Distinguished Lectures Distinguished Lectures

From Looking East to Acting East

  • Distinguished Lectures Detail

    By: Dr. Jitendra Nath Misra
    Venue: Nagaland University, Lumami
    Date: November 22, 2018

Vice Chancellor, Professor Pardeshi Lal,

Professor M.K. Singh,

Professor A.K. Singh,

Dr. Likhase Sangtam,

And Friends,

I am very grateful to Nagaland University, Lumami, for the kind invitation to speak here to- day. Thank you very much for your generous hospitality and the courtesies accorded me. I thank the External Publicity Division of the Ministry of External Affairs for sponsoring my visit under Distinguished Lectures.

To understand India’s Act East policy we need to rewind into history.

Before the modern age, India was well- connected to the east. The Cholas and Kalingas developed strong maritime links with South East Asia, leading to the development of common spiritual and cultural practices.

British imperialism made India look west, at the cost of the historically rich conversation with South East Asia. Even after independence, the Cold War put India and large parts of South East Asia in different geopolitical spaces.

But with deep historic links, Indians never lost sight of the idea of cooperation with the East. The end of the Cold War augured in India’s Look East Policy in 1991. With the shift of power to the East, Looking East was to evolve into Acting East.

What is Acting East?

Let us look at its strategic, economic, cultural and even internal dimensions.

Its strategic dimension is a response to the new power games in the region. India seeks multiple balances in the Asia- Pacific for a better equilibrium.

Broadly, the shift from Looking East to Acting East is India’s response to Chinese strategic inroads in India’s periphery.

But Acting East is not a zero- sum balance of power policy. India is unlikely to join the U.S. rebalance in Asia to counter Chinese assertiveness. Instead, it will build partnerships to dissuade China from undermining India’s core interests. This limits the prospect of a coalition, such as the QUAD, to contain China.

Nor is Acting East about China only. With India getting more sure- footed, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s India wants to play a leading world role, rather than just a balancing role. Ties with South East Asia are part of this narrative.

Acting East has another strategic layer sewn in. As Pakistan undermines India’s Look West Policy, India is set to integrate its neighbourhood first policy with Acting East. The outreach to BIMSTEC at the BRICS summit in Goa in October, 2016 is an example. The BIMSTEC summit last August even yielded a joint military exercise.

Economy As the Mainstay

The economic aspect is the government’s quest for support for India’s development. Foreign policy is for development. This is the bulwark of relations with the nations to the east.

The Strategic Dimension

India gives ASEAN centrality in the security architecture of the Indo- Pacific. It is clear the QUAD is no substitute for this.

India is stepping up security ties in South East Asia. In 2016, India for the first time participated as an observer in Cobra Gold, the largest annual military exercise in the Asia- Pacific, held in Thailand. Thai ambassador Chutintorn Gongsakdi told Hindustan Times: "The things that are on the table are the Thailand- Singapore- India joint naval exercises, the joint patrol of the Malacca Strait and full participation status (for India) in the Cobra Gold exercise.”

An Asian Symphony?

Culturally,Acting East is part of the government’s counter- narrative to a West- centric view of history and civilization. Through history, India’s rich interventions have enriched dialogue between civilizations. India’s conversation with Southeast Asia is distinguished and prominent.

The Fruits ofBilateralism

Are ASEAN, the East Asia Summit and Mekong Ganga Cooperation a substitute for bilateral relations with India’s partner countries?

My view is that it is primarily the bilateral framework that drives Acting East. Because they move at a pace all member states are comfortable with, ASEAN, the EAS and Mekong Ganga Cooperation skirt "tough” issues. But India and its partners have no such compulsion at the bilateral level. They deal with any issue.

Vietnam and Thailand

Let me now turn to the cases of Vietnam and Thailand, as case studies of Acting East.

Strong civilizational links ensure sound relations with these two partners.


Vietnam and India share an ancient relationship, with waves of peaceful cultural migration, and the discovery of new land and sea routes.

Talk of the past is not empty posturing to anoint joint statements with "feel- good” language. Political figures have had a marked influence on the relationship.Vietnam has its Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap. India has its Gandhi, Nehru and Indira Gandhi.

With political exchanges being salient, it is not surprising that the two countries have a Joint Commission, a strategic dialogue, foreign office consultations, a security dialogue and an institutional mechanism to foster cooperation in science and technology, education and trade.

The Strategic Underpinnings

At the strategic level, India and Vietnam do not have a history of conflict. There is not the burden of "memory,” which might otherwise have prejudiced perceptions. The contrast with China, a neighbor that has historically sought to subjugate Vietnam, is stark.

Vietnam enjoys a commanding position astride the South China Sea. Its prized location gives Vietnam a central role in shaping strategic outcomes in a highly contested region of the world. With multiple claimants to the South China Sea, Vietnam is in a position to broker the many contests and claims surrounding this dispute. No deal on the South China Sea can be made without it coming on board.

Vietnam thus becomes important to China, the United States, India, Australia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and other global and regional actors.

With the Himalayas providing a barrier to land- borne trade with Asia, India has to depend on the seas. For India, Vietnam provides access to the South China Sea, through which 55 per cent of India’s trade passes.

India’s easternmost island territories are only ninety nautical miles from the western approaches to the Straits of Malacca, and the South China Sea connects the two oceans on which India’s trade depends.

India, therefore, seeks an imprint as a "net provider of security,” as former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said. Similarly, Prime Minister Modi has used the term Sagar, meaning Security and Growth for All in the Region, an approach that fosters maritime security.

During Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Vietnam in September, 2016, the two countries elevated the strategic partnership they had earlier established in 2007, to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. India is only the third country after China and Russia with which Vietnam has such a partnership.

Even while China, with fraternal party links, upstages India, the political significance of Vietnam’s relationship with India is unmistakable. Vietnam may not be for India what Pakistan is for China, but the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership is a hedge to prevent strategic surprises.

In the past, India’s assessment was that upgrading the defence relationship with Vietnam might upset other powers. But this argument has now been turned on its head. A stronger defence partnership with Vietnam actually might increase leverage with other players in the region.

During Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s visit to India in 2014, Prime Minister Modi had said that India’s defence cooperation with Vietnam is one of India’s most important defence partnerships. During Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar’s visit to Vietnam in 2015, the two sides signed a Joint Vision Statement on Defence Cooperation for 2015- 2020.

In naval cooperation, while India’s motivation is to mark its presence in a region of unpredictability, from the Vietnamese perspective, an Indian naval presence can create strategic balance. Under a credit provided in 2014, India is building offshore patrol vessels for Vietnam.

There is an agreement on the establishment of a Satellite Tracking and Imaging Centre in Vietnam, an apparent discussion on the sale of the BrahMos missile, and oil and gas prospecting by India in the contested South China Sea.

Economy As the Driving Force

Let us move to the economic aspect. Vietnam introduced its Doi Moi in 1986. As I said, in 1991, India’s economic liberalization began.

Economic links are now fairly developed. Trade was worth U.S. $ 8.03 billion in 2014, and India is one of Vietnam’s top ten trading partners. The two sides have agreed to increase trade to U.S. $ 15 billion by 2020.

But business and people to people ties have been hobbled by poor connectivity. There is no direct flight between the two countries. Economic ties will need to be at the centre of the modern relationship the two sides are trying to build.


Now I shall move to Thailand.

India and Thailand also share cultural links from millennia. Thailand internalized India’s philosophy and culture in ways that might surprise visitors. The thousands of Buddha icons, the Ewaran Brahma shrine at Bangkok, and the Ganesha shrines in households are examples of the graceful blending of Indian and Thai culture.

While ties with Vietnam have a strategic salience, Thailand enjoys stronger people to people links. With 150 flights a week, Thailand hosts over a million Indian visitors annually. Kavi Chongkittavorn writes in The Nation that, in 2012, 1.2 million Indians visited Thailand, 120,000 Thais visited India, and 10,000 Thais studied in India.

At the strategic level, India’s Act East Policy and Thailand’s Look West Policy are complementary. Thailand’s Look West policy encompasses West Asia, including Pakistan, Iran and even Turkey, but with the primary focus on India.

With a 1,000 kilometres maritime boundary in the Andaman Sea, the two countries have held coordinated patrols since 2006.Naval training

and staff talks are held. Thailand’s invitation to India to invest in the Dawei Deep Seaport and its Special Economic Zone is a signal for India to

become a stakeholder in a Thai strategic asset.

Frequent political exchanges have made for an enduring conversation. Thailand supported the Singapore proposal to begin the ASEAN+ 1 summit with India, on which a positive decision was taken at the Brunei ASEAN summit in 2001. It has moved against terrorists and criminals targeting India. Trade, however, has not achieved its full potential, being worth 8.52 billion U.S. dollars in 2015- 2016.

The Role of the North- East and Nagaland

Where does Nagaland fit into this? Recall that the Japanese penetrated up to Kohima during the Second World War. This makes the defence of Nagaland crucial to the defence of India.

Mr.Neiphiu Rio, chief minister of Nagaland, visited Vientiane in September, 2010. The government of Nagaland signed an agreement with the HSMM Group of Laos on setting up an Agar Wood factory in Nagaland. This could be the beginning of economic links with South East Asia.

For Act East to work, the north- east has to develop. This is the dictate of geography. To get to South East Asia by land, one has to go through the north- east. Connectivity with South East Asia begins with fostering connectivity at home.

The Future

What of the future?

In my view, India’s relations with Vietnam and Thailand, and indeed with South East Asia more generally, are based less on sentiment, and more on the realities of power. In a region troubled by nationalist passion, territorial disputes, and historical collisions, our relationships with these two countries are a stabilizing factor.

A sideways glance at India’s relations with Vietnam and Thailand shows a recurring theme: these ties have not seen the strains other bilateral relationships show. This is not just a historical fact, but also a contemporary reality.

But neither relationship has had a "big bang” moment. With power shifting to the East, there is a set of circumstances that can steer India’s relations with Vietnam and Thailand towards novel outcomes.

At this moment the three countries are focused on putting more content into their relationships, driven by economics and connectivity. With a government in New Delhi intent on performance, the time has come for India to act forcefully on Acting East.

Thank you very much. I will now take questions.