India’s transition from the Look East Policy to Act East Policy (AEP) during the first term of
Prime Minister Narendra Modi positioned the ASEAN region high in New Delhi’s foreign
policy priorities. Over the past five years, Modi government expanded the geographic and
strategic horizons of the AEP. His speech at 2018 Shangri-La Dialogue laid out the fine print
of India’s schematic plan to engage the ASEAN within the broader Indo-Pacific region.
In his second term, the Indian government continues to pursue that agenda. External Affairs Minister, S. Jaishankar, a diplomat-turned-minister, attended the 9 th East Asia Summit (EAS) Foreign Ministers’ Meet and ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) Ministers’ Meeting in Bangkok earlier this month. India and ASEAN appear to have similar visions of the Indo- Pacific marked by mutual convergence of interests and concerns pivoting on the centrality of the ASEAN in the emerging Indo-Pacific order. During ASEAN-India Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, Jaishankar emphasised on strengthening India-ASEAN strategic partnership in the Indo-Pacific with special emphasis on sustainability, connectivity & maritime cooperation.
Among the many key features of India’s praxis of AEP is the understanding that New Delhi gives equal emphasis to the existing regional and sub-regional mechanisms such as the EAS, the BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-sectoral, Technical, and Economic Cooperation) and the MGC (Mekong Ganga Cooperation). The latter includes five of the 10 ASEAN countries (CLMV plus Thailand) is immensely crucial for India’s strengthened engagement with the region. Besides, these countries are geographically connected through the continental Southeast Asia facilitating enhanced engagements.
During the 10 th Foreign Ministers Meeting of the MGC held on August 1, Jaishankar emphasised on greater sub-regional cooperation and intra-regional connectivity. MGC is an additional sub-regional platform for better integration and connectivity with the ASEAN counties that helps India to deal with a variety of transnational issues such as Climate Change, Sustainable Development Goals 2030, Blue Economy, etc. Another important development was India joining the Ayeyawady-Chaophraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy (ACMECS). MGC economies have complementary advantage and India’s participation in the ACMECS will help it become a stakeholder in the sub-regions’ development.
The newly adopted MGC Plan of Action (2019-2022) aims not only to strengthen cooperation in the existing seven areas but has been expanded to include three new areas of cooperation- skills development and capacity building, science & technology, and water resource management.
Capacity building is a key area where India stands out in the region and MGC has become a vehicle for India’s engagement with the CLMV countries. India’s outreach to the smaller Southeast Asian economies such as Cambodia, Lao PDR and Myanmar has been shaped by capacity building under the framework of the Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) Programme, Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) and MGC Scholarship, and Quick Impact Projects (QIPs). There are 50 scholarships assigned annualy to MGC countries by the ICCR. Since the introduction of QIPs in MGC in 2014, US$ 1.2 million worth financial assistance for 24 QIPs (15 in Cambodia and nine in Vietnam) has been disbursed. During the current year, 18 QIPs worth US$ 900,000 will be executed.
The QIPs have gained popularity and appreciation among recipient countries and the offers have been actively utilised. Unlike China’s Belt and Road Initiative, India’s outreach to the Southeast Asian region pivots on capacity building with grass-root development at its core. Although MGC is not as dynamic as New Delhi would like it to be, yet it is an effective instrument for pursuing India’s developmental programmes in the region.
There is an increasing realisation that India-ASEAN connectivity aspirations can also be steered through the MGC. Noteworthy is the India-Myanmar-Thailand (IMT) Trilateral Highway, which aims to link India’s Northeast with the Southeast Asian countries via the Asian highway. Although the IMT has been languishing and missed several deadlines like the other connectivity initiatives- Kaladan Multimodal Transport project, it is hoped that these would gain higher precedence during the Modi 2.0 regime and provide the much needed critical boost to the AEP.
India’s politico-diplomatic engagement with the ASEAN as also its bilateral engagement in the region is heavily focused on bigger economies. Similarly, BIMSTEC has received greater consideration from India. It is important for India to give equal attention to its MGC initiatives. The MGC countries have figured prominently in India’s civilizational linkages and cultural and social contacts bind them together.
The new agenda under the MGC i.e. water resource management, skills enhancement and capacity building, specifically focus on human dimensions of security and prosperity. A sustained follow-up on these two items alongside science & technology cooperation has the potential to link these two civilization neighbours in bolstering ties that would bring enormous benefits to all stakeholders.
Ms Sana Hashmi is with Future Directions International, Perth and is the author of China’s Approach towards Territorial Disputes: Lessons and Prospects.