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Act East Policy under the shadow of BRI

For the success of our Act East Policy the key happens to be Myanmar having a common border with Arunachal, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram.

Dr KK Paul | New Delhi |


After the heat and din of the General Elections has cooled down, a new government should be in saddle before the end of this month. Considering that the model code of conduct may have delayed the decision- making process, it will have to immediately focus on a number of policy as well as governance issues. Naturally, some of these would be new initiatives, while others may be carryovers from the past or legacy issues. India’s North-east will have to be amongst those meriting top priority. The reason is the rapidly changing geopolitical scenario around our North-east. During most of the last year, the North-east has remained in news, but more on account of National Register of Citizens-related matters of Assam and issues connected with the Citizenship Bill, rather than developmental affairs.

Besides, there have been slippages in certain vital areas. For the present, the Act East Policy and even the earlier Look East Policy, on which it was based, need an urgent and a comprehensive review in light of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) of China. Some of the Asean countries who could have provided a major boost to our Act East Policy, may now be finding the BRI quite attractive, and will have to take a call.

As such we have hardly any time to lose for our own initiatives on the diplomatic front. After then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao’s statement on this policy at Singapore in 1993, things should have moved rapidly, but not so. Often it is said that having looked east, we began to look elsewhere, resulting in somewhat of an amnesia towards this policy lasting for a few years.

Serious attempts were made to review it only much later. It was thought that even as the Look East Policy resulted in benefits, these should also be shared for the development of the North-eastern region. Being the gateway to East, it was stated by the then Minister for External Affairs that “geography is an opportunity and the very geographical location of the North-east makes it the doorway to the Southeast and East Asia and vice versa, a doorway for those economies into India.”

Hopes were raised after Prime Minister Modi’s visit to North-eastern states in 2014 and his directive to Central ministers to visit such areas on a regular basis and more frequently. These efforts did accelerate developmental processes but only to an extent. By and large we were unable to show concrete achievements towards the implementation of Act East Policy. On the other hand the recently concluded review at Beijing of the BRI appears to have been a big success for the Chinese.

This summit meeting saw the presence of 37 Heads of States/Governments, including Vladimir Putin of Russia along with the Secretary General of UN and Managing Director of the IMF. From amongst the SAARC countries, Pakistan and Nepal were represented by their Prime Ministers. Besides India, the only absentee from SAARC was Bhutan, indicating the growing clout of China in international affairs. For quite some time the BRI had raised several doubts and negative comments like being more beneficial to China and taking the host countries towards a debt trap.

However, on this occasion the Chinese had gone out of their way to put all these doubts at rest, with Xi Jinping personally clarifying all the issues and reassuring those present, with more than 250 deliverables. An important aspect of the summit was the launching of a framework for bilateral and multilateral cooperation under the aegis of Belt and Road Initiative.

For the success of our Act East Policy the key happens to be Myanmar having a common border with Arunachal, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram. Keeping this geostrategic aspect in view, several projects had been initiated but lag behind schedule. The Jiribam-Imphal rail link should have become operational quite some time ago, but its completion is nowhere in sight. Earlier this year, the integrated check post near the Indo-Myanmar friendship bridge at Moreh was inaugurated by the Prime Minister.

However, this second world war bridge giving access to the ICP has very limited capacity and is a serious handicap. Similarly, in Mizoram, the Kaladan Multi Modal road link is also running behind schedule. Further, its trickiest part would be the passage through the Rakhine State, where in some areas, the Myanmar Army is battling some of the rebel groups. While the port of Sittwe was developed for its maritime links with Kolkata, so far further linkages from the port have not become available.

It is important to note that the Chinese also have a significant presence in Sittwe. Their oil and gas pipeline terminal with a capacity of handling 12 million tons of crude and having a 700-km pipeline link of 5.2 billion cubic meters of gas, with Kunming in Yunnan is now fully operational. In addition, there are reports of Chinese success in gas exploration business in the Bay of Bengal areas around Sittwe.

It would not be out of place to mention here that despite severe opposition, the recent access to the Chinese electronic giant Huawei by UK for development of its 5G network can be seen as a major breakthrough. In this context, the Chinese pronouncement of their international 5G network as the “digital silk road of the 21st century” can be tempting for those in the BRI.

While the roots of our nonacceptance of BRI remain deeply embedded in our opposition to the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), it is of utmost importance that in light of these developments our ties with Myanmar and other countries in the neighborhood are not overshadowed by the BRI. Showing urgency in implementing the projects in hand in a time- bound manner would be just one aspect.

(The writer is a former Governor of Meghalaya and Uttarakhand and a former Commissioner of Delhi Police)