A strategic shift in India's foreign policy that manifests India's genuine interest in strategic cooperation with Southeast Asian countries, and a change in Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) perception of India, which has emerged as major player in Asia, have strengthened the India-ASEAN relations in the post Cold War period. Connectivity is a key issue that has been widely discussed in the context of ASEAN - India integration. An integrated regional transport network between India and ASEAN would yield mutual economic benefits. The preferred strategy is to adopt a multi-modal approach encompassing different modes of transportation - land, maritime and air. Besides, New Delhi emphasises connectivity with ASEAN in all its dimensions - physical, institutional and people-to-people - as a strategic priority for India. Given the perspective of India's Northeast becoming a potential gateway to the South East Asia, India could focus on intra-region as well as trans-border connectivity. Low connectivity in India's Northeast is a major impediment to India-ASEAN integration. Initiatives like India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway - a critical portion of Asian Highway in Southeast Asia, KaladanMultimodal Transit Transport Project (KMTTP)and Mekong-India Economic Corridor (MIEC) can enhance India's strategic engagements with South East Asia.
India has turned to South East Asia to accelerate national economic development. Of late, South East Asia has become a pivotal foreign policy priority for the Indian government. It is worth recollecting that India embarked on a historic Policy of Economic Reforms in 1991 and subsequently on its Look East Policy (LEP) - a dynamic foreign policy initiative which sent out a strong and positive signal indicating the country's genuine interest in forging strategic and economic cooperation with South East Asian countries. The policy, referred to as LEP, aimed to enhance infrastructural development and expansion of transportation network in order to bring better connectivity to the Northeast region, with the twin objectives of a) providing better security and b) facilitating developmental process. However, since the inception of this initiative, there has been no significant and visible forward movement. This stagnation, therefore, has resulted in Prime Minister NarendraModi giving further impetus by kick-starting the innovative policy of 'Acting East', which is complementary to India's Asia Policy that seeks to galvanise relations with the economically vibrant region.
For ASEAN, better ties with India could increase the ASEAN member states' economic and political space, widen the balance of power in the region, forge a broader front against perceived western pressures, and create a partnership in trade and technology collaboration with India. In the given perspective, it is important that India's Northeast, which is strategically positioned vis-a-vis Southeast Asia, is properly secured and developed. Enhancing connectivity is crucial to deepening India's diplomatic, economic and cultural ties with the extended neighbourhood. India has advocated fast-tracking a host of connectivity projects that will accelerate regional integration and endorsed the Master Plan on ASEAN Plus Connectivity (MPAC).Geopolitical considerations dictate India to open up the North Eastern Region to South East Asia and capitalise on enhanced connectivity through land, water and air routes. The Act East Policy envisages that North East Region (NER) must be developed with adequate infrastructure and human resource capital in order to facilitate people-to-people contacts on social, cultural, academic and economic platforms. The idea is about physical connectivity to be complemented with soft connectivity.
The Northeast is a natural partner in India's 'Act East Policy', being our land bridge to Association for South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), and the Act East Policy is a means to strengthen the stability, economy and prospects of our North Eastern region. The Act East Policy can significantly factor in ending the geographical isolation of India's North Eastern Region and transforming it into a bridgehead for India to the booming ASEAN markets and its extended neighbourhood. Given the economic potential as well as the geo-political importance of the region vis-a-vis a dynamic South East Asia, New Delhi's perception of the North East has changed. The focus is now on economic development and addressing 'trust deficit'. The opening up of the landlocked NER economically to ASEAN countries and extended neighbours is considered as a potent means of conflict transformation. The fact that there is a growing people-to-people interaction and congruence of strategic interests as well will go a long way in the global effort to enhance regional integration. In essence, India chants the connectivity 'mantra' to galvanise relations with ASEAN and the extended neighbourhood. Connectivity is much more than geographical and physical. What sustains India's relations with ASEAN and its extended neighbourhood are (soft) 'cultural and spiritual connections, grounded in history and a shared civilisational space'. The aspect of economic linkages should be explored and nurtured to further strengthen ties and contribute in the development of the North-East region.
The Summit agenda will be structured around the following main themes:
▷ Trade & Investment
▷ Connectivity& Infrastructure Development
▷ Tourism Development in the Region
▷ Skill development, capacity building and entrepreneurship