(Paper presented in the International Seminar on India-Southeast Asia – Strategic Convergence in the 21st Century, at Centre for SAARC Studies, Andhra University, Waltair, March 26-28, 2008)
Has India’s Look East policy, I asked the Minister Mentor, moved at the pace it should have moved? Lee: It is moving. Let us not belittle the changes that have taken place. The change in direction has already been made at the top. It is slowly being institutionalized in the Ministry of External Affairs, the Ministries of Trade and Industry and so on. You are not able to move at the pace of the Chinese because when they make a strategic decision, for example, that they are going to make friends with ASEAN and offer, to the surprise and astonishment of the ASEAN members, a free trade area – they do it by over ruling all their domestic constituencies. They make the strategic decision and everything else is subsumed under it. But India is not in a position to work in that way. It has to bargain, strike compromises. Through Eyes of a Mentor, Interview with Lee Kuan Yew. Lee Kuan Yew in conversation with Dileep Padgaonkar I doubt there is a government anywhere in the world that takes the trouble to understand India the way that Singapore does. Shashi Tharoor, Many Indias in Singapore
Since its independence on August 9, 1965, the Republic of Singapore has been very keen on befriending India. In his lucidly written memoirs, The Singapore Story, the former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew refers to a conversation (which took place soon after the proclamation of independence) with Thomas Abraham, then Deputy High Commissioner in Singapore, seeking India’s “recognition and support”. Lee Kuan Yew also asked for “Indian Advisers” to train the Singapore Army.
Within a month of Singapore’s independence, the India-Pakistan conflict took place. Singapore was the first country to extend spontaneous support to India. According to informed sources, when Singapore started its national carrier, Singapore Airlines, the SIA approached Air India for manpower and technical co-operation. When the British bases in Singapore were being wound up, Lee Kuan Yew visited India to persuade New Delhi to evince greater interest in Southeast Asia. He wanted India to make use of the naval and dockyard facilities for building and repairing ships.
The late 1960’s and 1970’s were periods of missed opportunities. Singapore’s attempts to befriend India were understandable. India was the undisputed leader of the non-aligned world. Singapore wanted to project the image that it was not “Third China” and, what is more, in a volatile region characterized by xenophobia, the two countries shared a common commitment to secularism and multi-culturalism. Singapore was naturally disappointed with New Delhi’s lukewarm response.
India and Singapore Drift Apart
The major impediments to India’s close relations with Singapore were not bilateral, but differing perceptions on the changing roles of the United States, Soviet Union and China. Given the Western orientation of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which came into existence in 1967 at the height of the Vietnam War, New Delhi was keen to distance itself from this regional grouping. However, with ASEAN declaring in November 1971 that its long-term objective is the attainment of a Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN), India felt that it could find commonality of interests. ZOPFAN represented all that India stood for – acceptance of non-alignment and removal of external influences, which would pave the way for the establishment of an area of peace in Southeast Asia. However, the Indo-Soviet Treaty, New Delhi’s ambivalent stance on the question of Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the recognition of the Heng Samrin Government in Cambodia – all these led to estrangement of relations between India and ASEAN, especially Singapore. Two incidents are given below to illustrate the wide divide between India and Singapore during this period. When Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, soon after her return to power, officially recognized the Heng Samrin Government as the de jure government in Cambodia, the member states of ASEAN were very bitter about the Indian policy; Devan Nair, then a close associate of Lee Kuan Yew, suggested that Singapore should, in protest, break off diplomatic relations with India. It must be remembered that despite all the virulent criticisms of the Vietnamese actions in Cambodia, Singapore was carrying on prosperous trade with Vietnam during this period. Second, in the Conference of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Regional Meeting held in New Delhi in September 1980, Lee Kuan Yew mentioned “two momentous events” as danger to the security of Asia, “Vietnamese Occupation of Kampuchea, 1978 and Soviet Occupation of Afghanistan, December 1979”. In the considered view of Lee Kuan Yew, China’s invasion of Vietnam did not take place at all!
New Delhi’s response to the Third Indo-China War was a direct consequence of its assessment of the Sino-Vietnamese differences and the threat posed to Vietnam’s security by the Pol Pot regime, which was backed to the hilt by China. In New Delhi’s perception, Hanoi was forced into the Soviet embrace because of the Sino-American collusion. The policy of ostracizing Vietnam followed by ASEAN, backed by China and the United States, increased Hanoi’s dependence on Moscow. ASEAN, especially Singapore, did not share this perception. They argued that Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia was a direct threat to the security of Thailand. It must also be pointed out that behind the façade of unity, in the Indian perception, the five members of ASEAN differed on their own assessment of China and Vietnam, depending on their national interests and their appraisal of the geopolitics of the region and changing inter-relations among the major powers. As pointed out earlier, Thailand, effectively backed by Singapore, was most hawkish towards Hanoi in all ASEAN meetings and international forums. On the other hand, there was greater appreciation in Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta about Hanoi’s fears and the factors that led to Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia. They wanted to find a political solution to the problem quickly, lest Vietnam get destabilized in furtherance of Chinese strategy. The two countries wanted Vietnam to be strong and independent and emerge as an independent center of power, free from both Soviet Union and China. Powerful sections in Indonesia were suspicious of China’s policy of “fighting Vietnam to the last Khmer soldier”, for it was in Peking’s interest to continue the “leech craft” so that Vietnam remained “weak, disunited and internationally ostracized”. China, during this period, started exhorting the Southeast Asian countries to exercise vigilance so that “the Tiger must be prevented from coming in at the back door, while the wolf is repelled at the front gate”. But there was another danger, which was causing apprehensions in the minds of several discerning observers of Southeast Asia. The Indian diplomat, KR Narayanan, cautioned, “While driving the wolf from the front door and warding off the Tiger through the backdoor, the ASEAN should not allow the Dragon to step in or force its way through the side door”. In 1980 and 1982, General Benny Murdani, then Chief of Indonesian Intelligence, visited Hanoi to work out a compromise formula. Murdani expressed understanding for Vietnamese intervention in Cambodia as an act of self-defence. His attempts to bring about a settlement by accepting the fait accompli in Cambodia met with stiff Singapore and Thai opposition. Writing about Singapore diplomacy during this period, Lee Kuan Yew has written in his Memoirs: “Raja (Rajaratnam) was a born crusader, the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia provided him with a cause that stirred his idealism. He wrote powerful short memos, which we circulated to non-aligned countries, detailing how the big bullying Vietnamese, the Prussians of Southeast Asia, had pulverized and oppressed the weak and gentle Cambodians, one-tenth their size…He did this without upsetting Mochtar Kusumaamatja, the Indonesian Foreign Minister, who was under orders from his President not to isolate Vietnam. Suharto wanted a strong Vietnam to block any southward expansion of China. Raja and Tengku Rithaudeen, Malaysia’s Foreign Minister together persuaded Mochtar at least not to oppose the Thai policy and weaken the unity of ASEAN”.
Rationale of India’s Look East Policy
The unfortunate phase, when India-Singapore relations were conditioned by factors extraneous to purely bilateral relations, is over and an era of benign interaction has begun. India’s Look East policy coincided with ASEAN’S Look West policy. The period also synchronized with India’s economic reforms, which provided the much needed impetus for economic co-operation. In 1992, at the Singapore Summit, India was made a sectoral dialogue partner of ASEAN. The potential and success of that partnership was realized immediately and at the Bangkok Summit in 1995, it was decided to elevate India to a full dialogue partner. It should be acknowledged that Singapore played a key role in renewing India’s links with ASEAN. Singapore was India’s country co-ordinator since India became a sectoral dialogue partner. It may also be mentioned that ASEAN admitted India, China and Russia together as dialogue partners in the post-ministerial conference in Jakarta in July 1996. India was also invited to join the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the multilateral security dialogue platform propelled by ASEAN. The relationship further graduated to ASEAN – India Summit, at par with ASEAN plus three (China, Japan and South Korea) and finally membership of the East Asian Summit.
The welcome initiatives taken by India for co-operation in security related matters need mention. It may be recalled that the modest expansion of Indian Navy near the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the 1970’s and 1980’s led to criticism about India’s “hegemonistic designs”. Goh Chok Thong, the former Singapore Prime Minister, once said that Singapore entertained fears about the accelerated growth of Indian Navy. But when the situation was explained to him, he no longer considered the view tenable. ASEAN’s concerns about India’s naval expansion have been allayed after visits by senior officials of member countries to the naval facilities in India. Equally important joint naval exercises with the US, Australia, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia (and also with ASEAN collectively, appropriately named MILAN) have contributed to a better appreciation of India’s security needs.
The increased co-operation, however, suffered a temporary setback following Pokhran II in May 1998. I have deliberately used the term “temporary”. During my visit to Singapore in August 1999 to participate in the India-Singapore Colloquium, I found considerable empathy for India’s nuclear policy. It may be recalled that during the Manila Summit, despite the strong pressure exerted by United States, Australia, Japan and the European Community, ASEAN leaders sidestepped the issue of condemning India and Pakistan for the nuclear tests. The Chairman’s statement only “expressed concern and strongly deplored the recent nuclear tests in South Asia”. India naturally dissociated from the statement.
Pakistan’s attempts to whip up sympathy on the Kargil crisis did not elicit any favourable response even from predominantly Moslem countries like Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines. Singapore Foreign Minister Jayakumar’s statement at the Singapore Summit only asked India and Pakistan to “exercise restraint”, sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and “revive the Lahore process”. An indication of the winds of change blowing in the region was the fact that not even one Singapore participant in the colloquium referred to India-Pakistan differences as a stumbling block in India’s relations with Southeast Asia, particularly Singapore.
The period when Goh Chok Thong was the Prime Minister of Singapore witnessed remarkable improvement in India-Singapore relations. Goh Chok Thong not only created a “mild India fever” in Singapore, he frequently underlined the significance of establishing closer economic and political relations between the two countries. The Indian leaders, in turn, recognized the importance of Singapore not only in bilateral terms, but also as a “window” to other countries of Southeast Asia. Pranab Mukherjee, the Minister for External Affairs, underlined the significance of India-Singapore relations, while launching the India-Business Forum in Singapore June 20, 2007 as follows: “Singapore occupies a special position in the thinking of an India undergoing change. It was among the earliest countries to recognize the significance of our reform efforts. Singapore has been a strong partner and an enthusiastic advocate of India. Its political and corporate leadership have engaged us across a very broad spectrum of issues. Singaporean companies have established themselves in various sectors in India, creating win-win situations in the process. Quite appropriately, it was the first country with which we concluded a Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement”.
Indicators of India-Singapore Co-operation
Some indicators are given below to indicate the rapid transformation and the upward swing in India-Singapore relations. India-Singapore defence co-operation dates back to mid-1960’s, but these links have improved considerably during recent years due to common threat perceptions such as terrorism, maritime piracy and threats to the safety of the sea-lanes. Security issues are discussed not only at the bilateral level, but also during meetings of the ARF. The unpredictability of China’s long-term objectives and intentions in Southeast Asia has further given a fillip to India-Singapore defence co-operation. A high water mark was the signing of a Defence Co-operation Agreement in October 2003. It also ushered in an India-Singapore Defence Policy Dialogue, which has so far held three meetings. A Joint Working Group on Intelligence Co-operation has been set up to combat terrorism and transnational crimes. The defence co-operation also encompasses joint training of the armed forces, defence technology co-operation and maritime security. The two navies have been conducting bilateral and multilateral joint naval exercises
Singapore has emerged as India’s largest trading partner among ASEAN countries. The Republic is also the largest investor in India among ASEAN; in fact, in global ranking, it is the 8th largest investor in India. A bilateral Comprehensive Economic Co-operation Agreement (CECA) was signed in June 2005. The CECA has prescribed immediate tariff elimination for 506 goods under the Early Harvest Progamme and phased tariff elimination for more than 4500 items between 2005 and 2009. India’s bilateral trade with Singapore went up from US Dollars 2.2 billion in 2001 to US Dollars 9 billion in 2006, registering almost 400 per cent growth in the five-year period. India’s exports to Singapore rose from US Dollars 972 million in 2001 to US Dollars 5.42 billion in 2006. It represents 38 per cent of its total trade with ASEAN and roughly 3.4 per cent of the world trade. The investment linkages are also in the upswing. Singapore accounted for 95 per cent of Indian investment in the ASEAN region in 2005. Singapore’s cumulative investment in India came to a total of US Dollars 3 billion in 2006. There are nearly 2000 Indian companies in Singapore, which include some of the big names in information technology like Sathyam, Infosys, WIPRO and TCS. As far as Singapore investment in India is concerned, the bulk of it has gone to the improvement of infrastructure in areas like port development and improvement of roads construction. The development of Tuticorin port, development of a container terminal in Pipavov port in Gujarat and the up gradation of the Kakinada port deserve mention. Singapore has also been investing in developing software technology parks in India like the International Tech Park in Bangalore and the Madras Corridor Project. Another important sector in which Singapore is evincing interest is the tourism sector. More than 65000 Indian tourists visited Singapore in 2006.
The two countries are also embarking upon scientific and technological co-operation. In the course of his speech during the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas in January 2008, Dr. Balaji Sadasivan, Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs highlighted the fact that India is emerging as an important player of the knowledge economy. Knowledge economy is one in which knowledge is created, acquired, transmitted and used effectively and creatively by organizations, enterprises, individuals and communities to develop groundbreaking ideas and models. As a former doctor practicing surgery in the United States, Dr. Sadasivan gave two practical examples to highlight the growing potentials of India in this field. When Dr. Sadasivan finished a surgery, he would go to the telephone and dictate the operating notes of the surgery. An army of transcripters in the hospital would type the records. Today the telephone recording is sent electronically to India where it is transcribed and the reports are typed and sent electronically back to the United States to be printed. What is more, Dr. Sadasivan added, the English is perfect and the most complex medical term is spelt correctly. The second illustration, which Dr. Sadasivan mentioned was that in Singapore today when a patient gets an X-ray, the images are sent to India where the X-rays are read by radiologiss who sent the report back within one hour. India is successfully playing its role and will definitely emerge as a front ranker in the knowledge economy.
During the visit of President Abdul Kalam to Singapore in 2005, President Kalam suggested collaboration in the field of civil aviation between India and Singapore for designing, developing, producing and marketing jet planes. Joint programmes of aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul are also under way. The Government of Singapore has been evincing interest in persuading leading educational institutions in India to open up their campus in Singapore. Singapore is emerging as a leading center for higher education in the region and there are untapped potentials in this area, which can be successfully exploited by Indian educationists. Singapore is also attracting large number of bright Indian students to Singapore by offering them attractive scholarships. The idea is to encourage them to become Singapore citizens when they complete their studies, so that they could play a benign role in the transformation of Singapore into a knowledge society.
Welcome Change in Perceptions about India
The image of India as a functioning anarchy, political factionalism and rampant corruption, incapable of taking bold decisions and implementing them is slowly giving way to a more realistic and sympathetic appraisal of Indian capabilities and potentials. During the 1970’s, the image of India in Southeast Asian countries, as Shashi Tharoor has put it, was a country “mired in despair and disrepair — and Indians in Singapore largely turned their backs on their homeland”. After the traumatic events in Indonesia, following the downfall of Suharto and the large-scale riots against the local Chinese, there is considerable admiration for India’s functioning democracy, political stability and multi-party system. What is more, the political leadership in Southeast Asian countries, especially in Singapore, is getting slowly convinced that in India even if the governments change in the center and the states, there is continuity of policies. The old dictum of Singapore leadership that what Asian countries require is not democracy, but discipline has given way to a cheeky admiration of Indian political system, which has contributed to the stability of the country and also the preservation of unity in diversity. Questioned by Dileep Padgaonkar about the apparent paradox of India, where despite the vulnerability of coalition governments, the country had been registering 7 per cent growth, Lee Kuan Yew responded, “The reforms and the nuclear deal are in India’s interests. May be the problems emanate from the nature of your political structure. This is the price of keeping your diversity in piece. Supposing you had the Chinese system, you may well have broken up. In China, the population is 90 per cent Han and 10 per cent consist of minorities. You do not have 90 per cent Hindi speaking nor Telugu speaking nor Tamil speaking in India”. What is more, the elite in Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia are also watching the political developments in India with admiration. These countries are not only multi-racial and multi-cultural, they are also in the process of democratic transformation. The Indian experiment with nation building in a democratic framework has considerable relevance to them. Many feel that India is home to several religions in the world and despite occasional communal riots India had been able to maintain unity in diversity because it is a functioning democracy.
Of equal importance had been the profound impact of the Indian expatriates working in Singapore. A highly educated group, these “global Indians”, as they would like to be called, occupies very high positions and is contributing their share for the transformation of Singapore from a “Third World State to First”. They are greatly admired by the Singapore leaders and they have contributed a lot in changing the image of India from a land of poverty to one throbbing with vitality and energy, which will soon occupy an exalted place in the comity of nations, commensurate to its size ad population. The sad part of the story is that many of these affluent expatriates do not make any efforts to understand or mingle with the relatively less educated and less well off Singapore citizens of Indian origin.
Southeast Asia – Emerging Trends
The success of India’s foreign policy would depend upon New Delhi’s capability to properly understand the emerging trends in international relations and fashion the foreign policy accordingly. This point has to be highlighted because our foreign policy, during the last few years, has been mainly reactive to events taking place around us. From the point of view of Southeast Asia, two inter-related issues should be kept in mind. The first and foremost, the US foreign policy is susceptible to radical shifts and turns. After the humiliating defeats in the battlefields of Indo-China, the United States, for a few years, pursued a policy of isolation from the region. However, the pendulum has swung to the other extreme. Of equal interest is the fact that the ruling elite of many Southeast Asian countries would like the United States to continue its activist and dominant role. The authoritarian regimes in the region do not want the United States to harp on issues like democracy, freedom of the press and human rights, because they used to justify authoritarianism on the premise of the superiority of the Confucian values and also the argument that democracy breeds indiscipline, what is required in the region is not democracy, but order and stability. Despite occasional hiccups in US relations with Singapore and Malaysia on these issues, they want the United States to continue its activist role in the region. As Lee Kuan Yew puts it in his Memoirs: “The United States is still the most benign of all the great powers, certainly less heavy handed than any emerging great power. Hence, whatever the differences and frictions, all non-communist countries in East Asia prefer America to be the dominant weight in the power balance of the region”.
In his monumental book, The Rise and Fall of Empires, Paul Kennedy, the Yale University historian, has analysed how all imperial powers reached a point of over reach that eventually carried the seeds of their own destruction. Too much concern for security and disproportionate spending on defence were endemic to the fall of empires “including more recently the Soviet Union”. Is the United States embarking on a policy of over reach? Will this over reach have similar effects, which led to the implosion in the Soviet Union? One option, which the United States is following, is to pursue its allies like Japan and the European Union to “share the burden”. How long will this policy succeed? Time alone will provide the answer.
How has the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) responded to the emerging challenges? In the heydays of ASEAN, during the Third Indo-China War, when ASEAN emerged as a diplomatic community, many commentators projected ASEAN as a model of regional cooperation. Ghazalie Shafie, the Malaysian diplomat, likened ASEAN “to a cluster of bamboos, each of which was an independent entity, and which together could withstand turbulent winds, the tallest of the bamboos must always stoop its head. Indonesia is a large country, but it has never imposed its will on other ASEAN members”.
But with the end of the Third Indo-China War, the common focus, which united the member states of ASEAN, has disappeared. With the expansion of ASEAN to encompass all countries of Southeast Asia, ASEAN is no longer a viable regional organization. Take the case of ASEAN policy towards Myanmar. The rationale behind admitting Myanmar into ASEAN and engaging the military rulers of Myanmar as a part of the “constructive engagement” was the assumption that the “policy of isolating one of the most isolated countries in the world is both counter productive and dangerous”. The ruling elite in ASEAN believed that the opening of the space for civil society and gradual democratization could take place by constructively engaging the military regime. If I may use an analogy, it was like giving liquor chocolate to an alcoholic. As Amitav Acharya has recently pointed out this was not constructive engagement. In essence, it was construction of hotels and factories in Burma by Thai, Singaporean and Malaysian companies, with no engagement or dialogue with the regime for political reform.
On the crucial issue of the menace of terrorism, ASEAN is further divided. Since Islam is a dominant factor in the domestic politics of Indonesia and Malaysia, the Governments of these two countries are ambivalent on the question of linkages between radcial Islam and terrorism. Naturally they do not want to take strong measures against Islamic forces. What is more, political forces in these two countries are sharply critical of the US policies towards West Asia and also on economic matters. Despite extensive bilateral economic co-operation, the Mahathir era witnessed sharp differences on significant issues like trade policy, Washington’s criticism of the manner in which Dr. Anwar Ibrahim was treated, Washington’s refusal to endorse Mahathir’s pet project of East Asian Economic Grouping, the not so benign IMF and World Bank responses to the economic crisis which engulfed the region in the late 1990’s and the US policy towards the Palestine issue and the war on terror. While welcoming engagement with the United States on economic and political matters of common interest, both Malaysia and Indonesia reject a relationship based on dominance-dependency syndrome. Other countries in the region like Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines do not raise these irksome issues; they continue to be the major allies of the United States.
There are also sharp differences among Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia on the linkages between piracy and maritime terrorism in the Southeast Asian seas. The scourge of piracy is centuries old, while maritime terrorism is a recent phenomenon. Piracy is guided by economic considerations alone and they generally avoid publicity, whereas acts of maritime terrorism are intended to get maximum publicity with the use of maximum violence. Due to the increase in incidents of piracy in the Malacca Straits, the Joint War Committee of the Lloyds has increased the insurance cost by classifying the Malacca Strait “as war prone/risk prone area”. This was contested by the littoral states – Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore – who challenged the statistics published by the Lloyds and consequent actions. They pointed out that effective counter terrorism and counter piracy measures have been taken. Lloyds was compelled to revise the notification. The thin line dividing between piracy and terrorism has led to serious differences among member states of ASEAN. Both Indonesia and Malaysia consider that it is their responsibility to contain both piracy and terrorism, whereas Singapore would like to involve countries, especially the United States and Japan, which have a stake in maintaining the high seas free for navigation.
Bordering on Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam, China’s foreign policy will be watched with concern and interest in Southeast Asian capitals. Beijing is conscious of the growing importance of the economic strength and technological capabilities in international relations; naturally it has lent its support to the process of detente and is keen to avoid tensions, which may undermine its rapid economic development. As Lee Kuan Yew told Dileep Padgaonkar, “The Chinese do not intend to challenge America or Europe or Japan. They want to trade, they want the technology, they want the investments and they will play by the rules”. In this connection mention should be made of the astute diplomacy pursued by China during the Asian economic crisis. While Washington, Japan and developed countries in the region like Singapore were criticized for their lack of sensitivities and unwillingness to come to the rescue of the disadvantaged countries in moments of crisis, China’s stance was benign. China could have devalued its currency and gained maximum leverage, but it did not do so, in that process Beijing earned the good will of Southeast Asian nations. However, Southeast Asian countries are wary of China’s likely role once it consolidates politically and economically. In the same way China is also suspicious of the moves of the United States to bring together Japan and India, along with Southeast Asian countries, to contain the growing Chinese influence in the region. China’s response is to break this likely encirclement by befriending countries like Pakistan, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. While the countries of Southeast Asia are embarked on a policy of co-operative interaction and constructive engagement with China, they are also apprehensive of China’s intentions and capabilities. China’s growing blue water capability in the South China Sea; Beijing’s support to the tyrannical military regime in Myanmar; the conflicting claims over the Spratlys and the Paracels – all these are likely flash points in China’s relations with Southeast Asia. What is more, China’s invasion of Vietnam in 1979 and the conflict near the Spratlys in March 1988 are grim reminders that China may even resort to force to buttress its territorial claims.
It must be pointed out that there is no common ASEAN stance on the implications of rising Chinese military power. During the Third Indo-China War, Indonesia and Malaysia, largely for domestic reasons, viewed China as the long-term threat to the security of Southeast Asia, whereas Thailand and Singapore considered Vietnam to be the immediate threat. Today, Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore take a more benign view of China, whereas the Philippines which considers itself the “frontline state” is concerned more about China’s encroachment of Southeast Asian waters. The present policy of most of the countries is to “engage” China, while simultaneously pursuing a “balancing option” by strengthening their defence capabilities as well as enhance security links with the United States. They are pursuing bilateral and multilateral diplomacy, including bringing India into the security framework. Equally interesting will be to watch the responses of Southeast Asian countries if relations between China and the United States reach a flash point. The countries of the region will have to make a difficult choice between the devil and the deep sea.
Situated to the South of China and east of India the future of Southeast Asian countries will be profoundly influenced by the developments and policies of the two great Asian giant neighbours. The benign way of looking at the future is to recognize the fact that Southeast Asia provides sufficient space for both India and China to interact meaningfully. But the realist is aware of the fact that the two countries are entering a difficult phase of complementary-competitive-conflictual interaction. In this connection, it is necessary to remind ourselves of the prophetic words of Prof. Arnold Toynbee, the greatest historian of the twentieth century. To quote Toynbee, “In the end, the current of Chinese expansion will meet the current of Hindu expansion over the submerged heads of the smaller and weaker and less efficient peoples in between who are fast going asunder. And after that has happened I surmise that the new frontier between China and India will tend, slowly but surely, to travel westward at India’s expense and in China’s favour”. Will the words of Prof. Arnold Toynbee, almost expressively prophetic, come true? It will be fascinating to watch the future course of events; only time will provide the answer.
Need for New Dynamism in Cultural Diplomacy
As far as civlizational states like India and China are concerned, no epoch in history is complete by itself; it is both a continuation and a beginning. Prime Minister Narasimha Rao underlined this basic reality in his famous speech “India and the Asia-Pacific – Forging A New Relationship” in October 1994 at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. The closer relationship, which India seeks today with Southeast Asian countries, has to be fashioned on twin foundations – the benign interaction of the past and mutuality of interests that exist at present.
In its relations with Southeast Asian countries, India has several plus points. Historically Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia and Indonesia have been deeply influenced by Indian political ideas, religion, art and language. The spread of Indian cultural influences, leading to the cultural enrichment of Southeast Asian countries, constitutes a glorious chapter in Indian and Southeast Asian history alike. Indianised kingdoms like Funan, Sri Kshetra, Pagan, Khmer, Sri Vijaya, Sailendra and Majapahit; the familiar Indo-Sanskritic vocabulary in Thai language and Bahasa Indonesia; architectural monuments like Angkor, Pagan, Borobudur and Lara Djonggrong; literary masterpieces like Ramkein, Amaramala, Arjuna Vivaha and Bharata Yuddha; the Wajang Kulit based on the Ramayana and Mahabharata themes; the living Indian traditions in the island of Bali – all these bear testimony to the courage and zeal of Indian princes, priests, poets, merchants and artisans and to the ingratiating and assimilable qualities of the peoples of Southeast Asian countries. The peoples of Southeast Asia acknowledge their cultural indebtedness to India. To quote Norodom Sihanouk, the founder of modern Cambodia. “ When we refer to the thousand year old ties which unite us with India, it is not at all a hyperbole. In fact, it was around two thousand years ago that the first navigators, Indian merchants and Brahmins brought to our ancestors their Gods, their techniques, their organization. Briefly India was to us what Greece was to Latin Orient”.
India has yet to realize the full potentials of cultural diplomacy. The present moment when the Southeast Asian perceptions of Indian history, culture, economy and polity are benign, New Delhi must step up its efforts to build cultural and people-to-people interaction with Southeast Asian countries. If implemented with care and vision, Indian cultural diplomacy can further strengthen the links between the two regions, based on pluralist traditions and the belief in maintaining “unity in diversity”. In addition to educational exchanges, technical and scientific co-operation and tourism, mention should also be made of attempts to reinforce historical cultural linkages – Hindu, Buddhist and Islamic that bind India with Southeast Asia. One illustration of positive thinking in this direction is the Nalanda Project. An ancient town in Bihar, Nalanda was the seat of one of the greatest Universities of ancient times, with a student population of 10,000 and 2,000 teachers. A great center for Buddhist studies, Nalanda attracted scholars from Central, South, East and Southeast Asia. Great Buddhist monks from China like Faxian, Xuanzang and Yizing stayed in Nalanda and translated Buddhist works into Chinese. Indian Buddhist scholars like Kumarajiva were invited to China to spread the gospel of the Buddha. The Mahayana form Buddhism widely practiced in many parts of East and Southeast Asia was due to intellectual enlightenment provided by the scholars of the Nalanda University. President Abdul Kalam mooted the idea of re-establishing the Nalanda University while on a state visit to Singapore in 2006. A Nalanda Mentor group, headed by Prof. Amartya Sen, held its first meeting in Singapore. The Island Republic also hosted a Nalanda Symposium. An international team of scholars from India, China, Japan, United States, Southeast Asia and the United Kingdom is working out the conceptualization and development of the University. It is hoped that Nalanda University, in the words of George Yeo, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Singapore, “will be a center of learning and an icon of Asian renaissance”. George Yeo added, “the Buddhist philosophy of man living in harmony with fellow men and with nature is the crying need of the 21st century”.
If India is to play the dynamic role outlined above, it is essential that India should have a group of committed scholars who are specialists in Southeast Asian Studies. It is a sad commentary that even after sixty years of independence we do not have a research institution comparable to the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore; Cornell University in the United States and Monash University in Australia. It is imperative that the Government of India and the University Grants Commission invest more resources in strengthening Southeast Asian Studies programmes, so that these centers could develop into institutions of academic excellence and provide the much needed academic inputs for policy making. Given encouragement and training these centers could also act as catalysts of academic interaction between Indian scholars and their counterparts in Southeast Asian countries. Mutual respect and appreciation can be fostered only by educational exchange and cultural co-operation. Senator Fulbright once remarked, “Civilization is what education exchange programmes are all about. They are concerned in part with increasing man’s knowledge about science and the arts. But they are primarily concerned with man’s understanding of himself and of the national and world societies in which he lives”. The Senator added, “Educational exchange is not merely one of those nice but marginal activities in which we engage in international affairs, but rather, from the standpoint of future world peace and order, probably the most important and potentially rewarding of our foreign policy activities”. —
(The writer, Dr. V. Suryanarayan, is former Director and Senior Professor, Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies. This essay is partly based on the Author’s earlier writings on the subject.)