Last month, two important events occurred in Southeast Asia related to India's "Look East" policy. One event had direct input from India; the other was the doing of Myanmar's civilian-military junta.

Both events could be of major significance for India's emergence as a regional power. And they are tied to the two-decade-old "Look East" policy initiated by the late prime minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao.

Both developments generated quick and surprised reactions from China, pointing to its uneasiness over their implications.

India's Vietnam gambit

In mid-September, India dismissed Chinese objections over its oil exploration projects in two Vietnamese blocks in the disputed South China Sea, saying the cooperation with Vietnam was per international laws and would grow. Petro Vietnam (PVN) entered into a joint venture with ONGC to develop blocks 127 and 128 after ONGC bought BP's assets in the project in 2006.

China was upset because it alleges those two blocks lie in the area where it advances territorial claims over the Paracel and Spratley islands. Vietnam says China's objection to the PVN-ONGC joint venture is even more irrational than its claim to Spratley and Paracel. In the meantime, Vietnam president Truong Tan Sang made a maiden visit to India, pointing to enhanced Indo-Vietnamese ties.

The visit is intended to deepen Vietnam's strategic and defense ties with India. Vietnam seems determined to become a civilian nuclear power state. In early September, the Japanese government restarted talks with Vietnam for a 1 trillion yen ($13 billion) project to build two reactors in southern Vietnam. India has been talking about assisting Vietnam in the development of a civilian nuclear power programme for more than a decade.

India's new-found confidence

But more than the engagement with Vietnam, it is India's foray in the South China Sea that is significant. China has always made clear that it would object to exploration or any such activities by Vietnam, the Philippines or any of the other claimants of that general area. Over the last year or so, China has brought patrol boats and maritime vessels into the area to enforce its claim.

All this was known to India. It also knew that, like Tibet and Taiwan, the South China Sea is an extremely sensitive subject with China. Then why did India agree to a joint venture with PVN?

It seems an effort on India's part to get out of its South Asia cocoon and participate actively in Southeast Asia as a partner. This is an extraordinary development in the sense that such monumental decisions were not only wholly unexpected from the battle-fatigued Manmohan Singh government, but it is taking place in light of two other events.

The first is India's growing interaction with China, a giant neighbour of Vietnam, in many areas. The other is the signing of the India-Afghanistan strategic partnership that took place during Afghan president Hamid Karzai's recent visit to New Delhi. That agreement, if consummated, could bring India into Afghanistan in a big way, further antagonizing China's "all-weather" ally, Pakistan.

These are very important decisions indicative of a well-thought-out Indian strategy for incremental Indian activism in areas of interest and concern not only to India but also to the US. That New Delhi is in sync with Washington is likely.

US secretary of state Hillary Clinton told the Indian press that India's leadership will "help to shape" positively the future not only of South and Central Asia but also of the Asia Pacific. She urged New Delhi not just to "look East" but to "engage East."

Shift in Myanma

r The second boost to India's "Look East" or "Engage East" policy comes from Myanmar. Myanmar president Thein Sein's visit to India has been announced. Although former president General Than Shwe came to India last year, this visit is taking place in a significantly changed environment.

Myanmar is no longer a purely military regime; but it is not a full-fledged democracy either. Last November's elections ushered in a civilian government with an elected parliament under a new constitution. The reins of power, however, remain with the military.

Nonetheless, there are indications that Myanmar may discontinue with some old policies. For instance, Thein Sein told Myanmar Parliament that the $3.6 billion Myitsone dam construction will be stopped to respect the will of the people.

Construction of the dam project began in 2009. The project consists of seven dams. It would have been Myanmar's largest hydropower entity with the capacity to produce 6,000 megawatts of electricity.

Most of that power was to be sold to China, the main investor in the project. The dam site is located within the Mizoram-Manipur-Kachin rainforest region.

If completed, the project would have submerged pristine rain forest on an area the size of Singapore.

Myanmar's decision to call off the dam construction is a major step, involving the distinct possibility of antagonizing China. China is the major contributor to Myanmar's infrastructure development besides being an economic and military giant that shares a long border.

Those who oppose the dams claim that water releases from them would depend entirely on the electricity needs of buyers. All seven dams of the Irrawaddy Myitsone project would serve China's electricity requirements, not the downstream agricultural, transportation or health needs of Myanmar. Chinese engineers running the dams would decide how much water to release downstream and when, taking their orders from Beijing, not Naypidaw (the new Myanmar capital).

Not surprisingly, China immediately demanded an explanation for the halted project, warning of "legal issues". However, Myanmar's authorities have stuck to their decision, at least for now.

Myanmar would not deliberately set out to cause friction with China just as it would calibrate ties with India safeguarding Chinese interests. But this has produced a dichotomy within Myanmar in terms of its sovereignty.

It is now for India to actively seize the opportunity provided by Myanmar and "engage East."