September 20, 2010The Asian Balancegeopolitics

South-east Asia is India’s neighbourhood

Rebuilding the economic, cultural and political relationships that India historically shared with the countries and the peoples to its East has never been more important to our future than it is today.

Business Standard This is an unedited draft of my monthly The Asian Balance column that was published in Business Standard from 2010-2017. The column’s agenda was to persuade Indian policymakers to take an active interest in a region that has since come to be called the Indo-Pacific.”

Think of a neighbouring country that has a Muslim majority, shares civilisational links with us, loves our movies, is emerging out of military rule, recovering from a major humanitarian disaster, confronting the Islamic fundamentalism that is threatening its plural society and is a fellow victim of terrorism? No, not that one. I’m referring to Indonesia.

You might be somewhat startled to hear of Indonesia being referred to as a neighbouring country. Yet it’s true. The northernmost island of the Indonesian archipelago is just around 167 km away from Great Nicobar. That’s closer than Maldives, which, at its closest is 340km away. Still, somehow, Maldives is considered a neighbour whereas Indonesia is not.

You often hear it being said that we can’t choose our neighbours. That, however, is exactly what we have done.

Despite the civilisational, cultural and geographical proximity of the two nations, for almost half a century now, India’s relations with Indonesia have been defined by New Delhi’s distance from Jakarta. The two capitals are 5000 km apart. The inability of the two countries to reduce the distance between their capitals has worked to their mutual detriment. But just as geopolitics of the twentieth-century kept India and Indonesia away from each other, the geopolitics of the twenty-first century could bring them closer.

The balance of power between the United States and the Soviet Union tilted the two leaders of the non-aligned movement in opposite directions. New Delhi found itself leaning towards Moscow, while Jakarta embraced Washington. Today Indonesia, like many of its East Asian counterparts is contemplating its strategy in the emerging regional balance of power. The dynamics of this balance will shape the future of our neighbourhood, if not the world, over the coming decades.

Three factors will shape the Asian balance: first, nuclear weapons—what I call the New Himalayas—will shift the India-China contest away from a direct military conflict along the land border. It will take place, among others, in and around the Indian Ocean. It will play out in the form of increased Chinese presence in the waters off India’s coast and renewed US engagement of ASEAN countries. The big question is to what extent will India be a player in areas that China considers its backyard.

Second, the small and medium-sized countries of the region will prefer a balance where no single power dominates over them. If they do not see this forthcoming, they are likely to join the stronger side. What this implies is that the importance they give to their relationship with India will depend on their assessment of whether New Delhi has the capability, and the will, to contribute to the balance.

Third, unless there is an addition to the number of nuclear powers in East Asia, there will be a preference to create and work through regional multilateral institutions like the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the East Asia Summit (EAS). The absence of direct nuclear deterrence in the Western Pacific has emboldened China to claim almost the entire South China Sea as its own. All the activity in East Asia trying to form one big workable grouping is premised on the unfounded hope that a powerful China will play by the rules it promises to.

The most important prerequisite for India to be an effective player in the Asian balance is a change in mindset. For too long has New Delhi convinced itself that India’s neighbourhood comprises of the countries along its land borders. Engaging the countries of the subcontinent is no doubt necessary, but it is both accurate and important for Indian civil society, businesses and government to understand that the lands across the seas are neighbours too. And what happens in the neighbourhood is of direct concern to us.

Back to Indonesia, a neighbour that can be more than that. The Indian government has done well to invite President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to be the chief guest at next year’s Republic Day parade. But we need to go much further if the symbolism of his visit is to translate into a re-invigorated relationship. The agreements that were signed during his 2005 visit achieved only modest, quiet outcomes.

According to the latest EIU forecast, the $540 billion Indonesian economy is set to grow at 6% over the next couple of years, its business environment is improving, is more open to trade, and investment licenses are easier to obtain. China’s trade with Indonesia is currently three times India’s. So, if people still say India’s neighbourhood is not conducive to its growth, it is only because we have denied neighbourhood to some neighbours.

You can read more of these columns in the The Asian Balance archive.

The Asian Balance will devote itself to chronicling and interpreting the unfolding geopolitics of East Asia. It will be a unabashed advocate of Looking East far beyond the Straits of Malacca. Rebuilding the economic, cultural and political relationships that India historically shared with the countries and the peoples to its East has never been more important to our future than it is today.

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