One of India’s most important modern strategic and diplomatic initiatives–at least in theory–has been its Look East Policy, which has lately been transformed by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi into an “Act East Policy.” The policy, as The Diplomat’s Prashanth Parameswaran put it, “seeks to strengthen relationships with ASEAN [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations] specifically and East Asia more generally.”
India should definitely not neglect the region to its east, and the policy seeks to correct an almost inexplicable negligence by India toward its Southeast Asian neighbors from its independence until the 1990s. There is definitely scope for enormous economic benefits and increased trade between India (as well as some other South Asian countries, like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka) and Southeast Asia. And when it comes to East Asia, ore generally, China continues to be India’s largest trade partner; India and Japan also have strong strategic and economic ties.
Yet, despite all this, there are limitations to looking or acting east for India. It is, in a sense, peripheral and shut out of a region that has already been fairly well integrated. No contribution or action by India can reorient the region toward South Asia and away from East Asia. Rather, Southeast Asia is locked into a growing web of economic and physical interconnectivity with China, with its security needs mostly provided by the United States.
While India does have legitimate border concerns with China, which have contributed to closer relations with Japan, Vietnam, Australia, and the United States, it is unlikely to get involved in regional disputes in the South China Sea or contribute in any meaningful way to security east of the Strait of Malacca and outside of its natural Indian Ocean backyard. According to The New York Times, Indian officials have rebutted a recent report that India might participate in joint patrols with the United States in the South China Sea. Moreover, Nithin A. Gokhale, a security analyst, suggested that “the last thing India wants to do is accidentally make itself into a front-line player in the South China Sea,” for fear of antagonizing China for no good reason.
In short, there are limits to India’s role as a meaningful player in the region to its east. Its influence over the countries in that region is limited, with the possible exception of its neighbor, Myanmar. Instead, it should shore up its influence and capabilities in the area where it has a shot of being an important player, where Chinese influence it not yet a lock-in, and where it has already invested a lot of effort: Central Asia and the Middle East. In other words, it should look west and act west toward those regions, geopolitically, strategically, and even culturally.
Even if the majority of Indian trade is with the area to its east, it is in Central Asia and the Middle East that India has the most potential to expand its influence. A country can be heavily involved in a region for geopolitical reasons without having major economic incentives to do so. Consider, for example, the influence of Russia in Syria.
India’s justifications for greater involvement with the Middle East and Central Asia stem from the fact that it already has close links with countries in that area, not to mention its energy dependence on the region. It is already involved with several projects in the region, such as the Farkhor Air Base in Tajikistan and the Chabahar port facility in Iran, both of which are not fully functional yet. There are no similar projects underway in Southeast Asia.
India should focus on completing these projects and utilizing their benefits to improve its strategic and economic relations with countries that generally trust and seek better relations with New Delhi, like Afghanistan. In particular, an Indian failure to complete Chabahar soon, especially as Iran is now opening up again, would be disastrous, and would lead to India squandering away its advantageous position in that country.
Moreover, India is in the good position of being trusted by all the major factions in the Middle East; it has good relations with Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Iraq, and the Gulf States. There are particularly large Indian communities in the Gulf States and the development of Dubai as a major financial and cultural center for South Asians is another factor that India should consider leveraging as it reaches out to the region.
In light of these realities, India should focus its efforts and energies to its west, where it can still become a substantial player, rather than the east, where it will likely remain a minor player. It should continue trading eastward, of course, but its strategic horizons dictate that it focus on the Indian Ocean and the Middle East-Central Asia region.