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India's Strategic Thrust in S.E.Asia –Before & After 9/11

(A keynote speech delivered by B.Raman on March 26,2008, at an international seminar on INDIA-SOUTHEAST ASIA: STRATEGIC CONVERGENCE IN THE 21ST CENTURY organised from March 26 to 28,2008, by the CENTRE FOR SAARC STUDIES of the Andhra University, Visakhapattnam (Vizag) )

In recent years, the expression ‘strategic’ to characterise relations between nations has been used somewhat widely and somewhat loosely. The characterisation ‘ strategic relationship’ has certain defining connotations. Firstly, there is a connotation in time—-strategic as against tactical,long-term as against short-term and enduring as against ephemeral.Secondly, it is a relationship based on perceptions of common interests and not on perceptions of mutual utility. Thirdly, it is a multi-dimensional relationship with many points of focus—-political, economic, mutual security, ideological affinity etc. Fourthly, a strategic relationship is a quid pro quo relationship and not one based on feelings of charity or benevolence.

2.It is often said that India has no strategic culture and that strategic thinking does not go into its policy-making. This is wrong. The decision of free India’s founding fathers to create a genuinely democratic state in India despite the constraints likely to be imposed by democracy on its economic development was itself the result of strategic thinking. The evolution of India’s domestic as well as external policies has greatly benefited from the vision and long-term thinking of its past political leadership and policy-makers—political as well as bureaucratic. India today is toasted as an emerging power, a power to be reckoned with in policy-making at present and in future. The foundations for this emergence were laid by the visions of its past policy-makers. A nation and a power without a strategic culture and thinking drifts. India has never been a drifting nation or power. It is a nation which knows where it wants to go and how to go there.

3.Since its independence in 1947, democratic India has had a succession of Prime Ministers. Some of them were in power only for a short while. Hence, their impact on policy-making was of only limited significance. There were others, who stayed in power longer, and hence, were able to make significant contributions to strategic thinking and policy-making. Through his policy of non-alignment, Jawaharlal Nehru enabled India to play an important role in the global arena despite its then limited economic and military potential. During the initial Cold War years, developing and non-aligned India played a more influential role in the world stage than a militarily and economically strong China has been able to do today. Nehru proved that a moral stature for a nation is as important as a military or an economic stature. Power projection and assertion of national interests in India’s immediate neighbourhood were the defining characteristics of the legacy of Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and Atal Behari Vajpayee. Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh imparted new thinking to policy making and underlined the economic dimension of policy-making—whether internal or external— and gave a new geographic focus to India’s policy-makers.

4. To Narasimha Rao, who was the Prime Minister between 1991 and 1996, should go the credit for enlarging the geographic orientation of India’s external policy. He took India’s policy-makers out of the morass of South Asia where they had got stuck for some years and beckoned them to look to South-East and Central Asia as new playing fields for India of the future. He similarly took India out of the morass of its Arab-centric Look West policy and beckoned India’s policy-makers to look to Iran as a compatible power of the future. His perception that there was more in common between secular India and Shia Iran than between secular India and an increasingly Wahabised Arab world laid the foundation for his Look to Iran policy.

5. Since Narasimha Rao gave his Look East orientation to India’s external policy, its evolution has passed through three phases. During the first phase between 1992 and 1998, the new orientation was welcomed by the countries of the region, but their welcome was tinged with skepticism as to whether the new orientation would be ephemeral or enduring. Despite this understandable skepticism, there was progress in the political and security-related fields. India got increasingly associated with the ASEAN and the Asean Regional Forum (ARF). The new orientation took place at a time when Singapore, a small State, was facing increasing difficulties in finding space and facilities for the training of its Armed Forces. It was also looking for opportunities for joint exercises for its Armed Forces. They were, of course, exercising with their counterparts in the UK, the US, Australia and New Zealand, but they wanted to widen their experience in the Asian context.

6.The new orientation also took place at a time when Malaysia, under the Prime Ministership of Dr.Mahatir Miohammad, had embarked on an exercise for the diversifcation of its external sources of procurement of military equipment—particularly for its Air Force. It showed increasing interest in the procurement of Russian planes and other equipment. It wanted to tap and did tap on India’s long experience with Soviet and Russian military equipment in matters such as the reliability of the equipment, training in the use of the equipment, assistance for their maintenance etc. Boris Yeltsin’s Russia too encouraged Malaysia to look up to India for the handling and maintenance of the Russian equipment.

7. While the political and security-related dimensions of the strategic relationship thus recorded some progress during the first phase, disappointment was in store in respect of the economic dimension. The initiation of the Look East policy by Narasimha Rao coincided with the initiation of economic reforms. Well-calibrated liberalisation and globalisation became the defining charateristics of the new economic policy. India’s Look East policy created some excitement in Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand more because of its likely economic benefits for South-East Asia than for any other reason.Singapore was already enjoying an infrastructure bonanza in China. Singapore and Malaysia entertained high hopes of a similar bonanza from an investor-friendly India. Thailand was looking for co-operation in the field of inland water prawn culture, which was taken up on a big scale in Tamil Nadu.

8. Their expectations were belied. Malaysia’s hopes for big orders for road and port development did not materialise. Singapore’s efforts to associate itself, along with the Tatas, with projects for the modernisation of India’s civil aviation infrastructure were rebuffed. The ambitious project for inland prawn culture was given up due to fears of its likely adverse impact on agricultural production. As a result of their disappointing experience, they concluded that India was not China and that India had miles to go before it could ever catch up with China. In their perception, whereas in China decisions at the party and Government headquarters in Beijing were implemented without reservations and foot-dragging at all subordinate levels, in India there was foot-dragging at many levels, thereby making implementation a painfully tardy process.

9. China was not a factor during this first phase. No conflict of interest between India and China in this region was in the horizon. The welcome accorded by the countries of the region to India’s Look East policy was not influenced by any negative perceptions of China in their mind. They welcomed India for its own sake and not as a possible counter to China.

10. The second phase was marked by India”s nuclear tests of 1998 and the adverse reactions to them in the rest of the world, particularly in the US and China. The reactions from China were particularly virulent as a result of the action of Shri Vajpayee in citing India’s concerns over the Chinese nuclear capability as the reason for the tests in a secret letter addressed to the then US President Mr.Bill Clinton. The White House leaked out the contents of this letter to an American newspaper thereby creating embarrassment for Shri Vajpayee. Concerns over the Indian nuclear tests and China’s adverse reaction to them brought a pause in the developing relations between India and the major countries in South-East Asia except Singapore, which took them in its stride and did not allow them to affect its positive perception of India. Fortunately, this pause was of a short duration and was overtaken by the 9/11 terrorist strikes in the US.

11. The third phase of the evolution started on 9/11. Of all the countries in Asia, barring Israel, India has the richest experience in counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism. Before 9/11, the countries of the region—-even Singapore— avoided any co-operation with India in the field of counter-terrorism lest they get involved in what they saw as the India-Pakistan slanging match on this issue. They also viewed Indian evidence of the involvement of Pakistani intelligence agencies and Army in fomenting terrorism against India and regarding the presence and activities of various jihadi terrorist groups from Pakistani territory as partly motivated propaganda. India was not taken seriously on the subject of terrorism.

12. This perception changed dramatically after 9/11. As evidence started coming in to show that the 9/11 terrorist strikes in the US had been planned and co-ordinated from the Afghanistan-Pakistan region by Al Qaeda and its associates, thereby corroborating what India had been saying about the role of Pakistan in fomenting jihadi terrorism, Indian evidence was treated with greater respect than before 9/11. The discovery of some sleeper cells of the pro-Al Qaeda Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia in the beginning of 2002 and the Bali explosion of October,2002, further strengthened the credibility of India and its terrorism experts. After 9/11, Indian security and terrorism analysts became much valued participants in fora such as those of the Council on Security Co-operation Asia-Pacific (CSCAP) and their views and assessments were heard with attention.

13. In the field of counter-terrorism, India acquired a further value addition when evidence emerged from the interrogation of Al Qaeda terrorists arrested in different countries that Al Qaeda was planning a major act of maritime terrorism in one of the choke points in order to cause a major disruption of global trade and energy supplies. The Malacca Strait being the most important choke point in this region, its protection from possible depredations of terrorists and pirates became a subject of great priority not only for the member-countries of the ASEAN, but also for China, Japan, Australia and the US.

14. As this threat loomed large, apart from the US, India was the only country with the required naval capability to prevent it. As the US Navy was preoccupied with providing naval and logistics support to its operations in Afghanistan and subsequently in Iraq from 2003, it was not in a position to divert adequate resources for maritime security in this region. The Indian Navy and Indian experts in maritime security and maritime counter-terrorism started playing an active role in maritime security. In 2002, the Indian Navy was even requested by the US to escort the ships of the US Navy as they transited the waters of this region on their way to the Persian Gulf area from the Pacific and back. Before 9/11, India’s security related co-operation with the countries of this region was more static in the form of assistance in training, joint exercises and equipment maintenance. After 9/11, the co-operation became more active in the form of increased patrolling, co-ordinated patrolling with the navies of some countries etc.

15. The US not only nudged India into playing a more active role in maritime security in this region, but also encouraged other countries of the region to drop their reservations and concerns over an increased Indian role. For the first time since India initiated its Look East policy in the early 1990s , China started showing signs of unease over the increased activities of the Indian Navy in the waters of this region. Its unease was further aggravated by the interest evinced by the US in godfathering an active role for India. The co-ordinated operations by the navies of India, the US and Australia for providing disaster and humanitarian relief after the Tsunami strike in Indonesia and Sri Lanka in December,2004, was seen by China as possibly heralding an informal naval alliance in the making. Its concerns were further enhanced by the talk of a concert of democracies involving India, the US, Japan and Australia. The joint naval exercise by the Navies of India, the US, Japan, Singapore and Australia in September,2007, in the Bay of Bengal was another development of major concern to Beijing. It started taking seriously some articles appearing in the media in India and elsewhere about an Asian NATO in the making.

16. Beijing started strongly suspecting that the emerging Indo-US naval co-operation in the South-East Asian region and what it saw as the US-sponsored role of India in maritime security, with specific reference to maritime counter-terrorism, were actually meant to counter the growing Chinese power behind a facade of co-ooperation in counter-terrorism. India’s repeated attempts to allay these concerns have not met with success. Fortunately, till now, China has not allowed these concerns to affect its bilateral relations either with India or the US or the ASEAN countries. The ASEAN countries too have not allowed China’s concerns to affect their developing strategic relations with India.

17.The latest phase has also seen the economic dimension of the strategic relationship acquiring greater importance than in the first two phases. According to the Directorate-General of Commercial Intelligence and Statistics (DGCIS), Kolkata, India’s exports to the ASEAN countries increased from US$ 10.41 billion in 2005-06 to US$ 12.56 billion in 2006-07, a growth of 20.67 per cent. India’s imports from the ASEAN countries increased from US$ 10.88 billion in 2005-06 to US$ 18.08 billion in 2006-07, a growth of over 66 per cent. The ASEAN has a huge trade balance of about US $ six billion in its favour. The ASEAN accounted for 9.49 per cent of India’s imports and 9.95 per cent of India’s exports during 2006-07. This figure is likely to grow up further after the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between India and the ASEAN is finalised and implemented, hopefully later this year. The total value of the two-way trade amounted to US $ 30.64 billion , which was almost equivalent to the total value of India’s two-way trade with China. At the 6th India-ASEAN summit in Singapore in November 2007, India proposed to enhance the bilateral trade with the ASEAN countries to a target of US$ 50 billion by 2010.

18.Bilateral trade between Singapore and India grew by 31 per cent in 2006-07 to US $ 11.49 billion from US$ 8.7 billion in 2005-06. Indian firms have started looking to the Singapore Stock Exchange for fund raising and listing. The SGX became a shareholder in the Bombay Stock Exchange in March 2007. 659,000 Indian tourists visited Singapore in 2006, the fourth largest national group.Singapore was the third largest foreign investor in India in 2006-07, investing over US$ 321 million. Singapore is an increasingly valued investor in the real estate sector in South India. By June 2007, about 2,000 Indian companies had set up offices in Singapore.In 2005, India and Singapore signed a Comprehensive Economic Co-operation Agreement (CECA), an integrated package comprising a free trade agreement, a bilateral agreement on investment promotion and protection, an improved double taxation avoidance agreement and a work programme for cooperation in healthcare, education, media, tourism, customs, e-commerce, intellectual property, and science and technology.

19.Malaysia came next.The total trade with Malaysia increased 88.2 per cent from US$ 3.57 billion in 2005-06 to US$ 6.72 billion in 2006-07. The trade balance was heavily in favour of Malaysia—-with India’s imports from Malaysia amounting to US$ 5.28 billion, while exports were US$ 1.44 billion. Malaysia is stated to be among the top 10 foreign investors in India, but exact figures are not available. Indonesia was the third with a total two-way trade of US$ 6.21 billion in 2006-07, a growth of over 44 per cent from US$ 4.3 billion in 2005-06. But the investment flow from Indonesia has been insignificant.Thailand was the fourth with a total two-way trade of US $ 3.14 billion in 2006-07 as against US $ 1.22 billion in 2000-01. The investment flows have been in the reverse direction with increasing Indian investments in the gems and jewellery sector in Thailand.Vietnam was the fifth with a total trade of US$ 1.15 billion in 2006-07, an increase of 40.26 per cent over the previous year. This included Indian exports of US$ 982.5 million and imports of US$ 171.53 million.

20.Myanmar was the sixth .The total trade increased from US$ 636.66 million in 2005-06 to US $ 917.15 million in 2006-07, a growth of 44.1 per cent. India’s exports were worth US$ 139.2 million and imports US$ 777.95 million.India is Myanmar’s fourth largest trading partner after Thailand, China and Singapore. It is also Myanmar’s second largest export market after Thailand. . India is involved in several river and land-based projects in Myanmar such as the reconstruction of the Settwe port in the Arakan area, the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transport project, the Tamu-Kalewa-Kalemyo road project and the India-Myanmar gas pipeline project. In this upswing of trade and economic relations between India and the ASEAN countries during the third phase, the Philippines, Brunei, Laos and Cambodia have not figured significantly. The reasons for this are not clear.

21.More than two million tourists from India travelled to the ASEAN countries during 2006-07 in comparison to 280,000 ASEAN tourists who travelled to India. A study of the impact of terrorism on tourist traffic to South-East Asia made in November,2002, showed that while the Bali explosion of October,2002, resulted in large-scale cancellations of hotel and air bookings from the West and Australia, there were very few cancellations from India. The lesson: Indian tourists are not as nervous and panicky as their Western counterparts and , hence, are more dependable as a source of revenue.

22.. India’s relations with Myanmar are in a class apart. The underlying motive is partly to benefit from its energy resources, partly to enlist its co-operation in counter-insurgency in India’s North-East and partly not to leave the field open to China. However, despite Indian assistance to Myanmar in various fields including in respect of the sale of Myanmar’s much-needed military equipment, India’s political influence over the military junta is not comparable to that of China.One saw it in the aftermath of the widespread demonstrations by the monks and students all over Myanmar last year. The Junta was more amenable to suggestions from China to moderate its suppression and to be more sensitive to international concerns than it would have been to similar suggestionbs from India. In respect of the exploitation of the gas reserves in the Arakan area too, the Junta has been more attentive to the needs of China than of India. The political influence, which India has been able to build up in Myanmar, has not been commensurate with what it has done for the Junta.

23.More than the development of economoc and security-related ties, what is significant is the change in the mental attitude of the ASEAN countries to India. Nowhere is this change more striking than in their perceptions of the Indian educational system. In the 1970s, Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister, used to get reports about the sarcastic remarks being made by Mr.Lee Kuan-Yew, the then Singapore Prime Minister, about the Indian educational system. He felt that India would never rise as a major power because of what he viewed as its poor educational system. He had even advised his Ministry of Health not to allow Indian medical graduates to work in Singapore. Today, the ASEAN countries—even Singapore— have been highly impressed by the quality of the Indian education. The Manipal University of Karnataka has been invited to set up a campus in Malaysia to train Malaysian students in medicine. They do the first two years of their medical education in the University’s campus in Malaysia and then come to Manipal for the final two years. Singapore has been keen to benefit from the high quality of the education in the Indian Institutes of Technology and Management.

24. In the post-9/11 world, they have also been impressed by the fact that the Indian educational system has not only been producing professionals of very high quality, but have also been producing more Muslim moderates than extremists. It is true that a small number of Muslim products of the Indian educational system have gravitated towards pro-Al Qaeda organisations such as the Lashkar-e-Toiba and the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI), but there is no instance as yet of any product of the Indian educational system drifting towards Al Qaeda. In the UK, about six Indian-origin Muslims were suspected to have links with Al Qaeda, but all of them were products of the British educational system. Can the South-East Asian countries learn something from this?

25. In February 2005, the Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College had released a study made for it by Shri Amit Gupta, an Indian scholar titled “The US-India Relationship: Strategic Partnership or Complementary Interests? ” Shri Amit Gupta was a Visiting Professor in the US Air Force War College. His study referred to the positive aspects of the Indian educational system and suggested that the US should encourage the countries of this region to look up to the Indian educational system and, at the same time, help India in further developing it.

26. While the strategic relations with the countries of this region have been expanding at variable speeds, there are landmines. The increasing alienation of the Malaysian citizens of Indian origin as seen during the demonstrations of last year is one such landmine. The Indian-origin citizens have grievances due to economic and religious reasons. The economic grievances arise from the continued priority given to the Malays under the Bhumiputra policy and the consequent failure of the Indian-origin community to have their due share of the national cake. The religious grievances arise from the perceived failure of the Government and the municipal authorities to heed their protests over the demolition of many temples on the ground that they had been constructed illegally on Government-owned or municipal land. The Hindus are particularly aggrieved over the fact that while no such action has been taken against mosques, which were similarly constructed without proper authorisation, the demolition action has been directed only against their temples. If the past irregularities of the mosques could be regularised post facto, why not the past irregularities of the temples? The unhappiness and grievances of the Hindus are having their echo in India, particularly in Tamil Nadu. This could come in the way of further development of relations between India and Malaysia in the absence of a greater sensitivity by the Malaysian authorities to the grievances of the Hindus, which many in India view as legitimate.

27. The second landmine is the growing Chinese perception that India and the US are acting in tandem in helping each other in furthering their respective strategic interests in this region. Beijing continues to see a China angle to this Indo-US co-operation despite repeated denials by India and the US. Till now, the countries of this region have not allowed their policies to be influenced by the Chinese concerns. Will they continue to do so in future?

28. Not only China, but even sections of the policy-making circles in Malaysia and Indonesia view with some mental reservation US assessments and projections of security threats to this region—-particularly threats to maritime security. They have a lurking suspicion that there is an ulterior motive behind what they see as an over-projection of the threat perceptions by the US. How to make India’s strategic co-operation with the US in this region compatible with its growing strategic relationship with the countries of this region and even with China. That is a question, which needs to be addressed by this seminar as well as by our policy-makers.(26-3-08)

(The writer, Mr B.Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studieas, Chennai. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: )

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