US India Global Review 2018

and culture (the so-called “3 Cs”). This has entailed an increasingly multifaceted relationship with some 30 institutional mechanisms for dialogue between India and ASEAN. India’s ‘Look East’/ ‘Act East’ Policy has come a long way despite being subject to several changes, both at the level of domestic politics and in the broad- er international system. At the level of domestic politics, several administrations have ruled the country since the launch of the policy in the early 1990s, ranging from the centre-left Indian National Congress (1991-96, 2004-2014) to the Hindu-national- ist BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) (1998-2004, 2014-) and a plethora of weak coalition governments in the mid-1990s. However, despite their varying ideological orienta- tions, all of these governments have continued to embrace the ‘Look East’ Policy and its central tenet of ‘ASEAN centrality’. At the broader geopolitical level, the col- lapse of the Soviet Union and for- eign exchange crisis facing India in 1991 prompted the country to embrace economic liberalisation while reaching out to the dynamic ‘tiger’ economies of East Asia. This was followed by further changes to the structure of the regional order, marked by the rise of China as an increasingly promi- nent regional actor that became central to regional supply-chains and transnational production net- works. However, despite these shifts, the policy has maintained the importance of Southeast Asia as part of India’s eastward engagement. To be sure, the rhetoric of the ‘Look East’/ ‘Act East’ Policy has often seemed to be aspirational rather than reflecting the reality of India’s engagement with Southeast Asia. Even the vaunted revival of the ‘Look East’ Policy to the renamed ‘Act East’ Policy to symbolise a shift towards a more proactive and action-oriented approach towards the region faces criticisms of being a mere rebranding exercise. For instance, it remains to be seen if several aspects of the current so-called third phase of the ‘Look East’/ ‘Act East’ Policy under the Modi gov- ernment – the first phase begin- ning under the government of Narasimha Rao in the early 1990s and the second phase being launched by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government in the early 2000s – reach fruition. These include the Modi government’s focus on connectivity (including strengthening physical, digital, cul- tural and people-to-people con- tacts) and deepening institutional linkages, both through ASEAN-led forums (such as the ASEAN Regional Forum, East Asia Summit, and ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus) and beyond ASEAN, through the growing web of mini-lateral or tri- lateral linkages (e.g. US-Japan- India), sub-regional groupings (such as BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation)) and the recently revived Quadrilateral Initiative or “arc” of democratic states (com- prising the US, India, Japan and Australia). Moreover, the success of the policy is to a large extent contin- gent on internal economic reforms that will dictate the pace at which India further integrates with the economies of Southeast Asia. Despite the government projecting a more investor-friendly image since its economic liberalisation in the early 1990s, India’s historically protectionist and conservative economic policies remain well entrenched. This is evidenced by recent claims that New Delhi is dragging its feet on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a multilateral free trade agreement comprising ASEAN, India and five other regional powers. Moreover, chronic problems of bureaucratic inertia and inter-min- isterial coordination remain barri- ers to accelerating infrastructure connectivity. The clearest example of this is the rhetoric of building up the country’s northeast as a land- bridge linking India and Southeast Asia. However, this cannot be realised until there is a further improvement in the infrastructure and security environment in the region. This is highlighted by the delay in completing two key infra- structure projects – the India- Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway Project and the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project linking India’s Mizoram state with Myanmar’ Sittwe port. The state government of Assam organised a Global Investors’ Summit in February, which aims to re-emphasize the importance of the northeast to the India-ASEAN relationship and blur the long- 20 US-INDIA GLOBAL REVIEW APRIL-JUNE 2018 India’s ‘Look East’/ ‘Act East’ Policy has come a long way despite being subject to several changes, both at the level of domestic politics and in the broader international system.