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India needs to 'act' to make its new "Act East Policy" work

Friday, April 17th, 2015


At the 12th ASEAN summit in Myanmar on November 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi renamed India's "Look East" policy to “Act East” policy. On the occasion, Prime Minister Modi proudly declared: "My government has been in office for six months and the intensity and momentum with which we have enhanced our engagement in the east is a reflection of the priority that we give to this region... A new era of economic development, industrialization and trade has begun in India. Externally, India's 'Look East Policy' has become the 'Act East' policy,"
High sounding rhetoric apart years of neglect has left India‘s Look East Asia policy in shatters. Serious doubts are being raised about India’s commitment to the region. Case in point is the fate of two important projects— the Kaladan multi-modal transport project and India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway. These were both sold as big ticket projects for India’s commitment to East Asia. The deadline, for the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway which was expected to be completed by 2016, has been extended to 2019. Similarly, the Kaladan multi-modal transport project is also struggling to meet the completion deadline, which calls into question the India’s commitment to the region. Meanwhile China, another country trying to integrate Southeast Asia with its growth engine, has started building roads and bridges, gaining the trust of Southeast Asian countries.
It is common perception that there is definite bias against East Asia as far allocation of human resources is concerned. Almost all diplomatic and consular posts in the region are understaffed and under experienced. There is no longer sanctity about the level of particular post in the missions. A second secretary is replacing a counselor, a grade III officer, replacing a Grade I officer and so on. Very few officers being sent to the region have shown to have some understanding of the power dynamics of the region. Most of them learn on the job. Such practices are sending the wrong signals to the region. The region is crying out for fully functional missions staffed by skilled and dedicated diplomats corps.
India must not underestimate the value and importance of capable and able mission heads and other senior officers. It has been seen from past experience, with all other factors remaining constant whenever India has sent able and experienced mission heads to the region relationship with the related country has grown many fold, For example, in Korea, in the not so distant past, economic and strategic ties grew at a rapid pace due to the able and visionary leadership of Indian mission head. Trade grew more than 30% and both countries aimed to reach 40 billion trade by 2015. Now, trade has shrunk to merely 18 billion, and few are talking about taking the India- Korea strategic partnership to next level.Damage is Done.
A serious gap has started emerging between rhetoric and action on the ground. Despite the rhetoric-heavy pitch, India has taken minimal positions on issues facing the region. Unless India takes active initiative in problems facing the region, no one is going to take India seriously. In the new strategic environment, a convergence of strategic interests must emerge between India and East Asia. Despite the growing web of interactions between India and East Asia, the relationship has not reached its full growth potential.
In Korea for example India have taken minimal position on two important problems facing the country: Korean unification and nuclear proliferation. India must throw its full weight behind Korean unification, rather than providing mere lip service to a great cause of uniting the Korean people. A Strong, united, nuclear weapon free, prosperous and powerful Korea, able to defend its way of life on the eastern planks of China is in India’s best interests.
With the United States having failed to stop North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons, the urgency of conflict resolution on the Korean peninsula has reached a critical point. However, Indian policy makers have somehow failed to understand the consequences of a nuclear clash on the Korean peninsula for India. Asia and the world at large and have failed to respond in kind. They have somehow convinced themselves that the relationship with Korea can take care of itself merely by high sounding MoUs, which they sign every time when they visit Seoul. This cannot continue. India must play a proactive role in peace building and conflict resolution on Korean peninsula to add value to its bid to be serious stake holder in region. Unless India adds value to the strategic priorities for Korea, India will not look attractive to Korean policy makers no matter how strong the economic incentives they may have from India. It is as simple as that and Indian policy makers must get it.
To make its new “Act East Policy’ work, it is imperative that India starts taking its commitments in the region seriously, strengthen and improve its diplomatic corps and align its strategic priorities with partners in the region. Unless something is done soon, the way strategic environment in the region is shaping and with China spreading its wings in the region it is only a matter of time before India is pushed out of the region. , Indian prime minister Narendra Modi will be visiting the region in May. It is high time to plug some of the holes to makes visit a more successful one.

 Writer is visiting professor at institute of far Eastern studies in Seoul.
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