The ‘Act East’ Counter
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
HAT IN THE RING PM Modi with ASEAN leaders at the 2016 summit in Vientiane