Dr Pamreihor Khashimwo
With the changing ambience in domestic politics and foreign positioning of India, it is important to take a closer look at new developments in the Northeast region. The ‘Act East Policy’ (AEP) is an integral part of this new changing climate in the region. Northeast is not just a gateway to South East Asia but is an extended corridor for growth, progress and prosperity of India. Northeast region, particularly Manipur is a physical and strategic partner of India’s AEP while enhancing connectivity by land, air and sea to transforms corridors of connectivity into corridors of economic cooperation.
India’s relevance and influence in Southeast Asia regions were restricted for many decades, whilst Chinese influence keeps growing. Today it appears New Delhi has realised the strategic importance of the region, taking substantial positive steps towards building closer relationships. The so-called AEP passing through Northeast region has now become the centre of geo-economics and geopolitics, positioning Northeast at the heart of the AEP, whose three key features are connectivity, culture and commerce. The region is driving India’s AEP and if the region progresses, this will be able to lead a vast section of the population towards prosperity.
Besides, recognising that Northeast is tremendous importance as a land bridge to reach out to the rest of ASEAN countries. India’s Act East Policy in promoting economic engagement with neighbouring countries in Southeast Asia and simultaneously in propelling growth in the bordering Northeast Region. The instrumental role of AEP in bringing a tectonic shift in India’s foreign trade by redirecting the focus to the East, thus leading to a fundamental change in the nature of India’s economic interdependence.
India’s use of soft power while implementing the AEP, such as building upon common cultural ties, state visits, focusing on tourism and increasing connectivity, and people-to-people contacts with the ‘East’ through Northeast region. Common ties of Buddhism and culture, a shared history of colonisation etc. are used in the AEP rhetoric to build a sense of togetherness and strengthening ties with ASEAN countries, involving the Northeast on the national policy agenda. In this backdrop of history, politics, economics and connectivity in Northeast region and South East and East Asia, geo-economics and human capital of the Northeast region is one of the vital areas. The shift from the Look East Policy to the Act East Policy and focuses on the policy’s implication in the main thrust of the region: strategic importance, connectivity boost, and capacity building and skill enhancement.
Today India’s policy trajectory toward Northeast region is shifting. The AEP along with several initiatives launched by New Delhi for rapid economic development of the country ‘make in India, ‘Skill India’, ‘Digital India,’ promoting energy security, creating infrastructure, and building smart cities can be considered as a strategic plan to generate greater flexibility and political space to contend with the increasing confidence in the region. The two day ‘North East Development Summit,’ which was held on November 2017 at Imphal, is an effort to highlight and explore the potential of Northeast region in further launching itself as a centre of India’s AEP. Northeast is a natural partner in India’s ‘AEP, being a land bridge to ASEAN, and means to strengthen the stability, economy and prospects of the Northeast region.
Building infrastructure in Northeast region emerges as an important element in India’s engagement with South East Asian countries. This policy would certainly help growth, progress and development of people of the region. The AEP can significantly factor in ending the geographical isolation of the region and transforming it into a foothold for India to the booming ASEAN markets and its extended neighbourhood. Given the economic potential as well as the geopolitical importance of the Southeast Asia regions, Northeast region lies at the core of India’s AEP. The focus should be now on economic development and addressing ‘trust deficit’ of the region. Also, opening up of the Northeastern region economically to ASEAN countries and extended neighbours are consider as an effective means of conflict transformation in the region. The aspect of economic linkages should be explored and nurtured to further strengthen ties and contribute to the development of Northeast region.
However, unemployment and lack of opportunity are at the core of all issues in Northeast region. In the context of the reshaped India’s AEP, skills development among the Northeast youth, especially in service industries like Tourism & Hospitality, Retail and IT & IT-enabled services displaying a vital factors and given the paucity in all these sectors, it important to scans on whether New Delhi is moving from military engagement to socio-economic cooperation.
Northeast region urgently demands to take up initiatives skill training in the fields of Railways, Highways, Logistics and Warehousing, Cold Storage, renewable energy sector, Business Management and Banking & Finance, with the quality training of international standards, state-of-the-art infrastructure in the form of ‘Multi-Skill Training Centres.’ The Multi-Skill Training centres need to have ‘Language Labs’ to deliver training on Burmese, Mandarin, and other which will be of immense help in penetrating business and maintaining diplomatic relations with Myanmar and China. These levels of Skill Development and Employment plan can only be realized by developing an efficient and effective national Skill Mission.
There is a massive potential to create local enterprises and local employment in agriculture, horticulture, floriculture, food processing sectors, and renewable energy sector. If the trade & commerce boom in the region through connectivity with ASEAN and China, the youth of the region need to get skilled in relevant trades to support the cross-border trade and business. ‘Skill India’ mission can play a vital role in developing the youth of Northeast, changes that ‘AEP’ will bring to the region. Therefore, Northeast is logistically vital positioned for India to consider any activity in Myanmar and other ASEAN countries to compete with China. This is the potential that needs to be tap and this is the idea that must inspire. New Delhi’s approach to the development of the Northeast is a critical and speedy boost of connectivity is indispensable. It suggests both to connectivity within the region as well as to connectivity between India and Southeast Asian neighbours through the Northeast and the creation of infrastructure in the region.
The valid factor that supports and function that will add great impetus to India’s ‘AEP is Skill Development & Entrepreneurship in Northeast region. Besides, the Northeast region remains as the corridor for many trade and connectivity projects on the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal (BBIN) and the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) platforms. Thus, Northeast region is the true drivers of India’s AEP. There has been a misconception about the North-eastern states as being a “frontier” of India. But, South Asia and Southeast Asia are taken, as India’s foreign policy and trade hotspot, then the Northeast is right in the middle of it. The development of the Northeast region is a shared enterprise. The development of the Northeast is both the development of India and the true benchmark for India-ASEAN partnership. With the Trans-Asian Railway and the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral highway through Moreh in Manipur will further connect Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, to be known as East-West Economic Corridor. Kaladan-Multi-Modal Transit Transport will connect seaport of Kolkata with Sittwe seaport and then through Kaladan river route, from Palethwa (Myanmar) to the Northeastern state of Mizoram. India expects a massive boost in trade and commerce making Northeast region, the next big economic corridor connecting India to ASEAN and China.
In the light of this rapid development, New Delhi needs to develop an ambitious yet meaningful Skill Development and Employment Plan for Northeast youth, taking into account what development will take place at its international borders in the next 10 to 20 years. Locating the strategic importance of Northeast region: security and development, socio-economic implications, trade & investment, connectivity & infrastructure development, and tourism development in Northeast region. Skill development, capacity building and entrepreneurship would likely to bring out more clarity and better understanding, which help to adopt an urgent and effective approach to economic and connectivity in the region. The net result will be effective India’s Act East Policy in the Northeast region and Southeast Asia at large.