Close ties needed

The Look East policy is in danger of becoming just Talk East

By Sunanda K. Datta-Ray
  • Published 2.06.18

Narendra Modi's kite-flying welcome as he stomped over trodden ground in Indonesia owed much to China whose premier, Li Keqiang, was received last month with similar warmth and ceremony. China is Indonesia's biggest trading partner, the largest investor in the region and has enjoyed a strategic relationship with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations for 15 years. Indonesia and China have been comprehensive strategic partners for five years. But as in Vietnam, China's bullying pursuit of national objectives has obliged a loyal regional ally to look with renewed enthusiasm at ancient alternative linkages.

Flamboyant, bombastic and often stridently pro-China, Indonesia's first president, Sukarno, claimed the Srivijaya empire (7th to 12th century) as his country's progenitor. But India's presence is elusive. When Jaswant Singh was expounding on Hindu influence, Balinese culture, and the Sanskrit meaning of Megawati Soekarnoputri's name, Paul D. Wolfowitz, George W. Bush's Bahasa-speaking deputy defence secretary, a future ambassador to Indonesia, murmured Rabindranath Tagore's observation on Indonesia, "I see India everywhere but find it nowhere." Hopes of finding it (before the Chinese) might explain high-powered Indian visits. Whereas previous external affairs ministers preferred Western capitals, Jakarta was Mahommedali Currimbhoy Chagla's first destination. With his sensitivity to past and future alike, Jawaharlal Nehru, who makes all subsequent incumbents appear dehati, went there four times. Indira Gandhi paid two visits. So did Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Charged with P.V. Narasimha Rao's vision, and too honest to tinker with its wording in order to gloat over a seemingly new coinage, Manmohan Singh paid three visits. They went for India. Modi's speeches suggest he went for the Bharatiya Janata Party.

The man who started the Look East ball rolling, dubbed India's Deng Xiaoping by Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew, went just once. That too only for the 1992 non-aligned nations summit. As external affairs minister, Narasimha Rao was scheduled to attend Asean's 1980 ministerial meeting in Kuala Lumpur where its engagement with India was to be announced. There was a flurry of conjecture when his mother's illness prevented the visit. Narasimha Rao never forgot the unflattering constructions placed on his absence. Nor could he forgive Indonesia's foreign minister, Mochtar Kusumaatmadja, for declaring patronizingly that Asean was including even "developing countries" like India in its dialogue.

The stimulus for close ties is even stronger today. The normally quiet Joko Widodo's fulminations against China's so-called "nine-dash line" and determination to resist Chinese maritime intrusion into the renamed North Natuna Sea stir memories of the bloodbath of 1965-66 when three million Chinese, members of the world's biggest communist party, may have been butchered. The purge took place against the background of Sukarno's meeting with Zhou Enlai. China had armed his personal militia while Indonesia's generals were in cahoots with the American Central Intelligence Agency. The Chinese still matter. Even if it's an exaggeration that 3.5 per cent of the population controls 70 per cent of the economy, ethnic Chinese own most top conglomerates. With its involvement in West Bengal, the Salim Group, founded by Indonesia's "richest and most influential Chinese businessman", might have provided a major linkage between the two countries.

Sukarno's ridicule of Nehru's pronunciation of Allahabad obviously covered more serious objections that the Chinese exploited. Southeast Asians often resented India's leadership role and the attitudes of Indian bureaucrats. Lee's assessment that Sukarno had a "megalomaniac streak" made things worse. Sukarno saw himself as Asia's paramount leader and a global power broker. China and the Soviet Union instigated him for their own ends. The Chinese must have been gratified when Sukarno threatened to seize the Nicobar Islands (92 nautical miles away) and send a submarine, two air force squadrons and a million "volunteers" to fight India. Rampaging mobs ransacked India's embassy, consulate and information centre and Air India's Jakarta office. Air India and Garuda suspended flights, and Indonesia closed down its Calcutta consulate.

But China did India a service. Initially, Indonesia repulsed Singaporean efforts to induct India into regional groupings, convinced it alone should dominate the region after the Americans left. It was only when Indonesians discovered the Chinese were entering Southeast Asia in a big way that they changed their minds about India. Suharto decisively supported Goh Chok Tong's "India fever" because his government was apprehensive about Chinese intentions. Indonesia is wary of any hint of hegemony, and Goh's warning about India's naval build-up reflected Indonesian fears about reports of Russia using the Great Nicobar naval base. Lee explained this small country-big country complex and the responsibilities that go with size, population and capacity to Rajiv Gandhi. If the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation hoped to emulate Asean, he said, it should remember that "Suharto set out by letting it be known he was not going to be the big boss". Unlike the grandiloquent Sukarno, Suharto accommodated the views of the region's smallest countries. He was deferential to their leaders almost to the point of anonymity. It might have been added later that not many Afro-Asian powers would accept the verdict of the United Nations and surrender sovereignty as Indonesia had done in East Timor.

The East Asia Summit in December 2005 reflected Indonesia's altered perceptions. Malaysia wanted an Asean plus Three - China, Japan and South Korea - meeting, and Wen Jiabao, China's premier, promptly offered hospitality. But Asean took two crucial decisions. First, India, Australia and New Zealand would also be invited. Second, a summit in China would move the centre of gravity away from Southeast Asia and make some countries anxious. "We agreed we should keep the centre in Asean," Lee explained. "India would be a useful balance to China's heft." He called it a getting-together of countries that believe their economic and cultural relations will grow over the years. It would also restore the balance between the two ancient civilizations that had created Indochina.

Widodo, who could not be more unlike Sukarno or even the strong, silent Suharto, has the delicate task of healing the wounds of history while building a new future on the foundations of the past. China's Li is a familiar, having last visited Indonesia in 2008 when he was deputy prime minister. High on the agenda when the two met before Modi arrived were the Indonesian sector of China's Belt and Road Initiative, plans for a Jakarta-Bandung high-speed train and improved trade relations, especially enhanced sales of Indonesian palm oil to China. The visit allowed Widodo gently to remind his guest that the world's most populous country (China) and the fourth most populous (Indonesia) should be able to provide the benefits of peace, stability and welfare to the world.

Accounts of VIP travels engender a sense of déjà vu. It's all happened before. The Shared Vision document Modi and Widodo endorsed recalls Narasimha Rao's pledge that "the Asia-Pacific region will be our springboard to the global market-place". Modi's 30-day visa scheme fell far short of Nehru's dream of "a common nationality for India and all these regions of South-east Asia". Even the novelty of names can fade. If Widodo's grandson is Srinarendra, Biju Patnaik suggested Megawati, Goddess of the Clouds, for Sukarno's daughter. She, in turn, called her daughter Orissaputri, Daughter of Orissa. Muslim Indonesia has so thoroughly internalized the Ramayana through its wayang kulit puppeteers that there's an old story about a visiting Indian dignitary being asked after a performance, "I believe you have something like it in your country too?"

They told me when I bought a Ganesh on the road to Yogjakarta that it was only a garden decoration for Indonesians. In the Prambanam temple later I found flowers tucked between the elephant god's toes. Ganesh is still worshipped. But Narasimha Rao's Look East is in danger of becoming not Act East but Talk East. And the talk is often only kite-flying for the next election.