Trade as Peace – An interplay of Geography, History and Politics 

Part II - What does this mean for the Act East Policy?

India launched its Look East Policy, at the end of the Cold War, as a geostrategic horizontal initiative to cultivate relationships in the Asia-Pacific region. While it has since transitioned to the Act East Policy (AEP), the global landscape over the last three decades is changing rapidly. For instance, during this period we have experienced the global shift from a bipolar world to a brief unipolar world. Now we live in a multilateral world dominated by various middle-level powers, each different from the other, yet each seeking to assert and establish their own spheres of influence.

Amid these 21st century transitions and interchanging power dynamics across the world, we are witnessing how technology and communication is transforming our interactions with human beings and between countries. It even shapes our behavioural patterns, our attitudes towards each other, our likes, and dislikes. By enabling greater interconnectedness and interdependency among more and more people, geography seems to have shrunken. 

Despite increasing interdependency, humanity across all cultures, nations, and countries is becoming fragmented with unprecedented social, economic, ecological, spiritual, and cultural challenges. These conditions complicate ways of finding solutions to common problems. In October 2022, the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, warned of the “risk of geopolitical fragmentation, as geopolitics turn into geo-economics with negative impacts,” and pointed out the fundamental shift of a world moving from “relative predictability and stability, to greater uncertainty and volatility.”

How does one understand what this means for the AEP and, more specifically, the geographical space called the North East, which is defined as the ‘gateway’ to the East. This question is even more acute since Burma is India’s only land connection with South East Asia, and therefore at the intersection of the AEP. This contiguous land-linked region from the Siliguri Corridor to the Thai-Burma border is home to diverse peoples and groups, each with its own history, politics, and geography. Tragically, many of them have been living in crisis for decades which stems from unresolved political questions that have gone addressed for far too long, thereby leading to conflict and militarization throughout the region. 

Experience demonstrates that this region is victim of a band aid approach to managing crises. Under these conditions, the wound only becomes more septic and cannot heal because it has been covered without addressing the core issues. Evidence of the band aid approach can be seen in the spectrum of current situations that range from relative peace, ceasefires, political negotiations, and peace agreements on one hand, to active conflict and violence on the other. In essence, the region is entrapped in a protracted condition of neither war, nor peace. While, at times, the crisis may seem manageable, and at other times spirals out, the broader question is: How long will the state of frozen crisis continue? 

AEP’s policy to establish access and cooperation with South East Asia and East hinges on the four pillars of Culture, Commerce, Connectivity and Capacity-building. From a macro perspective, the government, through a state-centred approach to security and development, is emphasizing rapid infrastructure development and logistical expansion in terms of connecting through air, sea, river, and land. These are seen as crucial factors in enhancing connectivity and building an interconnected ecosystem within North East, as well as between North East and South East Asia through Burma. 

However, the interplay of history, politics and geography ensures that some old problems remain and new ones emerge. How much of AEP’s vision and aspiration is shared by the people for whom the policy is being envisioned and implemented is yet to be ascertained. With development models often detached from the lived experiences of ordinary people, there are structural and functional challenges inherent in the policy. Some challenges include: environment destruction, displacement of people, unchecked cross border migration, loss of livelihoods for small scale farmers and traders, increased risk of human trafficking, flow of drugs and weapons, land ownership issues and the risk of losing traditional rights over lands and resources. Furthermore, inequity exists regarding access to resources which means only a few gain while the average person or family do not benefit from the new economic opportunities. 

Given the cultures and histories of the North East, as well the countries to the East, the Act East Policy needs to sincerely explore and invest in seeking non-Westphalian solutions to consolidate a forward-looking pathway to the future. The leaders of the North East need a new imagination and the political courage to ensure that the region is not just a gateway, but becomes a creative geographical space that stimulates a transformative framework to create peaceful and just structures. This means adopting a people-centred approach anchored on values, inclusive rights, and aspirations to foster cultural interactions, global commerce, technological innovations, and social and political change. Only then can the AEP meaningfully contribute to a future of peace for present and future generations of the North East.