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India’s tortuous relations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which is celebrating its 40th birthday this week, illustrate that legend and history do not always synchronize. Though popular lore has it that Indira Gandhi spurned Asean with a disdainful comment about “Coca-Cola governments,” the record indicates the opposite. As an academic analyst put it, India was “stunned” when Asean ignored it.
Logically, India should have been present at the creation, for, as K.M. Panikkar wrote, India and south-east Asia constitute a single entity “connected integrally in their political, social and economic life”. In fact, south and south-east Asia were interchangeable terms even in the Sixties. Sylvain Levi’s findings inspired R.C. Majumdar and other Calcutta scholars to set up the Greater India Society long before A.L. Basham’s testimony that “the whole of Southeast Asia received most of its culture from India”. This land of the wayang kulit, shadow play depictions of the Hindu epics, is where India met China; it could also be the modern Hastinapur for the same ancient players to wage a political Kurukshetra war.
That future danger is never mentioned. Nor are the earlier threat of Sukarno’s Konfrontasi or the present and growing fear of jihad. To even utter such unpleasantness would offend Asean’s code of mushawara and mufakat, consultation and consensus. But polite silence does not prevent pre-emptive protective measures like the alliance with India.
Only two regional politicians, both Chinese and heirs to another tradition, speak of India’s civilizational connection. Lee Kuan Yew, now styled minister-mentor, analyses contemporary trends in the Srivajaya and Majapahit context (Java is not jihadi because its DNA is Hindu) while George Yeo, Singapore’s foreign minister, fervently believes that a revived Nalanda will bring prosperity to south-east Asia. In India, only Jaswant Singh harps on the historical inevitability of the return to Suvarnabhumi.
India-Asean relations are almost an extension of India-Singapore relations. There would have been no revival of the former if Singapore had not powerfully and persistently courted India since the late Fifties because it seeks a balance of forces. India has since developed economic ties with Thailand and Vietnam, restored Cambodian monuments and is discussing a free trade agreement with Asean as a whole. The Bay of Bengal and Mekong-Ganga cooperation projects aim at developing sub-regional ties.
Several separate and parallel movements led to Asean’s birth. The immediate catalyst in 1967 was a meeting of five regional foreign ministers camouflaged as a golfing holiday in a Thai beach resort. But that was only the last act in a sequence that began in 1947 when Carlos P. Romulo, the foreign minister of Philippines, suggested an Asiatic Organization, while attending Jawaharlal Nehru’s conference on Indonesia in New Delhi. Other proposals and counter-proposals followed; India dropped out as the Asiatic Organization gave way to the Pacific Union which led to the narrower geographic definitions of ASA (Association of South-east Asia) and MAPHILINDO (Confederation of Malaya, Philippines and Indonesia) and eventually Asean’s Bangkok Declaration of August 8, 1967.
ASA’s founders noted that the word means “hope” in the common Malay language of all three countries though without realizing that this is yet another Indian gift to the region. More relevantly, India’s external affairs minister, M.C. Chagla, proposed a Council of Asia in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta three months before Asean’s birth; Mrs Gandhi also told the Lok Sabha that such a council would promote “economic, technical and other ties with neighbouring south-east Asian countries” and that India had “a vital interest” in the relationship. When there was no response, she and Chagla declared repeatedly that India was prepared to join any regional conference if asked, but no one asked, though ASEAN’s founders did invite Sri Lanka. As Mrs Gandhi said in 1971, south-east Asia saw India as a very large but poor nation whose population lived in abject poverty and whose leaders were idealists with a philosophy that bore little relevance to current realities.
Lee tried to involve India in the region because he alone thought India’s “weight and girth” would be an effective bulwark against communist subversion or invasion. The threat perception has changed over the decades and so has the character of the favoured antidote. But in essentials, both remain much the same. The region is still concerned about security, though security has acquired a much broader connotation. And India’s increasingly close association with Asean is still seen as lending weight to a disparate region that might be under siege.
Speaking on Tuesday under the aegis of Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore’s prime minister and the elder Lee’s son, acknowledged in his Asean Lecture that many investors see member countries “as 10 isolated, scattered national economies, too small to be worth paying attention to”. What he left unsaid was that India’s “weight and girth” (his father’s phrase) can give the group substance and coherence. Instead, by tactfully bracketing Asia’s two giants whose rise “has transformed the strategic landscape and created new dynamics within Asia”, he sought to reduce the threat to the level of only competition for investment and markets. That is the Asean way; so is the tactic of turning rivals into partners to blunt the edge of danger. Singapore’s coup de grâce is the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement signed in 2005. It may not quite establish a borderless union with India, but it does give Singapore the space it has always sought for security and even survival.
India could have joined Asean in 1980 if P.V. Narasimha Rao, then external affairs minister, had not suddenly cancelled his planned attendance at the Kuala Lumpur summit after Asean’s criticism of India’s recognition of Cambodia’s Heng Samrin regime annoyed Mrs Gandhi. She may have derided “Coca-Cola governments” then, but not earlier. Twelve years later, India became a sectoral dialogue partner for trade, investment, tourism and science and technology, and was admitted as a full dialogue partner in 1995. Joining the Asean Regional Forum — the nearest Asia has to a dispute-resolution machinery — the following year and the East Asia Summit in 2005 sealed what might be called a reconfiguration of ties that go back 2,000 years.
India-Asean trade now stands at more than $14 billion. With travel and tourism also increasing, plans to establish road and rail links are a reminder that Ong Keng Yong, Asean’s just-retired secretary-general and a former Singapore high commissioner to India, described the 2004 India-Asean car rally as “not merely a social encounter between ASEAN and India but a trail-blazing beginning”. But it is still only a beginning. India might catch up with Asean’s trade with other Asian countries (Japan’s $150 billion and China’s more than $100 billion) as its own economy stabilizes and expands, but the purpose of the alliance — from south-east Asia’s point of view — would be defeated if China’s public relations offensive is allowed to overwhelm the region.
Unlike Africa, where Chinese help for Sudan’s government encourages the Darfur genocide, the south-east Asian initiative may be innocent except, perhaps, in Myanmar. There it helps both to prop up an egregious regime and to extend Beijing’s military network. But the gift of public buildings (the presidential palace and foreign ministry) in Dili, capital of Timor Leste, for instance, illustrates the overtures through which the Chinese hope to overcome mistrust and win over the region.
India has a rich reservoir to draw on for matching programmes in the fields of language, religion, art, architecture, history and culture that call for political will even more than funds. To neglect this opportunity would repeat on a bigger scale the loss of the Myanmarese oil and gas pipeline for which India was negotiating. It is not only a question of rediscovering Suvarnabhumi. A historic leavening of cultures inspired the ancient synthesis of Indochina. Asean needs that duality more than ever today to maintain the region’s political and economic equilibrium.