Photo: India's Foreign Minister speaking at Chulalongkorn University. Credit: Kalinga Seneviratne - Photo: 2022

India Is Moving Up From ‘Look East Policy’ To ‘Act East Policy’

By Kalinga Seneviratne

BANGKOK (IDN) — External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar has emphasized that India is keenly interested in the countries to its East, spreading right across East Asia into the Pacific. Speaking at Thailand’s prestigious Chulalongkorn University on August 18, he explained “India’s Vision of the Indo-Pacific” and indirectly went on to distance itself from the US military priorities for Indo-Pacific.

Jaishankar was on an official visit to Thailand from August 16-18 to co-chair the 9th Joint Commission Meeting of India-Thailand Joint Commission (JACM) with Don Pramudwinai, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Thailand.

In a 40-minute talk at the Chulalongkorn University, Jaishankar explained that with India’s economy growing, the country is moving from the ‘Look East Policy’ to the ‘Act East Policy’. “What is relevant for our purposes today is to recognize that a very substantial portion of India’s interests now lies to the East of India, beyond the Indian Ocean and into the Pacific”.

Jaishankar noted: “Simply put, the separation of the Pacific from the Indian Ocean was a direct outcome of American strategic dominance since 1945”, and “as the power distribution has diversified in the last two decades, changes were inevitable on this score as well”.

He added: “The re-positioning of the US, the rise of China as also of India, the greater external engagement of Japan and Australia, the wider interests of South Korea and indeed, the broader outlook of the ASEAN itself have all contributed to this transformation”.

Jaishankar argues that at the end of the day, “this is about recognizing the realities of globalization and the consequences of re-balancing”. Perhaps in a dig at India’s regional rival China, he noted, “only those whose mindsets are built around spheres of influence and who are uncomfortable with the democratization of world affairs will dispute the Indo-Pacific today”.

However, his talk did not directly refer to China or its other rival in the neighbourhood, Pakistan. He was positioning India as a regional economic partner, not a military power.

Explaining how India sees the ‘term Indo-Pacific’, he described the region as an area of greatest economic growth and opportunities. “We consider Indo-Pacific aregion that extends from the Eastern shores of Africa to the Western shores of America. This is an increasingly seamless space that is home to more than 64 per cent of the global population and which contributes over 60 per cent of world’s GDP. About half of the global trade happens through the maritime trade routes in this region.”

He pointed out that over the years, this region has seen strong and sustained economic growth spreading right across the Pacific rim, Southeast Asia, Indian Ocean and into the Gulf region and shores of Africa.

He did not refer to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which is building infrastructure to spread economic and trade links across this region, nor did he make any disparaging remarks about BRI. Instead, he promoted India’s infrastructure development project in the region to build similar connectivity—rather than railways and ports, in India’s case using the building of highways.

Jaishankar sought to push the long-pending India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway, which he also promoted during a recent visit to Cambodia as New Delhi plans to extend the highway to Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh.

The trilateral highway, which has been facing inordinate delays, will be connecting Moreh in India’s north-east Manipur state to Mae Sot in north-west Thailand via the historic ancient trading city of Bagan in Myanmar on the Irrawaddy river.

“India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway that has the potential of creating a completely new axis of economic activity in Asia, has had its fair share of challenges, but we are determined to bring it to an early conclusion,” Jaishankar said.

“Already, countries to the East of Myanmar, (and) to the East of Thailand have expressed interest in getting connected to it. Such lateral connectivity can radically expand the interface between South-East Asia and South Asia to the mutual benefit of both,” he averred.

During the Q and A session for almost 90 minutes, Jaishankar faced a barrage of questions from Bangkok-based western human rights NGO activists on India’s links with the military regime in Myanmar.

While India stands for supporting democracy, pluralism and human rights in Myanmar, he pointed out that this trend (of military rule) goes back to the 1950s. India’s understanding, interests and empathy with the Myanmar people “is very different from what people far away convey when they often pontificate on matters which are very different”, he responded, obviously referring to such western interventions.

He added that such a relationship “should not be touched by politics [and] interests of the day, ” referring to India’s long-term concerns in border areas such as insurgent activity, organized crime and even the spread of Covid-19. “We have to manage our border relationship and the complexities of being a neighbour,” he said.

When another activist asked him about the Indian purchase of Russian oil, he was forthright in placing India’s interests first. He pointed out that there were different yardsticks and double standards here. He argued that India’s actions were based on getting the best possible deal for India (like other pontificating countries). With India’s per capita income at around $2000, it cannot afford to let energy costs rise further for its population.

“I think it’s reasonable that we too be allowed to take care of our interests, particularly because we are a low-income society. For us, the increase in energy prices really hurt,” Jaishankar reiterated.

During question time, he referred several times to the need for India and China to cooperate in the economic sphere if the ‘Asian Century’ is going to be realized. He recalled Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s remarks that an Asian Century would happen when India and China came together.

“But the Asian century will be difficult to happen if India and China don’t come together. And one of the big questions today is where India-China relations are going,” he noted, referring to the major stumbling block as the military standoff in the past two years at the Ladakh sector of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Himalayas, with “China’s unilateral attempts to alter the status quo”.

When asked by IDN whether the BRICS bank could come to Sri Lanka’s aid with a bailout package, as what IMF is proposing may not help the Sri Lankan people’s development needs. And if India and China could cooperate here to build a new global economic architecture based on the development needs of communities, he said there are many reasons for India and China to come together—not only in Sri Lanka.

“It is in both sides’ interest to come together, and one hopes that wisdom dawns on the Chinese side,” he told IDN. He pointed out that India has given Sri Lanka $3.8 billion worth of economic assistance, like the line of credit rolling over trade settlements. “We are an immediate neighbour, and neighbours are the first impacted when something goes wrong. So, neighbours have the strongest motivation to be part of any solution,” noted Jaishankar.

He emphasized the need for Asian countries to unite in the economic sphere, such as in communication and health service collaborations. During his visit to Bangkok, Jaishankar signed several MOUs, including partnerships between India’s public service broadcaster Pasar Bharati and the Thai Public Broadcasting Service Another was for Health and Medical Research Cooperation between the Indian Council of Medical Research and the Department of Medical Sciences, Thailand. [IDN-InDepthNews – 20 August 2022]

Photo: India’s Foreign Minister speaking at Chulalongkorn University. Credit: Kalinga Seneviratne

IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

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