Distinguished Lectures Distinguished Lectures

India's act east policy

  • Distinguished Lectures Detail

    By: Amb (Retd) Anil Wadhwa
    Venue: Dr. Harisingh Gaur University, Sagar, M.P.
    Date: August 09, 2019

Shared historic ties, culture and knowledge have been the basis of Indian interaction and contacts with South East Asia. The values and culture of India and South East Asia are interconnected, and this is based of contacts through civilizations. A clear evidence of these contacts can be traced back to the 3rdcentury AD, and historical evidence shows that there were exchanges through trade, Sanskrit and Indian epics. There is also well documented evidence of technical innovations between South EastAsia and India. These commonalities provide the basis for the synergies between India and the region. These commonalities between India and South East Asia cover cultural values and concepts, structures and artifacts, human habitats, oral or folk heritage, language and literature, traditional arts and crafts, architecture, the performing arts, games, indigenous knowledge systems and practices, myths, customs and beliefs, rituals and other living traditions, written and popular cultural heritage.

South East Asia was under Indian influence starting around 200 BC until around the 15th century, when Hindu Buddhist influence was absorbed by local politics. Kingdoms in the South East coast of the Indian sub-continent had established trade, cultural and political relations with South East Asian kingdoms in Burma, Thailand, Indonesia, Malay Peninsula, Cambodia and Vietnam. The Pallavan kingdom off the south east coast of the peninsula did not have culture restrictions on crossing the sea. This led to more exchanges through the sea routes into South east Asia. Buddhism thrived and became the new religion in many states of South East Asia, even as it died off on the Indian subcontinent. South Indian traders, adventurers, teachers and priests continued to be the dominating influence in South East Asia until about 1500 CE. The kingdom of Funanwas the first Hinduised state to be founded in Cambodia in the 1st century CE. Another Hindu state, Chen -La existed there from 6th to 9th century CE. A Khmer king Jayavarman II (800-850CE) established a capital at Angkor in central Cambodia, identifying himself with Lord Shiva. By the 12th century, the Angkor empire extended itself into Thailand (conquering the Mon kingdom of Dyaravati), and into Champa in the East (Vietnam). From 6th to 14thCE, there were a series of great maritime empires based on the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Java. And the Cholas occupied Malaya in the 11th Century. In lower Burma, the Pyu people practiced Hinduism. In Malaysia, archeologists have found relic and ruin in Bujang valley settlement dating back to 110 CE, which is believed to be the oldest civilization in South East Asia influenced by ancient Indians. The cultural and economic interaction with Thailand can be traced back to the 6th century BCE but direct contacts can be said to have begun in 3rd century BCE when Ashoka sent Buddhist monks. The Indians who movedinto Thailand in the Sukhothai period (1275-1350) were either merchants who came to Siam for trading or Brahmans who played an important role in the Siamese court as experts on astrology and in conducting ceremonies. In the Ayuthya period (1350-1767) more Tamil merchants entered the South by boat. The Chams, a people of Indian stock established the Hinduised Kingdomof Champa in CE 400 in South Central Vietnam.

Although India has enjoyed close historical links with South East Asia, its inward turn following independence, severely undermined its influence in the region. Although some in South East Asia in the 1960s saw India as a natural strategic partner and a potential security guarantor; consistent with its principles of non-alignment, india did not participate in any proposed regional security arrangements. During the latter years of the cold war, India’s relationship with the Soviet Union and its support for Vietnam reinforced India’s political estrangement from a region predominantly under the influence of the United States. It is only in the last three decades that India has really sought to comprehensively engage with South East Asia.

At the political level, India’s current policy is to promote the capabilities of Asean in the region;to strengthen BIMSTEC, in order to promote cooperation in the Bay of Bengal; and the Mekong Ganga Cooperation group, to promote greater east west transport connectivity between South East Asia and Indo – China. It is for the reasons of economics, and the failure of a stalled SAARC, that india has also lent its support to the BBIN grouping, which is a meant to enhance connectivity with the immediate neighbours of India to its east. India has also been an active participant in the East Asia Summit, the Asean Defence Ministers Plus, and the Asean Regional Forum grouping with varied membership and many overlaps, which deal with the political and security aspects of cooperation.

In the early 1990s, Indiaintroduced the ‘Look East Policy” – a novel concept that aimed to turn the country’sNorth East into the gateway to the IndoPacific region and to help build stronger ties with India’s extended neighborhood. The policy remained India’s pivot for successive governments. While dividends of theLook East Policy can be debated, the Modi government, after its landslide victory in the 2014 parliamentary elections, had different plans altogether for the oil rich and tea growing region of India’s north east, located at the strategic junction of China, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Myanmar. Addressing the East Asia Summit in Nay Pyi Taw, PM Modi told the audience comprising several world leaders that his government had accorded high priority to turn India’s look East Policy to Act East Policy. The Act East Policy is meant to serve the tin purposes of stronger trade and business ties with South East Asia and other Indo Pacific countries and to create development opportunities for the North East States of India. Commerce, Culture and connectivity – the three Cs- are therefore the pillars of India’s current Act East Policy.

India’s Act East Policy is at the heart of its eastward orientation and ties in with the broader approach to the Indo Pacific. over the years, India’s approach to the region has matured into a broader strategic engagement – with the ASEAN and its related frameworks like the ARF, EAS, and ADMM+as also with countries further East, including Japan, South Korea, Australia and the Pacific islands. The collaboration between India andAsean has accelerated across a range of economic andstrategic issue, including trade and investment, connectivity, energy, culture, people to people contacts, and maritime security. It was also in 2014 that PM Modi agreed on a joint vision of the Indo – Pacific with President Obama – signifying that the Indian Ocean and the Pacific oceans were interconnected as far as security and economics were concerned.

Ten heads of state of all ASEAN countries visited India on 26 January 2018 for the 25th Commemorative summit to mark the relationship with India and also as chief guests at the Indian Republic Day – an unprecedentedconglomeration of leaders from Asean on this historic occasion. Starting out as a dialogue partner in 1996, and a summit level partner in 2002,India was elevated to a Strategic Partner of Asean in 2012. Today, India is engaged in at least 30 high level dialogues in varied fields with Asean.

India has been advocating a regional security architecture based on the twin principles of shared security and prosperity. PM Modi, in his vision of SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the region) enunciated this in 2015. SAGAR recognizes the role played by the seas and the oceans around us in promoting sustainable economic progress in a secure and stable environment.India sees the Indo Pacific region as an increasingly connectivity related pathway – much of the worlds trade passes through these oceans. India would like to see the Indo pacific not only better connected, but also free from traditional and nontraditional threats, that allows free movement of goods people and ideas. In ensuring this India sees respect for international law, including UNCLOS, as crucial. South china sea has emerged as a critical area for the development of the littoral states and is also an important sea route for all the countries for all the Asean countries and India. Asean has always appreciated India for its support to the central role of the grouping and has sought to actively participate in shaping regional security. India would like to cooperate with the Asean in blue economy, coastal surveillance, building of offshore patrolling capabilities, hydrographic services, and information sharing for increased maritime domain awareness.Maritime domain awareness is crucial in protecting sea lanes of communication and to meet the demand of the growing convergence between Asean and India in tracking the developments of the naval vessels and ships in the South China Sea. In this context, the Straits of Malacca, lambock and Sunda hold a key Indian interest in the region. Collaboration for intelligence sharing between Singapore Information Fusion center (IFC) and India’s Information management and AnalysisCentre (IMAC) for enhanced Maritime Domain Awareness and sharing of movements data for submarines will develop India’sMaritime surveillance capabilities in the Indian ocean. It is time that india sets up a regular multilateral naval exercise with Asean to keep sea routes, including the Malacca straits free from attacks and piracy in times of need.

There is need for deeper economic integration with Asean, Asean has emerged as a dynamic grouping over the years. The Asean together constitutes 1.85 billion people with a combined GDP of $ 3.8 trillion. India’s trade and investments with Asean have seen an upward trajectory over the past 18 years. Asean is India’s4th largest trading partner, accounting for 10.6% of India’s total trade. Bilateral trade currently is at US$ 81.33 billion, and India’s exports to Asean account for 11.28% of its total exports. Asean has invested US$68.91 billion between April 2000 to March 2018 into India, and India has invested US$36.67 billion in Asean between 2007 and 2015. While the Asean india FTA in goods has gone into force, some Asean countries like Cambodia are yet to ratify the Asean india trade in services agreement. Moreover, India and the rest of Asean as well as the other 5 Asean partners – China, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea and Japan - are making slow progress in the negotiations for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) negotiations. India’s demand for easing of rules on the movement of professionals has got a cold response from these countries, and India is reluctant to open up its market for targeted goods. India and Asean however, have committed, at the highest level, to swiftly conclude a modern, comprehensive, high quality, and mutually beneficial Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). There has also been a drop in exports of agricultural products, which are facing high import tariffs and barriers from Asean countries. A trade target of $100 billion was set in 2012 which is proving to be difficult to meet.

A key aspect of improving the economic relationship is improving connectivity – through land, sea, and air – in order to cut down costs for movement of goods a and services between India and Asean. India would do well to speed up the construction of the trilateral highway linking India with Thailand via Myanmar andits stated expansion to Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.The alignment of this highway, which will begin at the India- Myanmar border town of Moreh and passthrough several Myanmarese towns including Tamu, Kalewa, Yargi, Monywa, Mandalay, Meiktila, Myawaddy and finally ending at Mae Sot on the Myanmar -Thai border - and then connect up with a four-lane highway with the Asean master Plan on connectivity and the Asean east West Corridor - is much awaited. A $ 1 billion credit line has been announced by PM Modi in 2015 to enhance digital and infrastructure connectivity with Asean. There is need to identify the constraints in the utilization of this credit facility. $77 million have also been committed towards developing manufacturing hubs in the CMLV countries. This initiative also needs to be monitored constantly, in order to reap the benefits. The trilateral highway can only be sustained if there is enough movement of goods and economic activity along the route through Myanmar. India therefore needs closer coordination with Myanmar to develop economic hubs and activity along the route which passes through largely difficult terrain. India is repairing 69 bridges in Myanmar, and building stretches of this road. The highway, due to these difficulties, has been delayed by almost 5 years and is now expected to open in 2020. India has however, utilized this time to work on the soft infrastructure required for the successful opening of the trilateral highway, including a motor vehicles and licensing agreement, helping Myanmar with some quick impact projects, and more importantly, working towards enhancing connectivity in India’s north east itself. By linking up the North East with new road and rail links, opening up of multi modal transport including river navigation in the north east, removing impediments like multiple border taxation, and thinking about setting up economic activities like "Haats” or local markets within the north East states India can export through this link rather than becomea net importer of cheap goods. The North East is home to 3.8% of the national population, occupies about 8 % of India’s total geographical area, and is strategically important with over 5300 kms of international borders. India has plans for the development of the region bordering China, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar. Some recent decisions to enhance connectivity in the North East are- a 4000 km long ring road connecting the states; expediting railway projects connecting all state capitals by 2020 and extending these to 15 new destinations; border last mile connectivity with Myanmar and restoring rail connectivity with Bangladesh. With the issue of land acquisition almost resolved now, Sikkim (through Rangpo) will be directly linked to Sevok (near Siliguri) in West Bengal with a 45 KM rail line and Nagaland will be connected through a link between Dimapur- Zubza near Kohima. Work on new broad gugelins to connect Shillong (Meghalaya) , Imphal (Manipur), and Aizwal (Mizoram) is expected to be completed by 2020. The capitals of Assam (Guwahati) ,Arunachal Pradesh (Itanagar) and Tripura (Agartala) have already been connected by brodguage network. A total of 24 railway projects have been sactioned for the North Eat. Out of these 16 new lines, 2 guage conversions and six doubling. Work on doubling on the six routes and guage conversion is complete. Railways is making several bridges and tunnels to spread its network in the hilly terrain of North East . World’s tallest pier bridge, being made in Manipur, will be ready by March 2022. The pier bridge, 141 mt tall is being constructed on the 111 km Noney-Jirbam-Tupul-Imphal line. Tailways is also doing a number of international projects . 60% work is completed on the Jogbani-Biratnagar-(Nepal), Agartala to Akhaura (Bangladesh) 15 new railway lines. Indian Railways is also doing restoration of Haldibari (India) – Chilahati(Bangladesh), while work is complete in India portion of Rakhipur (India) to Birol (Bangladesh) 9 km line. 20 port townships are to be developed along the Brahmaputra and Barak river systems to enhance intra-regional connectivity. PM Modi has also proposed the augmentation of air connectivity to and from the region which will help business ties with the Asean. At least 50 economic integration and development nodes are to be developed across the region, in tandem with transport corridors to boost manufacturing. Connectivity is also being upgraded in the border areas, with highways and development plans approved for Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Manipur including a 4-lane highway between Dimapur and Kohima.

Sea connectivity from India to Asean will be helped by the Kaladan multi modal transport project, which will link Kolkata to Sittwe port in Myanmar, extending into Mizoram by the river and land route. India’s recent agreement with Indonesia to develop port infrastructure in Sabang is another step in the same direction. Sea links are also vital between the eastern sea board o India including ports of Ennore and Chennai to CMLV countries and there is need for improving transshipment links with partners like Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand. There is also a proposal to link Dawei port in Myanmar, being developed with Thailand to Chennai port in India, cutting down shipping costs and time. For these proposals to succeed, India and Asean must look at shipping joint ventures, and related concessions. AnAgreement on maritime transport between India and Asean should cover these essential areas. India and Asean have committed to work together to promote marine transport cooperation between Asean and India, and encourage potential private sector participation in the development of sea ports, maritime logistics network and maritime services in order to create greater efficient linkages. The scope for cooperation in cruise tourism and roll on roll off vessels which can carry vehicles between India and some Asean states has also been identified. A cruise triangle connecting Kolkata and Andaman Islands with Islands of Myanmar and Thailand could be developed, and could be further extended to Indonesia and Malaysia.

There is a clear need to develop air links. While flight connections from tier 1 and tier 2 cities in India are well established with Singapore, Thailand Malaysia and now Indonesia, the other countries either lack direct links or have inadequate linkages with India. This is an impediment to tourism, as well as trade.Some direct flights, like those to Brunei, and Vietnam have also not fructified. India and Asean therefore, need to work towards an Asean India air services agreement which will benefit trade, investments and tourism.

India has been doing its part in enhancing people to people connectivity with Asean and cultural cooperation, and should step up activities like exchange among diplomats, youth, media and intellectuals and india scholarship programmes for Asean students. As outlined in the Asean India vision document, cooperation must be enhanced to preserve each other’s fine traditions and heritage. India should continue to align itself with the Asean Integration Plan 2025, enhance cooperation in food and agriculture, education, clean and renewable energy, tourism, health,SME development in poverty alleviation. Terrorism remains a challenge for both india and Asean and institutional linkages with Asean countries, including exchange of intelligence and information, must be strengthened. Indian centers of excellence in English language, IT and software development etc. have been a huge success and should be ramped up. The additional US$ 50 million announced for the Asean India fund will be useful in conducting these activities, but big-ticket items will require timely funding in the future. As far as Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) are concerned, Asean and India have agreed to promote stable growth in this area, through technology transfer, diffusion, adoption and adaptation as well as enhancing capacity building, technical assistance, distribution channels, financing facilities, access to innovation, and opportunities to integrate into the global and regional value chains, as well as utilization of Project Development Fund and Quick Impact Project Fund which India is offering.

A notable area of success for India in its relationship with ASEAN has been cooperation in disaster management and humanitarian assistance, including risk reduction and this needs to be sustained. There is need to step up cooperation under the Asean India Green fund for the implementation of various activities in enhancing Asean member states capacity in climate change adaptation. India and Asean should cooperate in the international solar alliance, through closer collaboration in solar equipment and technologies. India has also increased the corpus of the Asean India Science and technology development fund from US $ 1 million to US$ 5 million in 2016 to support collaborative R&D and technology development programmes between the Asean and India. The sectoral relationship in Science and technology with Asean will be deepened through cooperation on the Asean- India innovation platform, Asean India research and training fellowship programme, and Asean India collaborative research and development programme, in areas aligned with Asean Plan of Action on Science, technology and Innovation 2016-2025. ISRO has supported Asean in the development of space technology and its applications. Asean and India have agreed that the peaceful exploitation of outer space will be continued through the implementation of the Asean india space cooperation programme, including launching of satellites, their monitoring through telemetry tracking and command stations and usage of satellite image data for sustainable exploitation of ground, sea, atmospheric and digital resources for equitable development of the region. Two major space projects with Asean are ongoing- the first is establishing a tracking, data and reception/data processing station in Ho Chi Minh city, Vietnam, and the second, on upgradation of a telemetry, tracking and control station in Biak, Indonesia. India also needs to enhance cooperation with Asean in digitization – especially the financial structure and e governance. Cyber security has emerged as an important subject in the Indo Asean context. Industrial espionage, and countering cyber attacks on utilities and commercial establishments are areas where Asean has rich experience and can help in developing an Asean india cooperative cyber security network. The first Asean india Cyber dialogue was held in 2018. An Asean india innovation platform and building of digital connectivity – both Indian initiatives - must be pursued through to their logical conclusion.

India is also looking towards a more sustainable future for this region, by collaborating with its regional partners on blue economy projects, -(a proposal has already been made in this regard) -investing in development of desalinization technologies, harvesting the bio diversity of the oceans, and sustainably mining the ocean depths for marine minerals. India and Asean have committed themselves, through their joint declaration in 2018, to address threats to their resources including illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, loss of coastal ecosystems and adverse impacts of pollution, ocean acidification, marine debris, and invasive species on the marine environment. In all these engagements, India has been guided by the development and security priorities of its partners. India’s approach is based on interdependence rather than dominance or narrow reciprocal considerations. India supports responsible and transparent debt financing matched by responsible lending practices.

India is also contributing to regional maritime security by ensuring the safety and security of maritime traffic through the ocean by strengthening skills and logistics of its indo pacific neighbors,especially those in south east Asia. India has agreed with Asean to prevent and manage accidents and incidents at sea and promote effective coordination between Asean and India in maritime search and rescue, in accordance with existing processes and practices, including those of ICAOand IMO. India has signed white shipping agreements with a number of countries. In addition, Indian ships have undertaken coordinated patrolling and EEZ surveillance. India is helping its maritime neighbours set up their coastal surveillance networks for developing shared maritime Domain Awareness on behalf of its partners. Another element of ensuring safety of navigation in the region has been the hydrographic support provided to India’s partners to chart the waters of the region. This has been augmented with a large training capacity building effort. In 2008, India launched the Indian Ocean naval Symposium (IONS) with a view to providing a platform for the littoral nations of the Indian Ocean to cooperate for enhanced regional security. The symposium is generating a flow of information between naval professionals to develop a common understanding and cooperative solutions in areas of common interests such as HADR, information security, interoperability and maritime security. India also played a leading role in developing the concept of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) in 1997 along with South Africa. This created a platform for the littoral states in the Indian ocean to come together on issues like traditional and nontraditional security challenges, including piracy, illegal fishing, human trafficking, drug smuggling, trafficking of weapons, maritime pollution, disaster management and climate change. Many south East Asian nations are included in this grouping.There are also well-established mechanisms like regional cooperation agreement on combating piracy and armed robbery (Recaap) in which India is a participant.

Lately, Chinese political and economic influence as well as naval presence in the region has continued to grow, and it has rapidly moved to occupy, militarize in some cases populate, and reclaim 32,000 acres in the South China Sea. China’s sovereignty claims based on history and its nine-dash line have been judged without any legal foundation by the Permanent arbitration tribunal set up by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). India and Asean have jointly called for full and effective implementation of the Declaration of the Conduct of the Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) and have expressed the hope for an early conclusion of the Code of Conduct(COC) in the South China Sea, but the fact remains that Chinese action over the disputed islands in the South China Sea has not faced any opposition, other than verbal, mainly by the United Sates which carries out freedom of navigation operations in the area. The countries of South East Asia, and the international community in general would not like to see China convert the South China Sea into a "Beijing lake.”

The Malacca Straits connect the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea, and it is through these straits that over 40% of India’s sea borne trade passes. India also has energy interests in the region, and is involved in oil exploration in the South China Sea in offshore blocks in Vietnam’s EEZ, which is disputed by China due to the claims based on its nine-dash line. Notwithstanding all the steps India is taking on its own and jointly with others to promote maritime security, its security challenges are set to increase. Chinas 2015 white paper on military strategy formalized a new maritime strategy encompassing "open sea protection” for which its naval capacity to protect its overseas interests and sea lanes of communication is projected to increase. China is contracting additional aircraft carriers, a powerful nuclear-powered fleet of submarines and has moved to strengthen its air power. China’s energy supplies are vulnerable and it is therefore seeking access to the Bay of Bengal though Myanmar in order to have an alternative supply line through the Malacca strait. However, this can only partially offset its Malacca dilemma since the energy to be transported for China will grow further. In future therefore, the PLA Navy is bound to deploy more ships in the Indian Ocean region to defend its own sea lanes of communication. The presence of Chinese naval ships and submarines will raise new dilemmas for India. China’s conduct in the South China Sea and its belligerent reaction to the award of UNCLOS established permanent Court of Arbitration on its maritime claims is a precedent which india would not like to see repeated in the Indian ocean. While so far there are no maritime territorial disputes involving China in the Indian Ocean, China’s demonstrated disregard for international law makes india, like others, wary of its behavior. India, US, japan and Australia, along with Asean therefore, have a shared interest in maintaining a strategic balance in the Into Pacific. Indonesia is a key Asean state in this endeavor, because to avoid the Malacca straits choke point, the Sunda and Lambok straits passing through the Indonesian waters provide an alternate route for Chinese submarines to enter the Indian ocean. China, today possesses enormous economic resources, and increasing military prowess.

The Asean will be happy to see India playing a larger role in South east Asia in order to balance the geo political situation which has emerged in the region. India has the political and economic instruments to further strengthen ties with ASEAN. The Indian navy is playing a major role, not only to build maritime bridges through joint exercises and visits but also to protect the sea lanes of communication and well as Indian interests in the region. India has moved to strengthen the naval presence in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands at the mouth of the Malacca straits and it is from here that the Indian navy can play a vital role in the maritime domain.However, Despite India’s support for Aseaninstitutions, Asean has a limited role in regional security and therefore India has concentrated on defence arrangements at a bilateral level. In 2003, Singapore and india entered into a comprehensive defence cooperation agreement that has facilitated annual defence policy dialogues, joint exercises, intelligence sharing and cooperation in defence technology. The Singapore airforce has long term use of the Indian Kalaikunda airbase and India has agreed to the storage of Singaporean equipment and training of its army personnel at Babina and Deolali firing ranges. With Vietnam, India signed a comprehensive defence agreement in 2000, which provides for regular exchange of intelligence, joint coast guard training to combat piracy, jungle warfare, counter insurgency training, repair of Vietnamese MiG aircraft, training of Vietnamese pilots and Indian assistance in small and medium arms production. This has since expanded to naval cooperation, maritime domain awareness, and missile cooperation. In June 2011, Vietnam announced that it would provide regular access to the small port of Nha Trang near Cam Ranh Bay, to the Indian navy. Aside from Singapore and Vietnam, with whom defence ties are strong, India in future will have to move firmly in securing and strengthening defence ties with countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Myanmar and Thailand, with whom bilateral cooperation hasalso gained steady ground. India carries out the Simbex exercise with Singapore navy, the Ausindex with the Australian navy.According to the Defence Minister of Australia, Marise Payne, in 2014, Australia and India conducted 11 major defence activities together; in 2018 this figure had climbed to 38. Since 1995, the Indian navy conducts the biennial Milan exercise with navies of the Indian ocean region at the Andaman and Nicobar islands.

Overall, the Chinese actions in the region have led to a natural reaction and backlash. The US president Trump proposed the Free and Open Indo Pacific (FOIP) strategy during his Asia tour in 2017 and at the 2017 APEC Summit in Vietnam .This has also led to the revival of the informal grouping of the Quad – comprising India,Japan, Australia, and United States- to coordinate positions in the Indo Pacific. The quad members have never specifically stated that the quad targets any country, and this was made clear by PM Modi at Shangri-La, who also called for an inclusive Indo-pacific, based on the rule of law. At the heart of the new security paradigm in South East Asia is the interest of the US to engage with the region, and also its capabilities. The gap between the Chinese and the US capabilities in areas that will be future determinants such as artificial intelligence, robotics and new technologies in civilian and military use seems to be narrowing. In the circumstances the Quad, or some other mechanism which pools the strengths of other likeminded countries is seen as the best hope of sustaining a rules-based order in the region. In the backdrop of the free and open Indo Pacific strategy as defined by the trump administration, is itsbelief that a geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of the world order is taking place in the Indo pacific region. There is a feeling within Japan that that the Japan US security alliance is the cornerstone of national security in Asia, that the free and open Indo Pacific strategy must be region wide in scope and based on shared values to respond effectively to the new challenges. To succeed, it must be implemented in partnership with other members of the Quad. As the asymmetries vis a vis china have grown, smaller states in the Indo Pacific have started hedging against China. Many commentators in the United States started expressing the view that the Asean needs to step up the plate, and articulate how it could subscribe to the broader Indo Pacific concept and a rules-based order if it needs to remain central to the policies evolving in the region. An attempt was made by Indonesia on behalf of Asean, to articulate the Asean response to the Quad and the Indo Pacific concept.

This Asean vision of the Indo Pacific has been recently adopted in June 2019. In fact countries like Australia, France, India and japan had also come up withtheir own individual visions and strategies for cooperation in the Indo Pacific region and therefore some countries in the Asean like Indonesia, Thailand did not want the south east Asian region to be sidelined and left out of this new geopolitical construct. The Asean vision envisages centrality of the Asean, the aim is not to create any new mechanisms, but rather to strengthen existing Asean led mechanisms such as the East Asia Summit as platforms for dialogue and implementation of Indo Pacific cooperation. Besides, the Asean vision impinges upon a rules based order anchored upon international law, openness, transparency, inclusivity. And commitment to advancing economic engagement in the region. In this regard four areas of cooperation – maritime cooperation, connectivity, UN Sustainable Development Goals 2030 and economic development have been put forward for engaging with other countries in the Indo – Pacific.

India approaches the region from an overarching vision. PM Modi, speaking at the Shangri-La Dialogue in May 2018 spoke of this vision, highlighting a free and inclusive Indo Pacific. This is a region where some of the largest and smallest nations of the world have coexisted inharmony. This harmony exists because of economic cultural ideological and civilizational commonalties. This is precisely the collective approach that is required in order to truly develop this region to its fullest potential. The region, he said, cannot just be a growth engine; it has to be a community of ideas and commitments. India has committed itself to work with countries of the region towards an inclusiverules-based order, espousing freedom of navigation, equality under international law, peaceful resolution of disputes, and equitable distribution of the benefits of globalization.

The ambitious BRI plans of China have resulted in debt traps for some nations due to unsound principles of economics and are unsuited to the host country but serve Chinese geo political ends also need an alternative. Japan has announced that it will boost the $110 billion fund it had created in 2015 for a five-year period in Asia to a sum of US$ 200 billion that would be offered for the same period. In additionalJapan’s concessionary Yen loans have been doubled to 1 trillion yen since 2015. This provides access to large sums of financing for economic and social projects on terms more favourable than the market. Japanese FDI in Asean is growing, and the ADB has been funding a number of projects in the region. With the help of JICA, ADB has created Leading Asia’s private Sector Infrastructure Fund (LEAP) in 2016 so that it could leverage and complement money to non-governmental projects which can range from public private partnerships to joint ventures and power finance. The focus has been on energy, water, transport, and health. Japan has been playing a significant role by itself or through ADB in some connectivity projects like the East West economic corridor, linking Da Nang port in Vietnam with North East Thailand through Laos. A southern economic corridor links Bangkok with Ho chi Minh city through Cambodia. If India and japan can cooperate with each other in Asean and use each other’s capabilities, the effects can be exponential. If both india and japan can cooperate with each other in Asean theycould remain confident that their investment in rail, roads, highways, ports would be put to good use, and the local economies could also benefit from the special economic zones, manufacturing and trading hubs. India could use its niche area of IT to power customs and risk management. India and Japan could partner other governments or the private sector there to mitigate risk and shorten lead times. India and Japan could also work in Africa; and the Asia Pacific growth corridor for one has the potential to rival the Chinese BRI since it stretches from Japan to South East and South East Asia towards Africa. There is a need to ramp up these efforts.

There have been steps taken by the other countries like USA and Australia also to counter the Chinese BRI narrative. In November 2018, the US Senate joined the US house of Representatives in passing the Better Utilisation of Investment Leading to Development (or BUILD Act), a bipartisan Bill creating anew US Development Agency- the US International development Finance Corporation (USIDFC). The agency will be operational later this year. The US development finance Inititive (DFI) will help developing countries prosper while advancing US foreign policy goals and enhancing US national interests. The new USIDFC will seek to "crowd in” vitally needed private sector investment in low- and lower-income countries. The agency can also work in upper middle-income countries on grounds of national security and developmental reasons in an underdeveloped part of the country. The United States’ existing DFI, -OPIC- was created in 1971, new financial commitments for the DFI sector have increased from $10 billion in 2002 to $70 billion in 2014. The new USIDFC is in part a response to China’s rise. As Secretary Pompeo stated” BUILD strengthens the US government’s development finance capacity, offering a better alternative to state- directed investments and advancing our foreign policy goals”. The USIDFC offers something different from China’s model of large state to state lending- it offers a private sector, market-based solution. Moreover, Chinese financing does not support lending to small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs). The BUILD Act has promised $60 billion in funding for the USIDFC. On the very last day of 2018, US president Donald trump also signed into law the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (ARIA) which ‘establishes a multifaceted strategy to increase US security, economic interests and values in the Indo Pacific region”. It authorizes an appropriation of $1.5 billion a year up to the next 5 years for a range of activities in East and South East Asia. The Act recognizes the hierarchies of networked relationships that the US maintains in Asia, which encompass first of all treaty allies like Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, Australia, and New Zealand. These relationships are then followed by strategic partners like India, and security partners like Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam. The bill also calls upon the US President to "develop a diplomatic strategy that includes working with the United States allies andpartners to conduct joint maritime training and freedom of navigation operations in the Indo – Pacific region, including the East China Sea and the South China Sea, in support of a rules based international system benefitting all countries.

In November 2018, Australia committed itself to delivering a US$1.38 billion infrastructure initiative to the Pacific. The initiative will set up the Australian Infrastructure Financing facility for the Pacific. In addition, it will deliver an extra $1 billion in callable capital to EFIC, Australia’s Export financing Agency.It will use grant funding, combined with loans to support the development of high priority infrastructure. India’s $200,000 aid for each Pacific Island State on an annual, rollover basis, and its frequent grants in aid for small and medium enterprise development, support for development and floord relief projects, as well as there cent agreement resulting in finalization of the Indian EXIM bank’s Line of Credit of US$100 million for the purpose of financing infrastructure related road projects in Papua new Guinea in end 2018 are all alternate sources of infrastructure financing. The US, Australia and Japan are cooperating on a domestic internet cable proposal for Papua new Guinea as an alternative to an offer by Chinese company Huawei, which is seen as a cyber security threat by these countries.it is expected that in future the US and Australia will also step up their infrastructure projects like road construction in countries like Papua new Guinea , which has seen an engagement push by China recently. India, in future, could also seek to engage actively with the Malenesian Spearhead Group (MSG) which is composed of four Malenesian states of Fiji , Papua New Guinea , Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. Indonesia is an associate member. In 2018, India and Indonesia issued a joint statement which emphasized cooperation in the Indo Pacific.

Despite pronouncements from the United States of initiatives like the BUILD Act and the ARIA for infrastructure projects in the region, the vulnerability of Asean countries like Cambodia Laos, Myanmar, Thailandetc. to the lure of Chinese funded projects and their deeper incorporation into Chinese economic system remains the foremost likely possibility. It would, therefore, be simplistic to see the Act East Policy of India just as an outcome of the regional situation, where SAARC is stalled, and India’s desires to derive economic benefits out of its engagement with countries to its east, and develop its North East. India’s Act East policy has now added a strategic dimension. In future, India will have to be nimble and quick in completing its connectivity projects with Asean, will have to develop strong defence , political, cultural, and socio- economic ties, and create interdependencies with countries of South East Asia. It will need to work with likeminded countries to keep its neighbourhood secure, to keep its sea lanes of communication open, and the ensure a stable and peaceful external environment for its own economic development, which has become crucial for its 1.25 billion people. South East Asia will drive the future economic growth, and will bethe driver of the "Asian Century”. It is imperative that India is an inevitable part of this developing story.