The East Asia Summit’s postponement — whether because of typhoon or terrorism — may be a blessing in disguise for India. Whatever the outcome for India-Japan relations, earlier discussions with Shinzo Abe might help to clarify India’s position on what is emerging as a major concern for both the 10-nation Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) and five of the six dialogue partners who were scheduled to meet at Cebu in the Philippines this week.
Singapore’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, now styled minister mentor, pointed this out on the eve of his first official visit to New Delhi in 1962. Describing India as the one regional power that could balance China’s might, Lee said, “She is the only one that can keep the other end of the see-saw.” He saw India as an Asian player before Indians did, despite the flash in the pan of Jawaharlal Nehru’s vision and initiatives. Lee hoped India might fill the vacuum when British forces withdrew in the early Seventies. Later, he warned that Asia would be "submerged" if India did not "emerge".
Abe’s proposal for a Japan-US-India-Australia quadrilateral dialogue and a “new Asian order” based on shared democratic values that pointedly excludes China suggests psychological continuity across the region. On the eve of taking office, Abe said in his book, Utsukushi Kunihe (Towards a Beautiful Country), that “it will not be surprising if, in another 10 years, Japan-India relations overtake Japan-US and Japan-China relations.” In his view, “It is of crucial importance to Japan’s national interest that we will further strengthen our ties with India.”
This is a family tradition. Abe’s grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, visited India within months of becoming prime minister in 1957, and expected a robust partnership with India supplying Japan’s need for coal. The petering out of those expectations also explains Lee’s exasperation with Indian stagnation in the Seventies and Eighties, and India’s delayed participation in an area where it has always been a gentle presence behind the scenes. I don’t mean only misty memories of the Srivijaya and Majapahit empires, though they, too, matter, but modern links like the impact of the Communist Party of India’s 1948
Calcutta Conference on the South-east Asian insurrection or Ammar Siamwala being Thailand’s best-known development economist. Tamil and Sikh settlers throughout the region and hundreds of World War II refugees — including notables like the Malayan Sir Tan Cheng Lock and two pioneering Singapore bankers, Tan Chin Tuan and Lien Ying Chow — made for physical familiarity. Though arch enemies, Lee and his predecessor, David Marshall, both diligently sought Nehru’s support for their political strategies.
India’s failure to cash in on this historical legacy can be crudely summarised in a jingle recalled from childhood — “Money money money,/ Sweeter than honey,/ Brighter than sunshine/ Chai shokol prani.” The Bengali last line translates as “All creatures want it.” A starving mass of humanity, depressed by the Hindu rate of growth, another Upper Volta with missiles, could not pull its weight in Asia and the world. The phenomenon of “Rising India”, to quote the title of a recent workshop organised by Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, has only activated a dormant relationship and given it contemporary economic and strategic relevance.
That owes more to Lee’s urging than to any Indian compulsion. Indeed, middle-ranking Indian politicians and the bureaucrats who make or mar policy still often appear indifferent to his logic of a dynamic economy sustaining vigorous diplomacy. India has to realise its economic potential to fulfil Asia’s muted expectations, extend its own political reach and create opportunities for mutually beneficial interaction with the region. Economic partnership also legitimises security ties in a way that barren alliances like the South East Asian Treaty Organisation — anathema to India in any case — could not.
Nehru’s sensibilities might have been outraged at the idea of trade playing any part in his first American tour, but when PV Narasimha Rao visited Singapore in 1994, a Singaporean of some standing expressed the hope that the prime ministerial entourage would include veteran businessmen. Asean’s total trade exceeded $ 1 trillion in 2004; its 558 million people, constantly on the lookout for fresh pastures and new openings, are also sufficiently realistic to know that any binding relationship has to benefit both parties.
India has no reason, therefore, to fear a repetition of its experience with the East India Company, as Manmohan Singh, who enjoys a special niche in Asia as the “only begetter” of liberalisation, pithily put it. Wang Gungwu, the overseas Chinese scholar, offers an ingenious reason why other Asians don’t fear India either. Despite its internal mess, China projects the image of a strong unitary State speaking in one voice. Perceptions of unity, strength and prosperity generate awe. But India looks and sounds disunited, probably more than it actually is. The image helps. India doesn’t appear to threaten anyone in the region.
Important in itself, South-east Asia is also the geographical link with Japan, South Korea and China to the north, and Australia and New Zealand in the south. That vast area will expand further when, as seems inevitable, India is absorbed into the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) forum. Energy security, financial cooperation, bird flu, education and disaster management, the aborted summit’s agenda, are vital issues for countries struggling to reconcile the quest for economic progress with the need to guard against cruel acts of nature. But this does not take into account either the region’s overriding concern with security or the special interests of some individual members.
India is not a party to regional disputes, as over the Spratly Islands. Nor need it be distracted by a running argument between the leaders of Malaysia and Singapore or tensions between Japan and China and, to a lesser extent, between Japan and South Korea. But Abe’s proposal for a 16-nation free trade bloc to match the European Union is an invitation to reconsider the blinkers of autarky and protectionism and a thicket of rules and regulations that still obstructs the free flow of trade, investment and expertise.
India cannot ignore Islamic terrorist eruptions in Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines. The safety of sea-lanes is of paramount importance. So is the diaspora, marginalised in Myanmar, only slightly less so in Malaysia, but reinvigorated in Singapore through fresh blood and dynamic new contacts with the motherland. It’s only now realised that this overseas community is an asset, not a liability.
The two major reasons — trade and the flag — for engaging with Asia boil down to one. It has not changed since Narasimha Rao delivered the Singapore Lecture, inviting Lee’s comparison with Deng Xiaoping. Asked about resistance to foreign investors, Narasimha Rao retorted that Indian businessmen would “also form multinationals and go to other countries”. Aditya Birla, Ratan Tata, Lakshmi Mittal and India’s software giants have done just that. It was calculated at the time of the Asian meltdown that the Birlas had invested $ 1,000 million in Thailand and made a $ 2,500 million profit. Tatas’ $ 486 million acquisition of Singapore’s NatSteel takes the group to China, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines and Australia. But tremendous scope still remains. Only more energetic wealth generation can give India the muscle to hold the other end of the see-saw.
Sunanda K Datta-Ray is Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.