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India's new Asia-Pacific strategy: 'Act East'

India's new Asia-Pacific strategy: 'Act East'

It has been a busy year for India in the Asia Pacific. From multilateral summits to bilateral diplomacy, the Modi Government has deliberately moved to step up engagement with its East and Southeast Asian partners.

At this year's India-ASEAN Summit, Prime Minister Modi announced his intention to upgrade India's long-standing 'Look East Policy' to 'Act East'. As I argue in a new Lowy Institute Analysis, this is more than just a rebranding, and signifies India's intention to play a more serious role in the region. 

Look East started primarily as an economic policy, and part of this enhanced effort has to do with the trade and investment opportunities presented by greater integration with the Asia Pacific. China is already India's top trading partner with a value of US$65 billion in 2013-2014, and at approximately US$74 billion, trade with ASEAN as a whole is even larger.

However, Look East shifted to a broader economic and strategic focus about a decade ago, and this has intensified in recent years. Even before coming to power, the BJP made it clear that it intended to pursue a greater global role for India, creating 'a web of allies' to further its interests, and the leveraging of all resources and people to 'play a greater role at the international high table'.

India's Asia Pacific strategy can be viewed as part of this broader drive for an enhanced global presence. [fold]

But in recent years, one of the primary drivers of India's engagement with the Asia Pacific has been its concerns about China. China's assertiveness along the disputed border with India, and increasing influence among India's Indian Ocean neighbours, has driven New Delhi to pursue a strategy of external balancing against China in its own neighbourhood.

China's relations with India have long proceeded along two distinct economic and security tracks. However the recent border incursion during President Xi's visit to Delhi, and the docking of a Chinese submarine in Colombo, represented a significant misreading of India's new leader and served only to reinforce the relevance of this strategy for Modi. China's assertiveness in maritime territorial disputes in the East China Sea and South China Sea has also reinforced the relevance of a more 'involved' India for its Southeast and East Asian partners, which are reaching out to India as a potential strategic counterweight.

At the heart of India's Asia Pacific strategy are practical partnerships with key states and institutions, centering upon Japan, Vietnam, Australia and ASEAN. India has recognised the potential of these partners under previous governments, but has considerably stepped up engagement under Modi.

Modi made Japan the venue for his first trip outside of India's South Asian neighbourhood. This year has also seen an unprecedented level of interaction between Australia and India. Prime Minister Abbott was the first foreign leader Modi welcomed to New Delhi, and Modi made a full bilateral visit to Australia following the G20; the first of any Indian Prime Minister in almost 30 years. The same goes for interactions with Vietnam. Modi sent External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and President Pranab Mukherjee to Hanoi in August and September, welcomed Prime Minister Dung to New Delhi at the end of October, and has agreed to visit Vietnam at a mutually convenient time. Swaraj and Modi have also both made trips to Naypyidaw for ASEAN engagements this year.

All of these countries offer India opportunities for deepening its engagement with the Asia Pacific.

As the central regional institution, ASEAN has long been at the heart of India's eastward shift in focus. Japan is the most advanced Asian naval power in the region and a potential source of considerable investment and technological assistance. Vietnam's geostrategic position in Indochina and the South China Sea makes it a natural partner for India to balance against China in its own neighbourhood. Australia continues to offer assistance as a source of natural resources and as a partner for naval cooperation. Japan and Vietnam each have tense relations with China, providing additional impetus to their ties with India. And although largely underdeveloped, I've made the case before that India should expend more effort cultivating its partnership with Indonesia. Indonesia's geographic location at the centre of Asia's strategic straits, plus President Jokowi's vision of Indonesia as a 'global maritime axis', serves only to reinforce the relevance of this relationship.

On top of this enhanced diplomatic effort, India's partners in the region can expect greater Indian involvement in regional security, particularly in the areas of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, transnational crime, and joint bilateral naval exercises. However India will be unlikely to engage in any security initiatives that can be perceived as threatening or directly targeted at limiting China's influence.

Should Modi be able to maintain this momentum, there is significant potential to transform India into a consequential actor in the Asia Pacific. If carefully managed, especially with relation to Chinese sensitivities, cautious Indian engagement could act as a stabilising force in the region. More importantly, successfully enhancing its role in East and Southeast Asia could signal the beginning of the pursuit of a more serious role for India across the entire Indo-Pacific region.

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