Act East: New energy in India’s ASEAN journey

asean-swarajLook East. And Act East. It’s the flowering of the Asian Dream, and India’s burgeoning relations with the 10-nation ASEAN grouping are at the heart of this unfolding Asian resurgence. This win-win synergy and chemistry between India and ASEAN, home to economic vibrancy, innovation and enterprise, will be encapsulated in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s maiden trip to Myanmar November 11-14 to attend his first India-ASEAN summit and the 18-nation East Asia Summit.  The focus will be on pitching this crucial multi-layered relationship with this economically renascent region, which is home to around 600 million people and accounts for $2.5 trillion GDP, onto a higher trajectory.

Three Cs

modi-aseanCommerce, Culture and Creativity are the three pillars of India’s robust engagement with ASEAN. In the economic arena, the India-ASEAN relations are poised to scale new frontiers. The two sides are expected to sign an India-ASEAN FTA in services and investments soon. This will complement the FTA in goods which was signed five years ago in 2009 and has led to a quantum jump in bilateral trade, which is hovering around $80 billion.  The two sides are now confident of scaling it up to $100 billion by 2015 and double that volume by 2022. The two-way investments are on an upswing: ASEAN investments in India over the last eight years amounted USD 27.9 billion, and Indian investments in ASEAN reached $32.4 billion.


Launched in the early 1990s that intersected with the opening of the Indian economy and executed with vigour by the successive governments in India, the ongoing journey of India-ASEAN relations has seen several milestones. India became a sectoral dialogue partner of ASEAN in 1992, and a full dialogue partner in 1996. In December 2012, the leaders of India and the ASEAN countries gathered in New Delhi to celebrate the 20th anniversary of India’s sectoral dialogue partnership with the ASEAN and the 10th anniversary of their annual summits. The summit saw the two sides elevating their ties to the level of a strategic partnership and culminated in the ASEAN-India Vision Statement, which charts the future trajectory of this multi-pronged relationship. India has vigorously backed the ASEAN centrality, the Initiative for ASEAN Integration for Narrowing the Development Gap, the Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity, and a Drug Free ASEAN by 2015.

Act East

asean-summit-delhiUnder the new leadership in Delhi, India’s Look East policy has morphed into a proactive Act East policy, which envisages accelerated across-the-board engagement between the two growth poles of a vibrant Asia. This has been reflected in a spate of two-way visits in the first few months of the Modi government. President Pranab Mukherjee went on a landmark visit to Vietnam in September, followed by the visit of Vietnam’s prime minister to New Delhi in October. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj chose Myanmar as one of her first few foreign destinations abroad in August, and met a spectrum of ministers from ASEAN countries as well as East Asian countries. She has already visited Vietnam and Singapore and looks set to travel to most of other ASEAN countries in the months ahead. During her visit to Singapore, India’s foreign minister articulated the need for an Act East policy forcefully: “Look East is no longer adequate; now we need Act East policy.”

Next Steps

Now, with Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Myanmar where he is expected to meet most of the leaders of ASEAN countries bilaterally, besides in the India-ASEAN summit format, India-ASEAN relations are headed for a substantive upgrade in both economic and strategic arenas. Looking ahead, the two sides will be exchanging notes on the next steps in their partnership in the form of the 2015-2020 action plan, which is expected to be firmed up and unveiled at the India-ASEAN summit next year. The strategic content of the relationship is set to deepen in days to come as the two sides step up their collaboration across a range of strategic issues, including trans-national terrorism, maritime piracy and nuclear proliferation. Against the backdrop of the churn in the South China Sea, India has consistently pitched for freedom of navigation and has pressed for the resolution of all maritime territorial disputes in accordance with the UN Law of the Seas.


asean-roadConnectivity, physical, institutional and mental, remains the enduring agenda of the India-ASEAN engagement. India has been in the forefront of pushing a host of trans-national projects that seek to weave the region together in an intricate web of road, rail and maritime links. The completion of the Tamu-Kalewa-Kalemyo sector of the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway is poised to create a new dynamic in India’s multi-faceted ties with the region. With the new Indian government focusing with renewed vigour on spurring the economic uplift of India’s north-eastern states, the gateway to ASEAN, enhanced connectivity promises to unleash a new prosperity in this region. In the days ahead, enhancing shipping and air connectivity will be major focus areas.

Setting new benchmarks for this blossoming relationship, India has set up an Indian mission to the ASEAN in Jakarta, and has set up an ASEAN-India Centre which is housed in New Delhi. Capacity-building, developmental cooperation, and the burgeoning knowledge partnership are key facets of what experts are calling India’s ‘Enhanced Look East’ policy.  This is reflected in India sharing its expertise in capacity building projects in Southeast Asian countries through the three funds – the $50 million ASEAN-India Cooperation Fund; the $5 million ASEAN-India Green Fund; and the ASEAN-India Science and Technology Fund. India plans to set up four IT Centres in Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar and Vietnam. India is also set to launch a Tracking and Data Reception Centre in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, which would make remote sensing data available from the RESOURCESAT and OCEANSAT for applications in disaster management and mineral exploration for ASEAN countries.

Cultural Connect

asean-ramayanWhile Commerce, Connectivity and Capacity-building continue to propel the India-ASEAN relations to new milestones, Culture and Creativity provide mental and spiritual fodder to nurture this growing engagement. Known in ancient times as Suvarnabhumi, the land of gold, Southeast Asia bears deep impress of the Indian culture. Ramayana and Mahabharata are not just Indian epics, but civilizational memories India shares with many Southeast Asian countries like Indonesia, Thailand and Cambodia. Buddhism forms the spiritual nucleus of India-ASEAN relations as Buddhists from all over the region flock for pilgrimage to revered shrines like Bodh Gaya, the place where Lord Buddha attained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree.

Blending the ancient and the modern, the Nalanda University, an ancient seat of learning, is no longer a dream, but a living reality and has started functioning this year. It was formally inaugurated in September this year by India’s External Affairs Minister.

In the end, it’s robust people-to-people relations that keep a diplomatic relationship humming with new ideas and initiatives. And rightly, the leaders of India and ASEAN have identified forging a knowledge and culture bridge as the enduring way to fructify the full potential of the relationship. “In the next action plan, the focus will be on people-to-people contacts, increasing the civilisational linkages, making sure that there are enough studies which are conducted on the linkages of the ASEAN countries, on issues like language, religion, traditions, dress, and our traditional crafts,” says Anil Wadhwa, secretary (east) in India’s external affairs ministry.

Asian Century

With the mind and the heart in the right place, the multi-hued India-ASEAN relations are set to soar high and quicken the realisation of an Asian century. It is in this spirit Prime Minister Modi is expected to renew at the summit in Myanmar India’s unflinching support to the creation of an ASEAN Community by 2015. Intertwining collective dreams of 1.8 billion people, India and ASEAN are set to expand an arc of prosperity across the region and script a new narrative of an Asian renaissance.

(Manish Chand is Editor-in-Chief of India Writes Network,, a portal and e-journal focused on international affairs and the India Story)

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Manish Chand
Manish Chand
Manish Chand is Founder-CEO and Editor-in-Chief of India Writes Network ( and India and World, a pioneering magazine focused on international affairs. He is CEO/Director of TGII Media Private Limited, an India-based media, publishing, research and consultancy company.