce. So far, India has only signed a memorandum of cooperation on oceans and fisheries with South Korea. 
  • Further India was the only country to withdraw from the recent Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) deal.
  • Third, there is a rising concern in the region with India’s approach towards its minorities, especially Muslims and Christians.
  • Growing concern about Hindu majoritarianism in India has impacted civil society attitudes in countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore. 
  • India deployed the soft power of “Buddhist diplomacy” but that too has not gained much traction as inter-religious tensions in the region grow. 

China Factor

  • India’s failure to carve out a regional sphere of influence for itself in South Asia has resulted in its neighbours establishing close commercial ties with China. As Beijing has recently gained access to the ports of Gwadar (Pakistan), Chittagong (Bangladesh), and Colombo (Sri Lanka), New Delhi has grown increasingly apprehensive of the danger of a potential maritime encirclement.
  • Therefore, seeking regional cooperation with ASEAN provides New Delhi with a counterweight to potentially keep a check on an increasingly assertive China that seeks regional domination in Asia.
  • Beijing has continued to display its increasing military might through projecting nuclear power and has regularly used aggressive intimidation tactics vis-à-vis its neighbours in the South China Sea. Thus, vulnerability on the maritime frontier has made ASEAN look towards India as a counterweight to deter China’s aggressive tendencies in the region.
  • This trend has been demonstrated in an increased number of joint naval exercises such as SIMBEX: Singapore-India Maritime Bilateral Exercise, which has been held annually since 1994 and the MILAN-Multi Nation Exercise, which takes place biennially between the navies of India, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Philippines, Thailand, Brunei, and Indonesia.
  • Vietnam has significantly expanded its security ties with New Delhi since signing the official Defence Protocol in 2000.

It has not only sought military assistance through the sale of military helicopters but has granted India the access to develop the Nha Trang port, which occupies a strategic location in the South China Sea.

Suggestions to improve the relations

  • The government should complete the tasks promised in the Delhi Declaration 2018. This includes:
    • the digital connectivity projects in Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar and Vietnam 
    • the Trilateral Highway (TH) and 
    • the Trilateral Motor Vehicle Agreement (MVA)
  • There must be empowering of states by the government to play a better role under the Act East Policy. For instance, a Northeast branch of NITI Aayog can be set up to bridge the gaps between the Centre and States while implementing the Act East.
  • The government should also focus on regional groupings like BIMSTEC which is a natural connector of South and Southeast Asia. 
  • Countries must enhance the negotiation process to conclude BIMSTEC MVA, BIMSTEC coastal shipping agreement, and BIMSTEC TFA (Trade Facilitation Agreement).
  • The development cooperation projects for the Act East should be put in fast-track by avoiding cumbersome documentation and bureaucratic procedures. For this, EXIM Bank of India should open its branches in all South, Southeast and East Asian countries.
  • Further, coordination between the Prime Minister’s Office, Ministry of Finance, and Ministry of External Affairs need to be enhanced for timely implementation.
  • The government should reap the low-hanging fruits in India- Southeast Asia countries. 
  • For instance, international flights can be started from Imphal to other countries for boosting medical tourism. Imphal’s Shija Hospital has already become a favourite destination for Myanmar people for health check-ups.
  • The country should expand the outreach of Act East policy by adding neighbouring countries like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. This would enable better development of India’s Eastern and Northeastern states.

Way Forward

  • Our Act East Policy will also have to meet the challenge of how to deal with the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), led by the USA with 12 Asian-Pacific countries that include some ASEAN countries, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.
  • The other domain from which new challenges to our Act East policy is likely to spring up is security. The rise of China has led to a military buildup in Asia and arms transfers have gone up manifold, underlining the unstable security situation. China’s Maritime Silk Route proposal involves building ports and other infrastructure assets in the sub-continent.
  • China is preparing to deploy its maritime capability in the Indian Ocean. Our Act East policy must, therefore, incorporate countervailing measures which build military cooperation with the USA, Japan, Korea, Australia and ASEAN countries. The goal will be to inhibit China’s projection of power and at the same time build cooperation on common areas of interest like combating piracy, maritime disaster management and keeping the Sea Lanes of Communication open for trade.
  • India must also leverage its considerable cultural influence to engage all Asian countries. This aspect has so far not been fully leveraged


  • India must take a fresh look at its Act East policy and the impacts of unsatisfactory economic performance and sectarian politics at home. The country must revamp its policy in such a way that its soft power enhances in the Southeast Asian region. This would produce multiplier effects in achieving the intended objectives of Act East policy.

Source: Observer Research Foundation

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