South by Southeast
India has now invited three Southeast Asian heads of government or heads of state in a row as Republic Day guests. The Thai prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, watched the march past this year. President Yudhoyono of Indonesia and Razak Naijib, Prime minister of Malaysia, preceded her the two years before.
Thai diplomats expressed surprise and pleasure. After all, India has had much closer and deeper ties with Singapore and has yet to get the same invitation. I would argue this is all part of a broader policy of seeking to build a network of ties with this specific region, especially with those Southeast Asian countries whose coastlines are touched by the Indian Ocean’s waters. These have been somewhat neglected. In some cases, notably Malaysia, the relationship was less than happy during the Cold War. Thailand and Indonesia were largely ignored — these were spoken of as civilisational outposts of India and nothing much else.
This was a direct legacy of Jawaharlal Nehru who spurned requests by Singapore to take over its security in the 1960s but was furious when these countries then formed the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and became treaty allies of the United States. They were derided in Delhi as tinsel cultures. The contempt became bilateral when the Southeast Asian countries perfected the Asian tiger economic model and soared past India in the development game.
Then 1991 happened and the game changed. Thanks to Singapore in particular, India re-entered the regional equation. It has now decent military ties with Singapore and Indonesia. It even holds an annual joint naval patrol down to the Andamans with the Thai navy. The economic ties began to grow, institutionalised through bilateral free trade agreements and the rapid expansion of investments by the Indian private sector.
The China factor has begun to creep into the picture the past few years as a number of factors began to converge: the deterioration in Sino-Indian ties, concerns about the US commitment to Asia and the Indian Ocean, and the massive Chinese economic presence in the region.
Beijing could scoff at the idea of India matching them for influence. Chinese trade and investment figures with Southeast Asia dwarf, by a factor of four or five, those of India. However, the growth of Indian trade and investment is now higher than that of China’s so the gap may yet be at least narrowed in the coming years.
But India’s strategy has not been to match China in the economic sphere — which would be impossible given the disparity in coffer power and the fact Indian firms could care two hoots about strategic directives from their government. The game has been to develop deep partnerships in which the purpose is to ensure the nations involved will make it a point to consult India about any major strategic decisions and be cognizant of New Delhi’s interests in whatever they do on the macro level.
The Southeast Asian countries, for their part, are taking a greater interest in India for a host of reasons. Some groups like the Indonesian military are Sinophobic. Malaysia is worried that its economic model is not working — its labour costs are too high to attract foreign manufacturers any more but its local entrepreneurial class is stunted thanks to its ethnic reservation system. Thailand and others are finding out that their elite political structures are struggling to handle greater demands for inclusion — the Shinawatra saga being such a tale and the remarkably hopeful signs in Myanmar bring another. Again, looking to Indian democracy makes some sense, though one shouldn’t exaggerate the respect with which India’s polity is held by its neighbours. Many admit it seems to hold the country together but they can’t quite pinpoint how it does. Then there are some who worry at the figures showing that the US navy will begin shrinking rapidly in the coming decades and much of this will be felt the most in the Indian Ocean. India, with 43 warships on order or being built right now, and a hundred more expected to be inducted later on is an obvious place to look for some security in the future.
India is broadly seen as non-threatening, unlike China which has to work hard to earn that image. One of the lesser known influences of India is religion. A surprising number of Southeast Asian elite members come to India to seek enlightenment or religious fixes. And this has political consequences. Why aren’t hardliners like Maung Aye trying to stop the present political reforms in Myanmar? Because he’s in religious rapture, spending his time in Buddhist meditation. Indian officials like to think they helped this along by fulfilling the many requests by Myanmarese generals to make pilgrimages to holy sites in India. “They go to China for weapons and India for salvation,” is a standard joke in the Indian foreign ministry.
I take some historical satisfaction in Southeast Asian countries exploring the possibility that the new India has something to offer them, politically economically or theologically. While some Indian scholars treat the influence of ancient India on Southeast Asia as some sort of evidence of a Greater India, the truth is more probably that indigenous rising Southeast Asian cultures found it useful to legitimize their rulers and consolidate their nationhood with Indian metaphysics. One gets a sense that something similar is happening again between India and its eastern neighbours.