India’s thriving relations with nations in east and Southeast Asia, alongside its growing impact in the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions since the 1990s, in general comprise the Look East Policy.
In the last two decades, the policy got official status and has been specified whenever India’s relations with these nations are discussed. The policy evolved as India’ fulcrum to its relations with the Southeast Asian nations from the 1990s, when it started as an initiative to enhance India’s financial connections with “tiger economies” in Southeast Asia.
Often alluded to as being in its “phases two and three”, and turned into “Act East Policy” by the Narendra Modi administration, the approach now plans to combine financial aspects with strategic concerns through a growing Indian Naval force, rework India’s relations with Asian powers in Southeast Asia and East Asia with a dominant China being the key concern. Also, the focus is to link up the development of India’s strategically salient but economically unsafe Northeast with the Look East Policy talk.
Tragically, India’s touted two-decade old Look East Policy till now had failed to consider the nation’s own east. A long way from savouring the products of government policy, the area and its occupants have, for a long time, been denied of even essential services. It came somewhat late, yet New Delhi’s acknowledgement that its ling disregard of Northeast had cost them both nation building and strategic advantage prompted a more proactive way to deal with the area in the most recent decade. These endeavours, however, are still nowhere close to what they ought to be.
In 1991, when India propelled its Look East Policy, the push was not given to the geographical closeness between Northeast and Southeast Asia. The absence of sufficient physical network between India’s Northeast and Southeast Asia, a result of sceptic attitude of the Indian strategy makers, is a standout amongst the most imperative factors that thwarted the potential outcomes of accumulating regional financial complementarities.
However, since 1997 when Myanmar was conceded into ASEAN as a full part, India’s Northeast gained significance in its Look East Policy. This approach without a doubt encouraged India’s monetary and key relations with Southeast Asia; yet the share of the Northeast in this arrangement stayed inconsequential.
There has been growing acknowledgement with respect to India policy makers that improvement of geographical connectivity with Southeast Asia is an essential to completely harness the opportunities opened up by the Look East Policy. Keeping in mind the end goal to make the Look East Policy significant for the region, India has laid more emphasis on improving network through all the conceivable methods of infrastructure improvements, for example, land routes, air connectivity, waterways etc.
Therefore, India has some bilateral projects and further moved towards becoming part of some multilateral projects, aimed at upgrading connectivity between the Northeast and Southeast Asia.
The critical ongoing and potential ongoing projects are Moreh-Tamu-Kalewa Road, India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway, Trans Asian Highway, India-Myanmar rail linkages, Kaladan Multimodal project, the Stilwell road, Myanmar-India-Bangladesh gas and/or oil pipeline, Tamanthi Hydroelectricity project and optical fibre network between Northeast India and Southeast Asia.
From a state known for its starvation – aggravated by widespread poverty, absence of education, and insurgency – Mizoram is currently a model for development. With peaceful circumstances and India’s second highest literacy rate, the region’s readiness for development ought to have reserved the state as the perfect beneficiary of the Look East Policy, especially after the Indian government “submitted itself to making Assam the focal point of our extraordinary monetary endeavour towards the East,” as proclaimed by Manmohan Singh in 2004.
However, this has not been the case, as exemplified by the low road density of Mizoram that makes transport troublesome inside the state and furthermore with neighbouring regions.
The Look East policy did not consider Mizoram until Bangladesh’s refusal to allow transit to India made further reflection on connectivity a necessity, a process which gave birth to the Multimodal Kaladan Project. It promises to bring investment and employment to the state, and further utilise the state’s high literacy rate. The border trade post at Zokhawthar in Chapmai region can possibly be a critical port of entry for products from East and Southeast Asia.
However, the process of improving connectivity between Northeast and Southeast Asia is not a cakewalk because there are physical, technical, political and security challenges that limit the process of development. Such as, inflow of people from one view-point; to the inflow of narcotics and other issues.