The ‘Act East’ Counter

India Today - - UPFRONT - By Ananth Kr­ish­nan in Bei­jing

The idea that In­dia could play the role of a coun­ter­weight to China in its back­yard has al­ways been more fan­tasy than based on ground re­al­i­ties. It’s true that many of the 10 mem­bers of ASEAN are em­broiled in mar­itime dis­putes with China, most no­tably Viet­nam and the Philip­pines, but this hasn’t stopped any of them from rush­ing head­long into China’s eco­nomic or­bit. China’s trade with ASEAN was near $350 bil­lion last year; In­dia’s less than $60 bil­lion.

In Manila and Jakarta, the com­mon re­frain among of­fi­cials is that In­dia en­joys enor­mous good­will—draw­ing on his­tor­i­cal and cul­tural links—but has gen­er­ally punched below its weight. That’s a per­cep­tion Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi will be look­ing to cor­rect when he trav­els to Manila on Novem­ber 12 for the East Asia Sum­mit and the 25th In­di­aASEAN Sum­mit. The Man­mo­han Singh gov­ern­ment had, to some ex­tent, in­jected vigour into In­dia’s ‘Look East’ pol­icy— first ini­ti­ated by P.V. Narasimha Rao in 1991—and signed a land­mark ASEAN-In­dia Free Trade Area agree­ment in 2009.

The Modi gov­ern­ment has since up­graded it to ‘Act East’, to sig­nal greater in­tent. The PM has in­vited all 10 ASEAN lead­ers as spe­cial guests for the Repub­lic Day pa­rade in Jan­uary. It is also speed­ing up work on the 3,200 km In­dia-Myan­mar-Thai­land high­way from Moreh, en­vis­aged as long ago as 2002 as a key artery to bring ASEAN closer to In­dia. (Bei­jing

NOEL CELIS/GETTY IM­AGES

HAT IN THE RING PM Modi with ASEAN lead­ers at the 2016 sum­mit in Vi­en­tiane

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