Locating Northeast Region in India’s Foreign Policy

 By Anuradha Oinam
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The Northeast Region (NER) of India, which comprises eight states, can attribute to strengthening two fundamental pillars of India’s foreign policy- India’s Neighbourhood First policy and India’s Act East Policy (AEP) [[i]]. Bordering with South Asian nations- Bhutan, Nepal and Bangladesh; southeast Asian nations (SEA) – Myanmar and most importantly, its adversary, China, NER of India has a lot to contribute not only in shaping India’s security strategy towards China but in also improving its relation either by economic or cultural diplomacy with other nations, especially SEA. The region further extrapolates its relation with Japan under the umbrella of Act East Forum (AEF), established in 2017 with the aim to develop NER by improving connectivity within the region and then with SEA[[ii]]. Sharing the common launch pad, India’s AEP and Japan’s ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ makes it possible to counter China’s regional dominance in the region. Further, by reinforcing India’s Neighbourhood First Policy and AEP with its immediate and extended neighbours, India will be able to confront China’s wolf warrior diplomacy in contemporary times. Therefore, it is undoubtedly said that India’s AEP results from a strategic shift in India’s foreign policy [[iii]], where NER plays a critical role.

From a neglected, conflicted and complex, fragile environment, the NER witnessed a gradual shift towards a progressive society. This can be exemplified by the partial revoke of the Armed Forces Special Power Act (AFSPA) from the Northeastern (NE) states in 2022. Instead of violence, guns and bombs, youths prefer to have a decent education and job opportunities for a peaceful and prosperous life. Given the potential of abundant resources, NER is the storehouse of talents. Focussing on market-oriented and economic gain, NER can come out as a trading zone for both South Asia and SEA, given the importance of its geo-political location and its enormous natural resource reserves. Unlocking the region’s potential in terms of fruits, agro-based products, plantation crops, horticulture, coffee, floriculture and other medicinal plants will attribute the economy and generate jobs for youths. In addition, the close-shared cultural value enjoyed by both the people of the NER and the people of SEA will further strengthen India’s relationship with the SEA.

One of the most pertinent to India’s security issues is the constant threat posed by China at LAC, including Arunachal Pradesh. China considers Arunachal Pradesh as “Zangnan”, Southern Tibet. Under its five-finger policy, China aims to control Arunachal Pradesh. Not only this, China has been supplying arms to the various insurgent groups of NER, which is detrimental to India’s national security. Therefore, it is high time; India must bring NER to the centre of its attention and implemented precautionary measures, be it a security issue or diplomatic relations with its immediate and extended neighbouring nations.

Meanwhile, for a developed and prosperous NER, New Delhi and the state government have started many developmental schemes, such as North East Industrial Development Scheme (NEIDS). Initiated in 2017, it aims to exploit the potential by industrializing the NE states, generating employment and people’s income.  Under Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojana 3.0, a number of polytechnic centres are set up to train youths to skill up: Arunachal Pradesh (14), Assam (21), Manipur (8), Meghalaya (4), Mizoram (6), Nagaland (8), Sikkim (2) and Tripura (3). So far, 83 Industrial Training Institutes (ITIs) and vocational and skill-based education institutions have been set up to create jobs [[iv]]. These training centres provide courses focussing on solar technology, bamboo industries, smart agriculture, smart cities, antique, agro-based commercial products, tourism-related training and so on [[v]].

Digital North East Vision 2022 emphasizes leveraging digital technologies to transform the people of NER and focuses on eight digital thrust areas- Digital Infrastructure, Digital services, Digital empowerment, Promotion of Electronics Manufacturing, Promotion of IT and ITEs, including BPOs, Digital Payments, Innovation &Start ups and Cyber security. Assurance was on mobile connectivity in all remote villages in the NER. Another long overdue initiative is the foundation of India’s first National Sports University [[vi]]. This will provide a platform for young buds to exploit their hidden talents in sports and excel in their respective fields.

HIRA model is one approach to improve Highways, Inland, Railways and Airways in the NER and further with the rest of India. The central government’s decision to link SEA through Asian Highway and the Trilateral Highway Project involving India, Thailand and Myanmar is yet to complete. This will enable the connection of the region with SEA and beyond. Under the Asian Highway Project, India plans to develop a traffic network to connect 38 Asian nations with Europe through Turkey [[vii]]. The locational advantage of NER is that the proposed Highway project would pass through (812 Km) of Manipur and Assam, connecting Thailand via Myanmar [[viii]].

The task of the North East Council (NEC) is amplified to improve the region’s security situation. Presently, it is taking charges to discuss inter-state issues such as drug trafficking, smuggling of arms and ammunition, boundary disputes etc., at various Zonal Councils levels. Thus, by improving the region, it can become the New Engine of India’s growth. This will develop not only the region’s economy but also strengthen India’s relations with its neighbours.

Currently, SEA has taken the central stage for geopolitics. High-level meetings such as the East Asian Summit, the G20 Summit and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum were held in Cambodia, Indonesia and Thailand, respectively. Therefore, now is a favourable time for India to reinforce its relationship with SEA nations, and it can be done through India’s AEP. Having a robust relationship with SEA, India can balance China’s offensive in SEA [[ix]] and its greater influence in the region. In addition, the recent augment in the development activities, and declining insurgency in India’s NER increases people’s hope for growth and prosperity. It will enhance the criticality of the region in the context of India’s AEP. Further, with the rise of China, the strategic importance of the northeastern state has increased manifold and must be exploited by Indian policy maker to a larger interest of northeastern states to balance China.

Endnotes

[i]“Northeast states are the link between two fundamental pillars of India’s foreign policy: Foreign secretary,NE NOW NEWS(2020) https://nenow.in/north-east-news/northeast-states-are-the-link-between-two-fundamental-pillars-of-indias-foreign-policy-foreign-secretary.html

[ii]India-Japan Sustainable Development Initiative for the North Eastern Region of India (2022), “Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India”, https://www.mea.gov.in/bilateral-documents.htm?dtl/34993/IndiaJapan+Sustainable+Development+Initiative++for+the+North+Eastern+Region+of+India

[iii]Nalanda Roy (2022), “Is India Retreating from its Act East to Act Indo-Pacific Policy?”, Jstorhttps://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/27146666.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3Ad5bd4e36bc421c2b42818c344c58f50f&ab_segments=&origin=&acceptTC=1

[iv] Skilling the youth of Northeast India for employment, 22 September 2021, The Sentinel of this land, for its People, https://www.sentinelassam.com/topheadlines/skilling-the-youth-of-northeast-india-for-employment-556507

[v]Ibid

[vi] Government Initiatives in North Eastern region during 201, “Press Information Bureau”, https://blogs.pib.gov.in/blogsdescrI.aspx?feaaid=4

[vii] Monoj Kumar Nath (2004), “Mapping north east on India’s foreign policy : looking past, present and beyond”, The Indian Journal of Political Science , Oct.-Dec., 2004, Vol. 65, No. 4, https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/41856081.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3A9d84464ceaa79c2ecc8768ee91da35c6&ab_segments=&origin=&acceptTC=1

 

[viii] Ibid

[ix] “How China is Trying to Take Over Southeast Asia”, Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mm6asCG-Wx4