The Act East Policy (AEP) devised by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a regional summit in Myanmar in 2014 has shifted the geostrategic posture of India in the Indo-Pacific and reformulated New Delhi's approach to one that is more strategically assertive, according to a European think tank.
"The AEP has expanded the operational scope of India's earlier Look East Policy (LEP) beyond one that is merely focused on economics to one that integrates matters of security in the Indo-Pacific region. This links the AEP as geostrategy to other regional geostrategies, resulting in a convergence of security aims and a subsequently emerging security cooperation," the EFSAS said in its commentary.
In comparison to the LEP, the "AEP is not a policy that has been put into legislation, but an overarching strategy that marks a transformation in how India addresses the shortcomings of the LEP and the geopolitical challenges of the 21st century, especially in regards to China."
"Whilst the LEP was effectively an economic strategy, the AEP expands on this by adding a geostrategic defence component: in 2016, Prime Minister Modi argued for the enhancement of the security cooperation between India and ASEAN given the shared security threats of terrorism and radicalisation, with the cooperation between ASEAN and India, thus far mainly taking the form of bilateral security arrangements with ASEAN member states rather than ASEAN as such," the EFSAS said.
"This can be understood as a result of the partially differing security interests and strategies within ASEAN, and Indian security cooperation has been particularly expressive with Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia," it added.
As part of the AEP, India has entered into a partnership with several nations like bilateral agreements between New Delhi and the respective administrations in Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur. Indonesia and India conducted joint naval controls since 2002, and a 2018 announcement of a strategic partnership extended this cooperation to joint military exercises, the sharing of best practices, and the enhanced coordination of military research.
Similarly, in 2015 India and Malaysia joined hands to focus on engaging in joint military exercises, cyber and naval security efforts.
The think tank said, "The geopolitical dimensions of these security arrangements are key for Indian foreign policy -- Indonesia and Malaysia are situated adjacent to the Lombok Strait and the Malacca Strait and ensuring access to these waterways is of key significance for India's economic endeavours in the region and for the general tradability on international waters. The Malacca Strait, in particular, is also vital for China, with 80 per cent of Beijing's annual energy supply passing through the strait."
In 2018, Prime Minister Modi had advocated "free, open, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific Region" as one of the key goals of the AEP. The free navigability of international waterways is a key point of the AEP as it connects India's aims to that of other actors in the region like Australia, Japan and the US.
"Control over these maritime chokepoints, thus, provides the controlling actors with leverage over countries that rely on the free tradability of waterways, indicating the geostrategic relevance of the region and the geostrategic dimension of regional security cooperation. Likewise, Vietnam has made territorial claims in the South China Sea, which is fully claimed by China and henceforth pitches Hanoi against China's expansionist territorial ambitions in the region," the EFSAS said.
"Beijing is indeed the common denominator in these countries' concerns as Chinese assertiveness threatens the legal status quo in the region, especially in regards to international trade, resulting in the strategic interests of regional players converging in their suspicion regarding China," it added.
The AEP is, thus, a counterbalancing effort against Chinese influence in the Asia-Pacific that seeks to not openly antagonise China.
The think tank noted that India and other traditional allies like the US and Japan and non-traditional actors like Indonesia and Malaysia display a high degree of strategic interests convergence that is rooted in Chinese assertiveness and will be exacerbated if this assertiveness is sustained and/or expanded.
"The common denominator of this cooperation is that it seeks to ensure maritime security and territorial sovereignty, two aspects that are threatened by China's aggressive regional conduct, especially in the South China Sea. For India, Beijing's aggressive behaviour had become undeniable palpable in the 2017 Doklam standoff and subsequently during the deadly 2020 border clashes as China continues to challenge Indian territoriality," the EFSAS said.
"If China sustains its prevalent behavioural pattern in the future, India is thus likely to meet increased opportunities for concurrently broadening and deepening strategic connectivity with regional partners, and, as the recent anti-Chinese protests have highlighted, the India-China rivalry could grow into a more defining feature of domestic politics and discourses as well notwithstanding that India is weaker compared to China in economic and military terms, and the margin in military capacities appears to be too big to be easily bridged, especially when the differing economic systems are considered," it added.
However, the commentary stated that from a Chinese perspective, the sustained assertiveness might emerge to be a counterproductive behavioural pattern as it will reiterate the necessity and urgency of security coordination for China-skeptical regional actors.
Nevertheless, it is the Chinese behaviour that will be the key variable in shaping the trajectory of the region in the years and decades to come "as increased Chinese assertiveness is likely to trigger further defensive responses, for instance in the form of bilateral security arrangements or the deepening of multilateral initiatives".