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India and the East Asian community: Benfits of Engagement

I am delighted to share this podium especially with Dr.Subramanian Swamy,a respected and well known scholar of East Asia—China in particular—and Mr.N Ravi whose interest and knowledge of the East Asian economies is well known. And in many ways I am a bit nervous to be in the midst of such company and I have come here more to learn from them and others than pretend to offer any profound words of wisdom.

My topic for today is India and The East Asian Community:Benefits of Engagement—it is an extremely relevant issue,not just for India as it faces the challenges of the Asia Pacific as a global power but also for East Asia as it individually and collectively meets India in that part of the world and elsewhere.Along with the Benefits of Engagement come the challenges of that Engagement.

And more importantly,along with the challenges of engagement comes the issue of Managing the entire Engagement process. Very often in international relations and nation state behaviour we tend to talk about points of convergence and differences and painfully skip the issue of how to Manage a bilateral relationship,regional interactions and multilateral diplomacy.

Two decades ago,there were searching questions among academics and foreign policy practicioners on where exactly India fit into East Asia.In fact there were those policy makers in East Asia who even questioned whether India can be a part of the evolving East Asian scheme of things given where New Delhi was in its own foreign policy caliberations and on the then economic strength of India.

But twenty years down the line,even skeptics in East Asia and elsewhere will concede that India is a factor to be reckoned with in that part of the world given not only the transformation of the global and regional systems but also due to the rapid and consistent rise of economic India.Today India may not be a formal member of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Group but is fully entrenched economically,strategically and politically in the evolving East Asian scheme of things.

In fact an argument can be made that while the predominant aspect of India in East Asia is economic and should be that way,the political and the strategic calculations cannot be brushed off,however casual they may seem.

In looking at India and the East Asian Community and drawing the lessons of the benefits of engagement there is the real temptation to look it only in the perspective of China.But the challenge and opportunity for India in East Asia has to be seen beyond the economic power and military consolidation of the People’s Republic of China. India’s role in East Asia goes much beyond “matching” or rivaling Beijing’s forays in the region which includes the politically and strategically troublesome aspects of Taiwan.Given India’s geo-political standing in the international system,its growing relations with the United States,New Delhi will be playing an extensive and expansive role in that part of the world—not at the bidding of Washington– but in nurturing its own interests in that part of the world.

On the one hand it is very tempting to compartmentalize India’s relations in the Asia Pacific into narrower zones such as India and South East Asia and India and East Asia.But the larger question or issue for a student of international relations and of Asian political systems is if India’s relations with this part of the world or would have to take into account the larger part of the continent of the Asia Pacific. The rationale for looking at the larger picture stems from a realization and ground realities of India being now increasingly a global player in the international system thanks largely to its strong economic showing over the last decade.

But before one gets into a discussion of what is in Asia Pacific and the kind of role India should play or should not play or even a “can play” role one would have to take note of where the Asia Pacific has come from..Just take a look at where the region was some thirty years ago—the Vietnam War had slowly and painfully come to an end; the Cold War geo politics as it manifested in the tussle between the United States,China and the then Soviet Union was slowly becoming a thing of the past and some in Washington were thinking of “winding up” the show in Asia. But the threat of withdrawing to its “borders” did not materialize and for good reasons.

The fear and hysteria whipped up by some conservatives in the United States over “falling dominoes” in the event of defeat in Vietnam did not hold.If anything the so-called dominoes of South East Asia and the Pacific states of Australia and New Zealand became thriving economies to the point of become the main engines of growth in that part of the world..The notion that Japan will be the dominant economic force in the Asia Pacific also did not come about—China with its economic reforms of the Deng Xioping era started catching on;and if one takes a look at the modern era,it is China,not Japan that is seen as the main engine of growth in the Asia Pacific.But it would be quite premature to write off the role of Japan.

But while there was a strategic and economic shift in the Asia Pacific,politically the region showed little signs of changing.The argument that dictatorships would gradually be forced out is yet to happen even as there are signing of softening.But there are at least two regimes in this part of the world that are yet to show any minimal signs of change—North Korea and Myanmar,both countries that India will have to watch very carefully over the years and for different reasons.

To say that India has been a mute spectator to the goings on in the Asia Pacific is as wrong as it is naïve.New Delhi,long caught up in the rhetorics of the Cold War,has had to act to the fast and rapid changing events in the world;and this manifested itself even more urgently with the collapse of the Soviet Union.India had to come to terms with the forces of globalization:there was simply no choice by the late 1980s or even the beginning of 1990 and the impetus came via the economic route.

The economic reforms and the liberalizations put into effect by the then Narashima Rao government was initially taken with a large grain of salt in the Asia Pacific and East Asia. Fortunately the apprehensions were short lived for what came about in the 1990s was a clear statement from all parties in one fashion or another:that there is no going back on the reform process even if the pace was most certainly going to be dictated from within rather than succumbing to pressures from outside.In fact there were those in the Asia Pacific who quietly and privately applauded the deliberative fashion in which New Delhi went about in the context of the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997 especially as it pertained to the financial sector.

Thanks to the positive inputs from countries like Singapore India soon found itself in a number of constructive engagements in a region that had long been wary of India’s political and diplomatic past.The strategic partnership with Singapore aside,India is now a dialogue partner of the Association of South East Asian Nations(ASEAN),a participant in the ASEAN Regional Forum and a participant at the East Asian Summit.. There are some in India who are exercised over the fact that the country has not been invited to become a member of the APEC.The fact is that that Indian economic and political interaction with APEC is vibrant with many members of the organization. Further what is the use of a “membership” just for the sake of entering a club?

But what are the key links for India and East Asia if one is to even attempt talking of the benefits of engagement?.A discussion of India and East Asia is ridiculously incomplete if one were not to comment on the critical actors in the region namely Japan and China,two countries that India has varying degrees of interaction and in a number of fields.Once a East Asia powerhouse in its own right Japan is currently –and perhaps even for the last decade or so—weighed down on the economic front.But it is quite naïve to write Japan off from the evolving scheme of things in the Asia Pacific,strategically and economically.

Many in this august audience may not agree but I look at the relations between India and Japan as being curiously distant.It is distant in the sense of economics and trade but quite close in the realm of cultural and intellectual interactions.For a country that had long placed a premium on economics as the prime motivating agent in international politics,Japan had not been ready to deal with “bureaucratic” and “closed” India until the time of the economic reforms and liberalizations of the 1990s.And even thereafter,some would argue that Japan’s forays into India have only been half hearted and not having realized the fullest potential. Others then—including academics and diplomats—would make the point that numbers-wise Japan is next only to the United States in terms of economic and business interactions.

But looking down the line,say for the next decade or so,it is only apparent that both India and Japan are in for a strange mix of politics and business given the changes that are taking place in the international and regional systems.And this to a large extent is pegged to the kind of role New Delhi is slated to play globally and regionally;and in the possible expectations by Japan of India’s role in the immediate surroundings and beyond.And one such area is the guarding of the sea lanes and vital shipping routes by India,a task that has is being increasingly passed on to New Delhi as evidence of a growing stature in world politics.

And there is China—a country that India cannot overlook in East Asia and for a myriad of reasons.The challenge of China in East Asia for Indian policy and decision makers is not merely in keeping the pace of the turn of events but in effectively managing a relationship that is bound to have its twists and turns.In the very recent past there has been the tendency on the part of some including in the media to make it look as if something “dramatic” has been taking place and that too all of a sudden.With this a temptation in some quarters to paint a bleak forecast of where bilateral relations are heading.

To look at China as an “enemy” is as naïve as to look at that East Asian Giant only in a constructively interactive relationship. New Delhi has to look at Beijing not only for what it is as a major power in the international system with growing economic and military clout but also as the substantial regional power which has the ability to keep New Delhi on its toes all the time. In all this one would have to keep in mind that Beijing will be formulating policies certainly not with the objective of putting India at ease.

In all the noise being made about China what has been forgotten is that neither New Delhi nor Beijing can afford to have a confrontational attitude if the objective of the leaderships in the two countries is to stay on the path of greater economic growth and alleviation of poverty.But this does not in any fashion imply that the two countries will not have differences or would be jockeying for influence in their respective spheres.

In recent years Beijing has been worried about the growing ties between India and the United States and will have to be assured that this deepening of the bond between two democracies is not with the intent of “encircling” or “balancing” China,as the temptation may be in some quarters to see it that way.It is very difficult to see Indian leaders being manipulated or goaded into a line of action from the outside. But nevertheless apprehensions of New Delhi getting closer to Washington will be one of the prime interests of Beijing,and for good reasons.

By the same token New Delhi has every reason to be wary of China’s diplomatic and strategic forays in the immediate neighbourhood and has for long been deeply concerned about the dubious non-proliferation credentials of China vis-à-vis Pakistan,either directly or through North Korea.In recent years and months New Delhi has been looking at a degree of concern about China’s dealings in Myanmar (Burma) as also the “recent” Pakistan-China nexus in Sri Lanka.

Temptations are many in the discussion of India and East Asia but the absolute bottomline for New Delhi is only to work on India’s national and strategic interests and not get involved even in a peripheral fashion on what others might want India to do. The opportunities for successful engagement of the region of East Asia has many beneficial fallouts but the dangers of getting dragged into issues and problems that are not of direct Indian concern are many as well.Let me briefly get into a few of them:

· There is a view in some quarters that one way of India getting “tough” or “playing” tough with China is to wave the Taiwan card—that in my view would be so disastrous that it runs the risk of pushing back what little gains have been achieved over the years.

· A perception in parts of the Asia Pacific is some countries in the region are getting closer to India because of a desire to counter China.What needs to be borne in mind is that New Delhi is not in the region at the bidding of others. · Issues of the Taiwan Straits and of the Spratlys are best to be sorted out by those directed involved.

· North Korea has to be watched very carefully and only for the reason of its known dubious nuclear and missile proliferation links with Pakistan.In fact for all the “close” relations China has with North Korea,Beijing is not comfortable with the regime in Pyongyang with a nuclear potential sitting on top of its “head”.

· By way of conclusion I need not remind this learned audience of a basic principle of international relations and nation-state behaviour:there are no permanent friends,there are no permanent enemies,only permanent interests.And with this a reminder that Indian foreign foreign policy,unlike some of its neighbours,does not chase a single point agenda.

(Presented by Dr Sridhar Krisjnaswamy, Head of the School of Media Studies, SRM University, Chennai, at a seminar on “21st Century Asia -Emerging Symbiotic Relations among Japan, India, China and South Korea”, organised by the Indo-Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry, at Chennai on 7 November 2009)

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