Northeast India’s Position in India’s Indo-Pacific Approach

Image courtesy: Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region

Published on: 02 October 2019

Keywords: Indo-Pacific, Northeast India, Act East Policy, Skilling, Development, Connectivity

Fragmentation, political isolation, under-development, ethnic conflicts, and insurgencies (both home-grown and cross-border) have defined Northeast India’s overall situation in the last few decades. These issues have created several problems for India’s land-locked Northeastern part since the 1960s. Consequently, Northeast India has witnessed little growth in the economy and its people have experienced socio-political-psychological trauma for all these years. Despite having the potential of becoming India’s natural gateway to Southeast Asia, Northeast India’s under-development and ethnic conflict-related issues did not allow the region to be a part of New Delhi’s external policy-making until the early 1990s. This situation slowly began to change from 1994 when New Delhi embarked on its Look East Policy which incorporated a change in India’s attitude towards Northeast India. Gradually, New Delhi started promoting Northeast India as its front door towards Southeast Asia, which, needs to be opened through cooperation in infrastructure, connectivity, energy, border trade and business, security and counter-insurgency operations, to name a few. The signing of the India-Myanmar Border Trade Agreement in 1994 was the first step towards acknowledging Northeast’s closer geographic and economic ties with Myanmar, a Southeast Asian country with which India shares both land and maritime boundaries. The inauguration of the India-Myanmar Friendship Road, built by India’s Border Roads Organisation (BRO), in 2001 was the second step towards connecting India’s Northeast with Myanmar. In the last twenty-five years, since the initiation of India’s Look East Policy, a lot of efforts have been taken towards establishing closer ties between Northeast India and Southeast Asia. Sub-regional initiatives like the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multisectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Cooperation (BCIM), and Mekong Ganga Cooperation have contributed to India’s LEP by making it a prominent and much-discussed policy. However, the question remains, if at all, India’s Northeast has benefitted from these endeavours.

There have been two interesting developments in India’s external relations that one can witness in recent years. First, renaming of India’s Look East Policy as Act East Policy has been done to acknowledge the fact that India needs to be more proactive not only in Southeast Asia but in East Asia and Oceania regions as well to adapt to the new realities of geopolitics. Second, the new realities of geopolitics have replaced the so-called Asia-Pacific with the new notion of Indo-Pacific where India is expected to play a much stronger role along with the US and its allies and friends in the region. India has provided its support to this notion of Indo-Pacific as New Delhi’s ambition of playing the role of a defining actor in the region has converging interests with countries like US, Australia, Japan, Singapore, Indonesia and Vietnam. Though ideologically on different paths, cooperation in the maritime domain, counter-terrorism initiatives, connectivity, economic tie-ups, science and technology etc. are areas where multilateralism is required. At the same time, the need to maintain a balance against China’s increasing influence in the region has been felt by these countries, especially, in the wake of Beijing's assertiveness in the oceans. A closer look at these two developments in India’s proactive foreign policy will explicitly indicate synergy between India’s Northeast with the larger Indo-Pacific region through Southeast Asia. Geographically, Southeast Asia sits right at the centre of the Indo-Pacific and this can work as leverage for Northeast India, once it is comprehensively connected with Southeast Asia. This opening to the Indo-Pacific will bring immense benefits for Northeast India in terms of investments, transport corridors and energy cooperation. Japan has already decided to invest Rs. 13000 crore in the water supply and sewage projects in Assam, Northeast Road Network Connectivity Improvement Project in Assam and Meghalaya, biodiversity and forest management projects in Sikkim, Nagaland, and Tripura, and sustainable agricultural project in Mizoram. This was discussed in June 2019 between Japanese Ambassador to India, Mr Kenji Hiramatsu and India’s DoNER Minister Dr Jitendra Singh. In January 2019, Australia India Travel & Tourism Council has signed an MoU with Northeast India Tour Operators Association to strengthen tourism connectivity between Northeast Indian states and Australia. In February 2019, Bangkok hosted a Northeast India Festival to showcase Northeast India’s potential and similarities in culture, trade, economy, and tourism with Thailand. Recently, Singapore has helped Assam government in setting up a Northeast Skill Centre in Guwahati. All these efforts have given Northeast India an additional opportunity to be engaged with the neighbouring countries in the Indo-Pacific and the international forums constructively, something which was limited to the discussions on its history of conflict until very recently. Additionally, there are cross-border infrastructural and connectivity projects like the Kaladan Multimodal Transit and Transport project and India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway which aim at establishing direct linkages between Northeast India and Southeast Asia. However, the delays in these projects have raised questions about the credibility of the governments.

Finally, without attaching Northeast India with Southeast Asia and the larger Indo-pacific region, New Delhi will not be able to accomplish its grand ambition of becoming a major player in the region. In the last two and half decades, New Delhi has made several promises to integrate Northeast India with Southeast Asia and partially fulfilled some of its commitments while others remain sketchy. Therefore, a comprehensive approach to build up the networks and linkages between Indo-Pacific and Northeast India is set to benefit New Delhi in ensuring developments within its borders and create a positive image outside.

Author Information: Dr. Sampa Kundu, Independent Researcher and Consultant.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed in this commentary are author's personal observations.

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