India's Relations with Southeast Asia Take a Wing

Southeast Asian Affairs, January 1, 2003 | Go to article overview

India's Relations with Southeast Asia Take a Wing


Satu P. Limaye

Introduction

Speaking at the inaugural India-ASEAN Summit held in November 2002 during the Eighth ASEAN Summit in Cambodia, Singapore's Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong portrayed India as one wing of ASEAN's jumbo jet, with the People's Republic of China (PRC) and Japan as the other wing.1 Leaving aside whether such a plane could take off, much less land, safely, the comment describes, certainly inadvertently, India's idiosyncratic ties with Southeast Asia both bilaterally and relative to the region's other formal partners. These attributes include: fresh and ancient links; importance and marginality; episodic engagement and occasional estrangement with long spells of detachment; and mutual insensitivity and over-sensitivity.

The erratic connections between India and Southeast Asia mean that a linear review of political, economic, and security ties will yield only a partial picture of current and possible future India-Southeast Asia relations. The approach employed here, therefore, is to briefly review the features of India-Southeast Asia relations, and then examine the manner and extent to which India's domestic politics and economics, its South Asian neighbourhood relations, and its foreign policy generally impinge upon its ties with Southeast Asia. For it is precisely these factors that have both facilitated and constrained India's rapprochement with Southeast Asia beginning in the early 1990s, and are likely to shape relations in the coming decade. The chapter concludes with a brief assessment of India-Southeast Asia relations.

The Curious Characteristics of India-Southeast Asia Relations

Though India's membership in Southeast Asia-wide political organizations is quite new (as are these organizations themselves), India's role in regional politics is not. The November 2002 inaugural India-ASEAN summit marks the acme of India's incremental inclusion in a network of ASEAN-driven initiatives that began with the establishment of an India-ASEAN "sectoral dialogue" in 1993. In 1995, India was elevated to the status of a full dialogue partner, and a year later India participated, for the first time, in the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). India is not included, however, in the ASEAN Plus Three grouping (including China, South Korea, and Japan), but instead being tacked on to ASEAN in a "Plus One" relationship.2 This indicates India's still peripheral role relative to ASEAN's other Asian partners.

Despite being one of the newest members of Southeast Asia's multilateral initiatives, India's contemporary political role in the region began in the 1940s and 1950s when India supported nationalist struggles in Southeast Asia, pushed for Asian solidarity and championed the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). For many reasons, discussed below, India virtually disengaged from the region, beginning in the early 1960s, and effectively did not re-engage until it launched a "Look East" policy in the early 1990s. Hence, India's now decade-long association with Southeast Asia's multilateral fora, combined simultaneously, though intermittently, with high-level bilateral diplomacy, marks a slow and fitful renewal of India's political involvement in the region.

A second notable feature of India's relations with Southeast Asia is that, notwithstanding the newness and inconstancy of political ties, India's "organic" ties with the region in terms of history, culture, and faith are arguably the deepest, richest, and most apparent of any of Southeast Asia's external partners. Buddhism, Hinduism, and to a lesser extent Islam, as well as traders, scholars, and in some ancient cases, rulers inextricably intertwine India and Southeast Asia. The presence of millions of Southeast Asians of Indian origin, as well as thousands of Indian labourers, principally in Malaysia and Singapore, reinforces these ties.

India's historic links with the region have been benign, and viewed by Southeast Asia as such.

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