The Indo-Pacific

Modi in Myanmar: From ‘Look East’ to ‘Act East’

17 Nov, 2014    ·   4742

Professor Shankari Sundararaman takes stock of the movement on India's Look East Policy

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to the Myanmar endorses that all is well with India’s policy to the countries that lie to the east. Since he took office in May 2014, there were some views among observers that India’s Look East Policy (LEP) was not receiving the merit it should. Much of this was centered on the debate as to why Myanmar, a close and significant neighbour was not invited to the swearing-in ceremony of the prime minister. However, given the fact that the invitation was extended to the South Asian countries, Myanmar technically did not fit into this category. Another view was that the invitation was extended only to full democracies, which would then explain why Pakistan was present, given that there is currently a democratic intermission in the country. 

But Modi’s three-day visit to Myanmar this month changed the perceptions and brought the ASEAN region back into the centre-stage with the focus shifting from the LEP to the Act East Policy (AEP). While this does not really signal a departure from the LEP, it does highlight a more nuanced position of acknowledging the need to `act’ or to `get one’s act together’, to move ahead on the implementation of projects and proposals that have been initiated in principle but are lagging in practice.  So the shift to the AEP should be viewed as an attempt to provide an impetus to the regional integration that India has with its eastern neighbours. The ASEAN countries have often expressed a lot of concern on the slow pace of reform in India. Added to this is the issues of the signing of several agreements that need to come into force to hasten the implementation. These are the critical areas that drive policy into the action-oriented phase. 

The highlight of the visit was the focus given to the three C’s: culture, commerce and connectivity. In this context, India’s cultural ties with Southeast Asia are being considered as a significant one that will help push critical ties forward. The recent opening of the Nalanda University is an example of this dynamic. Furthermore, an emphasis on tourism too was made. Tourism is a vital component of relations and the industry needs to be revamped in order to make India a tourist destination for Southeast Asian visitors and vice versa.  The Open Skies Agreement is therefore among the key areas to focus on, to provide any momentum to the tourism industry. At present, even direct flights from India to all ten Southeast Asian countries and vice versa are unavailable.

Complementary to boosting tourism, there is also a potential to integrate cities that can be linked as sibling cities. In this context, one of the options could be to link Bodhgaya, Lumbini and Yangon, Shwedagon Pagoda together as the Buddhist circuit. Another potential option would be the linking of cities like Jogjakarta, Siam Reap and Thanjavur together as potential tourist hubs.  This would make a critical impact in terms of revitalising the tourism sector and would also act as a boost in bringing about greater people-to-people contact between the regions. 

The second focus, on commerce, is already an area India has made considerable strides in; and that is expected to progress even further. Projecting a new economic environment in which India has embarked upon targeted attracting investments into the country under the banner of the Make in India slogan. Currently the India-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement in (FTA) in goods has been operationalised, and the FTA in services and investments, though signed with all but one (the Philippines) country, is expected to be ratified by the respective countries’ parliaments soon. This is one area where India has an advantage since, globally, it ranks 9th in the services sector.

As the move to integrate with the region is further enhanced through regionally driven initiatives like the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), there is likelihood of widening linkages across the region. The RCEP links the ASEAN and its dialogue partners into a regional economic grouping that will be critical since it will bring the three Asian economic giants – China, Japan and India – together. The Chinese move to enhance regional integration via the Asian Infrastructural Investment Bank and the enhancement of the Maritime Silk Route to link the Indian and the Pacific Oceans into an economic chain are clearly moving the commercial side of the regional agreements forward. 

Finally, on the issue of connectivity, there is an urgent need to move forward with the plans that have been in the pipeline. Projects such as the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway and the Imphal-Mandalay road are extremely important towards linking the region via land, and opening up the border areas to facilitate the easy movement of people and goods. While both Myanmar and India are focusing on the development of the border regions, these projects will act as vital catalysts to deliver on the proposed outcomes.