To ‘Act East’ effectively requires India to ‘Learn East’

In order to effectively “Act East” we must first try to “Learn East” once again to rediscover the opportunities for prosperity that lie therein, writes By Amb Sarva Chakravarti (retd) for South Asia Monitor


India’s 'Look East' policy was enunciated in 1992 by then Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao. The 'Look East' policy helped over the years to significantly deepen and diversify our links and operational frameworks with the ASEAN and its members at the formal level, creating numerous agreed frameworks and platforms at pan-ASEAN and bilateral levels to underpin and support wider entrepreneurial and civil society interactions.

However, these were not utilized to their full potential by the target groups. Hence, the paradigm shift in 2014 from 'Look East' to 'Act East'. The 'Act East' policy was announced at the 12th India-ASEAN Summit in 2014.  It conveyed a clear intent on the part of India to up-scaling its engagement with the ASEAN member States. The 'Act East' policy emphasizes Connectivity, Commerce, and Culture as the focus areas of action for a greater ASEAN-India integration.

But the eastern seaboard of India has been not just looking but acting east for millennia. Acting East thus comes naturally to the people of eastern India. However, colonial rule destroyed the Indian shipbuilding industry and maritime activities, disrupting these ancient links. The post-independence foreign policy gave greater emphasis to western and even global links while downplaying regional interactions; so it is only since 1992 that the people of India were once again exhorted to 'Look East' again.

Premised on the natural geographical connectivity and contiguity, particularly between eastern and northeast India on the one hand and Southeast Asia on the other, the successful implementation of this policy catapults eastern India into the center of gravity of the 'Act East' policy.

Who will 'Act East'? All of us in India stand to benefit eventually from the opening of new opportunities in other lands. However, the leaders of that movement will be scholars and researchers, opinion-makers and influencers from eastern India upon whom falls the responsibility of exploration and discovery. Travel is a key function for it, for tourism, education, professional pursuits and, even, medical treatment. Intelligent use of India’s cultural affinities and soft power capability will make us new friends, help discover what we can do together and so flourish in unison and even in tandem.

The more substantive engagement will be of our entrepreneurs and traders, who may explore and establish new markets for Indian goods and bring back new treasures in technology and techniques, goods and services from eastern lands.  So in effect all civil society, as well as governments of the states and Centre, are stakeholders and they must take responsibility to play their roles effectively to restore and expand India’s footprint in eastern Asia. However, to succeed we must increase our awareness, knowledge, and understanding of the region. Therefore, I would like to propose here the insertion of a new phase in the process of transition from 'Look East' to 'Act East', i.e., 'Learn East'.

Knowledge is power. In order to effectively 'Act East' we must first try to 'Learn East' once again to rediscover the opportunities for prosperity that lie therein. We must take a greater interest in the lands and peoples to the east of us,  in the northeast of India, Bangladesh, the ASEAN region and beyond: to learn their languages, cultures and society, their capabilities, achievements, wants and needs, to identify and fulfill those we can provide for mutual benefit and profit. This requires investment in the study to acquire knowledge and undertake analysis of each territory. Learning languages is an easy and interesting way to begin. Each language learned opens up a new world, a new society, and its culture, enabling communication and mediation necessary to create friendships and partnerships that open new opportunities for fulfillment and prosperity. The fact that many of these eastern languages are based on Sanskrit roots and Bengali or Roman scripts should make it far easier for us to acquire fluency in.

To promote Indian exports/investment into the BIMSTEC/ASEAN countries, our exporters, entrepreneurs and potential investors must take the market risks. To do this they need to be equipped with deep accurate and current knowledge of the target markets that they plan to enter, penetrate, establish themselves, and eventually become significant players. Only research and study can develop a deep understanding of the countries concerned and their operational motives, modes and systems, languages, social mores  and practices, in developing cultural and business mediators who can help our entrepreneurs, service providers, and investors engage more easily and effectively with their overseas counterparts to create lasting business partnerships to mutual benefit. Studies must be done and kept continually updated both of the collective trade and investment regimes of each bloc as well as of India’s export potential to each member State. These studies must identify not just the revenue potential but also the cost/liability profiles for investment, the risk levels, and means for their mitigation.

'Acting East', effectively, therefore, needs concerted and sustained action by all stakeholders to facilitate Indian economic engagement, market development, risk mitigation, and value realization to maximize  revenue earning  by India from exports of goods and services as well as investment in the territories and creation of/ entry into value and supply chains which ensure the steady and incremental business with BIMSTEC and ASEAN, both as collective entities as well as with their member States individually. An example of possible action points by each the stakeholder group is given below:

Action points for stakeholders in ‘Acting East':


Promote teaching of ASEAN studies and languages

Promote ASEAN opportunities in placement and career counseling

Develop and utilize institutional links with ASEAN universities

Promote research in ASEAN subjects in all possible disciplines

Develop systems to broadcast MOOC and other courses to ASEAN region


Analyze ASEAN import basket data by sector, country and value

 Analyze ASEAN import standards- compare with BIS standards

Analyze ASEAN import  price data

Identify strength areas  in Eastern India

Establish a list of Indian exportables by sector and HS Codes

Establish relative competitiveness of Indian goods on CIF ASEAN ports basis

Develop a cadre of Interpreters & translators of ASEAN languages in Kolkata

Analyze discussions and reports emanating from ASEAN fora and disseminate emerging opportunities


Establish active relationships with ASEAN counterparts

Support Indian Missions and trade offices to disseminate our export capabilities

Analyze the upgrading needs of competitive items to meet import standards at competitive rates

Analyze import packaging types and standards for bulk imports, wholesale and retail sale

Develop a sector-wise database for exporters

Develop goods according to ASEAN traditions and cultural norms

Train exporters in ASEAN business culture & practices

Develop e-commerce targeted at ASEAN countries

Develop non-traditional exports such as in education, skill development, art, floriculture

Collective trade promotion in ASEAN trade fairs through ITPO/FICCI etc.

Develop/activate institutional links with ASEAN counterparts

Establish Eastern CEOs Forum with ASEAN


Liaise with Indian missions and trade offices in ASEAN countries

Create database and advisories on export opportunities and compliance needs for exporters

Ensure equivalence of product/service standards and quality assurance

Analyze the upgrading needs of Indian facilities for processing, packing and labeling exportables

Establish technical, financial and infrastructure requirements for upgrading facilities

Create proposals for sustainable  private sector investment in such upgradation

Establish air cargo hub at Durgapur-Andal airport

Group export warehousing, processing, packaging labeling and shipment facilities through the airport

Pre-shipment inspection services to ensure compliance with importer standards

Publicity and Marketing of Indian exportables in ASEAN under Biswa Bangla/ NER rubrics

Ease the export of educational services by State and private universities

Facilitate full utilization of foreign student quota

Ensure upkeep of foreign student facilities at acceptable international standards

Ensure international standards of hospitality services

Provide trade and tourism information

Ensure the safety and security of travelers with dedicated distress response services


Promote business advisory services for ASEAN markets

Establish model contracts for different business operations based on bilateral compliance needs

Establish and publicize financial services available & requirements for dealing with each country

Establish inter-operable accounting practices and standards

Optimize effective dissemination and use of lines of credit and international project financing

Develop SOPs, marketable studies and handholding systems

Speedy arbitration and dispute resolution mechanisms

Promote engineering and technical service exports, particularly to CMLV


Establish and publicize regional multimodal transport and shipping services and operators from WB ports

Create air cargo and passenger services including air ambulance

Create a packaging and palletizing services to international standards


Tourism and hospitality promotion - Buddhist Heritage tours etc.

Art and Cultural promotion to create brand Bengal awareness

Sponsor ASEAN cultural events in India and vice versa


Carry stories of ASEAN opportunities and market developments

Develop weblogs and sites

Carry ASEAN TV Channels on cable networks

Promote carriage of Indian broadcasting on ASEAN networks

(The writer is a former Indian ambassador. He can be contacted at