India’s ‘act east’ imperative


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ASIA today stands at a crossroads. It is increasingly becoming the locus of economic power but is also witnessing major geopolitical realignments, growing strategic competition and destabilizing unilateral assertions based on unsettled historical differences. Expanding nationalist assertions and coercive actions of China appear to be aimed at creating new facts on the ground. As a consequence, there is widespread uncertainty about China’s approach towards regional order and stability, international norms and regional architecture.

Countries straddling the Indo-Pacific need to come up with effective strategies to dissuade China from the deployment of aggressive grey zone tactics. However, the absence of a robust regional security architecture to mediate the region’s complex trends remains the single-most pressing concern. There is growing recognition of the lack of progress on the part of ASEAN to develop a clear road map for a multilateral regional architecture that facilitates the socialization of security issues, gives a push to the development of normative frameworks and creates room for collective and cooperative action to ensure peace and stability.

There are several constraints that impede progress. To begin with there is a clash of normative systems among states. Power elites in a few select countries foster a false dichotomy between universal and Asian values. The desire for hegemonic dominance suppresses the region’s inherent multipolarity. And there are divergent notions of geographically limited regionalism versus balanced and inclusive architecture. Europe’s experience of building economic and security structures during the intense polarization of the Cold War hardly fits in present-day Asia.

In spite of the region’s multiple contradictions, there has been some expectation since 2005 that the East Asia Summit (EAS) process, anchored by Asean, will eventually evolve into a leaders-led regional security forum, not least because it encompasses all relevant and consequential actors within its ambit. However, hopes are fast receding for a ‘Asean centrality’ based architecture even as regional disequilibrium accelerates. Existing Asean-led forums remain uncoordinated and limited to non-traditional security issues. Talk of ‘multiple overlapping’ institutions, equating partial with inclusive frameworks, only serves to further marginalize the EAS.


In the absence of a regional organization to address security issues, traditional rivalries and realignments dot the East Asian landscape. Russia and China have converged to forge an energy partnership and deepened strategic ties. South Korea, nominally an ally of the US, is now economically aligned with China and has made common cause with Beijing against Japan in northeast Asia. China’s economic leverage has effectively neutralized Asean. This trend has significantly enlarged the strategic space for China, whose grey zone actions and territorial assertions have triggered ‘hedging’ impulses among regional powers.

Meanwhile, the US appears unlikely to accommodate China’s short cut to great power status by conceding the latter’s dominance in the western Pacific. But anxieties about US resolve will persist, with or without a sustained US commitment to its ‘rebalance’ strategy. At the same time, US-sponsored economic arrangements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership can adversely impact Asean-led attempts at economic integration (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership). The US is being perceived as falling short of innovative ideas and credible contributions to redress the Asian power imbalance.

It is in this context that we need to view the importance of Prime Minister Modi’s Act East Policy, the revitalization of Japan under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the two Modi-Obama summits that took place in the space of five months. India’s choice of Shinzo Abe and Barack Obama as chief guests for consecutive Republic Day ceremonies sends out a message that will resonate across Asia.


The Indian prime minister’s emerging brand of strategic ambition has several distinct components. It is aimed at restoring India’s credibility. It signals pragmatic engagement of all major powers, each on its own merit. It raises India’s profile by leveraging the soft power of democracy and the universal values that India upholds. It signals the full alignment of foreign policy with India’s domestic economic goals, security interests and global aspirations. It marks the interjection of India’s role and responsibility in shaping the Asian and global power balance. It displays flexibility on economic engagement, firmness on meeting security challenges and resolve in safeguarding India’s ‘core’ sovereign and territorial interests. And finally, it promises the rapid operationalization of commitments made with foreign partners. Each component is driven by strategic intent.

In the first few months after coming to power, Prime Minister Modi has vigorously engaged the democratic powers in the Asia Pacific, namely Japan, the US and Australia. In the course of these summit meetings, he has signalled his intention to revive India’s historical role across the Asia Pacific. In his own words, since he assumed office, ‘No region has seen more intense engagement on India’s part than the Asia Pacific region – because we understand how deeply our future is linked to this region.’ He has urged regional powers to buttress economic integration and growing prosperity with strong regional institutions that underpin peace and stability by ensuring universal respect for international law and global norms.

The policy pronouncements and initiatives of Prime Minister Modi clearly indicate that he is keen on interjecting India’s role and responsibility in shaping the Asian century. Recognizing that shaping the Asian balance of power will demand a more proactive approach, he has announced a shift from a ‘Look East’ to an ‘Act East’ policy with the following components: (i) enhanced defence and security cooperation with the US and Japan to advance shared interests in regional stability, bilaterally and in conjunction with Asia Pacific partners; (ii) scaling up contributions to the power equilibrium in the Asia Pacific and forging new strategic partnerships; (iii) institutionalizing a framework for security cooperation to deepen security and defence engagement between India and Australia, incorporating elements of ongoing India-US and India-Japan cooperation; and (iv) reviving India’s security, historical and cultural linkages across the Asia Pacific.


Prime Minister Modi’s Act East framework, his rejection of what he has termed as an 18th century mindset of ‘expansionism’, and his advocacy of the path of democracy and ‘developmentalism’ for an Asian century have found a receptive audience in Japan. This is not surprising as India and Japan share democratic values and a commitment to each other’s national strength and economic vitality. They have a common vision of a balanced regional security order with strong normative frameworks to underpin economic prosperity. Together, India and Japan can make a lasting contribution to Asia’s power balance, security and stability.

Prime Minister Abe has often pointed out that the strengthening of an Indo-Pacific framework is critical for creating a more balanced Asia. His vision promises to alter the political landscape not only in Japan but also across ‘broader Asia’. He has pledged to restore Japan’s economic vitality, amend its pacifist constitution and make ‘proactive contributions’ to regional peace and stability. Even relatively limited legislative changes like lifting restrictions in the domain of collective self-defence will have a significant impact on power equations in Asia, as will Abe’s continued engagement of Southeast Asian countries and his advocacy of Indo-Pacific strategies.

There are striking similarities between Abe’s approach and the attention devoted by his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi to strengthening trans-formative partnerships with like-minded countries in the Asia Pacific.


Simultaneously, India-US relations have been revitalized. During his visit to the US in September-October 2014, Prime Minister Modi restored strategic direction and engaged vital constituencies to sustain a long-term strategic partnership with the United States. Apart from affirming support for Narendra Modi’s domestic agenda and India’s economic rise, the Modi-Obama summit has signalled trans-formative changes in bilateral defence and defence-industrial cooperation, as well as security cooperation to advance shared interests in regional peace and stability, both bilaterally and in conjunction with other Asia Pacific partners like Japan. There is growing convergence on the need for a balanced Asian order between India, Japan and the US. As President Barack Obama remarked in Brisbane on 15 November 2014: ‘An effective security order for Asia must be based not on spheres of influence, or coercion, or intimidation where big nations bully the small, but on alliances of mutual security, international law and international norms.’

President Obama’s unprecedented second state visit to India in January 2015 provided another opportunity to revive the strategic drivers of India-US relations. Both countries released a joint strategic vision for the Asia Pacific and the Indian Ocean region, and are resolved to work towards removing irritants to their growing economic relations and renew their defence cooperation framework with a more comprehensive ten-year agreement covering maritime security across the Indo-Pacific, defence exchanges and defence industrial ties.


Strengthening of the special partnerships between democratic nations in Asia is important and critical for creating a balanced regional order. However, the durability of such an order will be contingent on the emergence of regional security institutions. Asean has demonstrated considerable resilience and should remain the locus of building a regional security architecture based on the following elements.

As a leaders’ led forum bringing together a critical mass of all participants with regional presence and interests, the EAS has the appropriate composition to evolve and uphold regional security principles and norms.

Asean should take the lead to develop a clear vision for the institutionalization of the EAS, including by extending the summit to a full day for substantive discussions on an agreed agenda; developing a wider sense of ownership through a rotating system of co-chairs with non-Asean member states; enhancing capacity for agenda setting and coordination by incorporating the ‘sherpa’ model to assist the EAS summit leaders; establishing an EAS secretariat to build continuity and follow up; delineating the primary role of each Asean-led process and ensuring coordination among Asean-led processes and institutions; and strengthening the Asean Secretariat to support the EAS and its interlinkages with related Asean processes.

Further, it must work towards evolving shared principles for regional security, including renunciation of coercive measures, especially the threat or use of force in the settlement of disputes, and cultivate respect for the principles enshrined in the UN Charter and international law.

Finally, Asean should promote open, inclusive, evolutionary and dialogue-centred processes to build habits and norms of cooperation, leading to enhanced commitments for regional peace and stability in the long run. Asean must remain mindful that failure to be proactive will undermine its relevance and erode its vaunted ‘centrality’ in regional institution building.


India enjoys settled maritime boundaries with all its Asean neighbours and already undertakes joint/coordinated naval patrolling with them on a bilateral basis. It also hosts the biennial ‘Milan’ exercises in Port Blair. India can make a significant contribution to regional security architecture by establishing an India-Asean centre for maritime security and HA/DR cooperation in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

India’s Act East policy should be defined by a sustained and vigorous engagement in the Indo-Pacific and guided by the principles for a strategic equilibrium rooted in international law. Implementation of enhanced security commitments and the expansion of military capabilities in the maritime domain will add significant value to India’s role in shaping a balanced regional architecture for an Asian century.


* Based on a presentation made at the ORF Conference on ‘Regional Integration in the Indo-Pacific Prospects and Challenges’, on 24-25 November 2014, New Delhi.