US India Global Review 2018

21 US-INDIA GLOBAL REVIEW APRIL-JUNE 2018 standing (and some would argue artificial) divide between the South Asia and Southeast Asia. The slow pace of infrastructure connectivity has in turn accounted for the relatively slow growth in India’s trade with ASEAN when compared to other regional pow- ers, such as China, Japan and South Korea. While ASEAN is India’s fourth-largest trading part- ner and India is ASEAN’s sev- enth-largest trading partner, India’s trade with Southeast Asia notably lags behind much smaller economies such as Hong Kong and Taiwan, although India main- tains ambitions to boost its trade with the region from under $80bn at present to over $200bn by 2022. The ‘Act East’ Policy has also been “crowded out” to some extent by an increasingly bold and assertive foreign policy by other regional powers. This includes China’s ‘Belt and Road’ (‘21st Century Maritime Silk Road’ and ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’) initia- tives; the United States’ strategic “Pivot” or “Rebalance” towards Asia under the erstwhile Obama administration and renewed efforts by Japan to engage with the region through the “Expanded Partnership for Quality Infrastructure”. To be sure, some of these initiatives have served to complement India’s ‘Act East’ Policy, such as the recently launched India-Japan ‘Asia-Africa Growth Corridor’ and the Trump administration’s efforts to consoli- date the Indo-Pacific as the region’s strategic geography, which serves to further embed India in the regional architecture. Nonetheless, these deficiencies do not diminish the importance of the ‘Look East/ ‘Act East’ Policy. India’s interaction with Southeast Asia has grown in leaps and bounds since the launch of the policy in the early 1990s. From short-lived Indian ambitions to forge an “Eastern Federation” of nations in Asia in the 1940s and 1950s, benign neglect took over in the 1960s and 1970s as India became preoccupied with instabil- ities and development concerns in its own neighbourhood (particular- ly in the aftermath of the war with China in 1962). The India-ASEAN relationship then underwent rapid deterioration in the late 1970s and 1980s amid concerns over India’s support for Vietnam following its invasion of Kampuchea (Cambodia) in 1978 and subse- quent recognition of the Heng Samrin regime in Phnom Penh in 1980. This was exacerbated by regional fears over the implica- tions of an alleged India-Soviet- Vietnam axis and India’s naval modernisation efforts. However, since the launch of the ‘Look East’ Policy in the early 1990s, the per- ception of India as a threat to regional stability has not only dis- sipated but instead been replaced by a view of the country as a sta- bilising force in the region. In other words, from viewing India as a distant and disconnected power, India is now seen as an integral participant in the regional archi- tecture (albeit one that is the least significant of the major powers in the region). Moreover, when compared to other regions in its extended neighbourhood, it is evident that India’s engagement with Southeast Asia has achieved a level of maturity not seen else- where. India’s other regional engagement policies (such as the ‘Connect Central Asia’ Policy (launched in 2012) or ‘Look West’ Policy (unveiled in 2005) and ori- ented towards the Middle East) were launched long after the ‘Look East’ Policy. Moreover, there have been limits in India’s level of integration with other regions due to geographic barriers (such as Pakistan preventing overland access to Central Asia) or geopo- litical barriers (such as chronic instabilities in the Middle East overlaid by rivalries between regional powers (Iran-Saudi Arabia) and external powers (US- Russia). Thus, when benchmarked against other major powers in the region, India’s level of interaction with ASEAN still remains modest. However, when judged on its own merits (both relative to its interac- tion with other regions in India’s extended neighbourhood and India’s historical interaction with Southeast Asia), India’s eastward engagement has gained signifi- cant substance and momentum over the three decades since the launch of the ‘Look East’/ ‘Act East’ Policy. Chietigj Bajpaee is research scholar working on Sino-Indian Relations and India’s ‘Look East’ policy at the War Department of King's College, London. He has worked with several political risk consultancies and public policy think-tanks, including the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and the Defence Analysis and South Asia programs at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.

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