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Act East policy comes alive

| | in Oped

Having signed the Naga peace deal and resolved the Bangladesh border issue, New Delhi must focus on the Bay of Bengal regional initiative and the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar corridor to improve ties with South-East Asia

Recent times have seen India shoring up its regional integration efforts through a different kind of diplomatic détente approach. Gestures of the Union Government not only re-affirm India’s intent of maintaining vigorous and proactive engagement with its South Asian and Southeast Asian neighbours, but also shows a move towards translating the Act East policy to action in the East.

Though there is a caveat: The Union Government needs to integrate the North-East in its Act East policy for successful integration with its eastern neighbours. Domestically, the North-East plays a vital role in enhancing India’s economic connectivity to the countries of Southeast Asia but has been left rather underdeveloped over the years due to repeated instances of insurgencies and admittedly, Government negligence.

However, the recent draft treaty signed between the Government of India and the National Socialist Council of Nagaland has refreshed hopes of ending the oldest insurgency in the Indian history. For years altogether, the region witnessed continual Naga struggle for a separate homeland. A number of efforts such as the Hydari agreement of 1947, the creation of a separate Nagaland State in 1963 and the 1975 Shillong Accord were made to resolve the ever-growing conflict but to no positive result.

In this light, the breakthrough in talks between the erstwhile antagonistic Government of India and the NSCN (IM), leading to signing of the peace accord is the first major step taken by this Government towards achieving sustained peace in the North-eastern States.

While the Government’s peacemaking efforts need to be hailed, the secrecy of the accord is being questioned and it has not gone down well with the stakeholders, including the Naga civil society organisation and the Congress-ruled States of Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh. The support of all regional stakeholders is imperative to achieve the desired result of the peace accord.

Another step aimed at bolstering regional integration can be witnessed at India’s eastern neighbourhood. India and Bangladesh recently signed the land boundary agreement, which formalises the once erratic boundary between the two countries. The previous informal line had left 111 Indian enclaves in Bangladesh and 51 Bangladeshi enclaves in India, relatively ignored along the 4,100 km border. This agreement has reversed those historical errors. The LBA is not just a diplomatic win for both the states, but has significant humanitarian consequences as well. However, the economic implications of these two peace-oriented developments are three-fold.

First, the successful negotiation of India-Bangladesh LBA and signing of the peace accord are important steps towards bilateral co-operation and would have positive effects on regional integration in South Asia and Southeast Asia. Connectivity is the key to regional integration here.

It is important for India to invest in infrastructural development projects in the North-East region and beyond its borders. At a strategic level, the proposed Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar corridor is bound to bring India and Bangladesh closer and will enhance bilateral relations relating to trade and movement of goods.

BCIM economic corridor is also very important as it places the North-East as a crucial link to achieve regional economic cooperation via land of the North-Eastern region. Complementing this, the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation can also act as a good framework for regional integration.

BIMSTEC can open up ample trade and economic opportunities between India’s neighbours like Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh and also with the countries of The Association of Southeast Asian Nations like Myanmar and Thailand.

Second, this diplomatic détente is important for India to keep a check on the influence of China in the region. Driven by increasing investments of China in Bangladesh, particularly in the development of Chittagong port, the Union Government has also planned to step up its investment with plans to build a transit trade port in Paira in Bangladesh. This new agreement may not pave way, but will certainly smoothen relations towards such investment.

Third, the beginning of peace initiatives along the borders and in the North-East region paints an optimistic picture for development of the region that has a long history of violence and insurgency. While the terms and conditions of the final treaty are still not public, the assurance that there will be no re-drawing of borders should relieve the critics of the accord.

This accord may finally boost economic connectivity and development of the State as a comprehensive security paradigm while reducing the risk of militant violence that has plagued the area for decades. 

To conclude, the road ahead for India is clear: The approach towards broader regional economic integration has to take into consideration the process of cohesion of North-East and other Eastern neighbours.

(Afaq Hussain is the Director and Riya Sinha is a Research Assistant at Bureau of Research on Industry and Economic Fundamentals, New Delhi)

 
 
 
 
 
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