South and Southeast Asia once enjoyed close trade relations, which ultimately helped to lay the foundations of modern culture and society throughout the mainland and island chains of the latter. Both of the principal religions of Southeast Asia – Islam and Buddhism – arrived via the Subcontinent, usually on ships borne by the monsoon winds. Yet today it is common to assume that Southeast Asia feels a lot closer to China than to India.
Patterns of colonial rule had a lot to do with this protracted separation. Burma was never ‘good enough’ to be incorporated into greater British India, even if it was ruled from Calcutta. South and Southeast Asia were regional definitions concocted by allied military commanders during the Pacific War; never mind that at their nearest points, the islands of Indonesia and India lie less than 100 km apart.
In the modern postcolonial era, the development of South and Southeast Asia has been a study of contrasts. Southeast Asian states tended to be aligned rather than staunchly non-aligned, as with India. They tended to be capitalist, solidly anti-communist and freewheeling, not socialist and tied to tedious socialist Five Year Plans. States in Southasia remain locked in bitter conflict with one another, in contrast with Southeast Asia’s relative (if sometimes fragile) inter-state harmony. For all of these reasons, there has developed a gulf that reflects little of what the two regions actually have in common: Islam, Buddhism as well as Hinduism, the common use of the English language, and a great love of ancient traditions as well as modern nationalist symbols.
You have to cast back as far as the Bandung Conference, in Indonesia in 1955, to recall a time when South and Southeast Asia last truly chimed and communed on issues of common interest. It was really only after the late Congress Prime Minister P V Narashima Rao visited Singapore in 1994 that India’s more recent Look East policy started taking shape. In the meantime, while trade and other indices of cooperation have grown by leaps and bounds, there has remained a curious paucity of understanding. If the cultural influence of the West is waning, it is being replaced by Shanghai chic, not by Bollywood. Even Southeast Asia’s reflexive bid to escape China’s encroaching embrace has had little tectonic effect on the two regions, which remain physically near but realistically far from one another.
A major political impediment to this inter-regional relationship has been the reluctance by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to embrace Southasia, given all of the latter’s prickly bilateral and security problems. ASEAN officials prefer rounds of golf to red-faced arguments over ‘lines of control’. When some years ago there was debate about how to accommodate the wider Asian region into the newly formed ASEAN Regional Forum – a body expressly designed to discuss an expanded understanding of regional security – there was dismay at the prospect of having Pakistan and India haranguing each other over Kashmir. Southeast Asia does not have the stomach for the Subcontinent’s enduring conflicts – or the enduring memories and passions that fuel them.
When it comes to values, India’s much-vaunted democracy comes up short. Southeast Asia’s more developed countries would like to see Burma pushed towards progressive political change. Pressure from ASEAN has come to naught, in part because the Rangoon junta can afford to thumb its nose at its fellow ASEAN members, so long as India and China continue to vie for closer ties. When asked why India, the world’s largest democracy, is not interested in applying pressure on the junta to change, South Block mandarins generally say simply that India does not export its ideology. Meanwhile, India can rely on the Burmese army to conduct operations against Naga rebels on the troubled border with Assam.
In the end, there simply is not much empathy between the Subcontinent and Southeast Asia. India and Pakistan, as well as Bangladesh, have all inherited a good deal of the contempt the old Indian Civil Service felt towards Southeast Asia – all malarial and full of Scottish planters gone native. Indian diplomats are inclined to see their careers better served by postings in Washington or Beijing.
Perhaps these long-entrenched attitudes are not changing as quickly as they should. But there are larger dynamics driving the two regions together. Southeast Asia needs to find a counterbalance to China’s enfolding geopolitical and economic embrace. India needs a wider regional arena in which to play the incipient superpower. This explains why Thailand has pioneered attempts to open up a new regional development zone encompassing the Bay of Bengal; it also explains why ASEAN has welcomed India as part of the East Asia Summit process spearheaded by China.
The two regions may never be able to recreate the organic ties of trade and culture that helped establish Southeast Asia’s social and religious framework in the medieval period. But eventually they will have at least overcome the sad legacy of colonial divide and rule.
~ Michael Vatikiotis is a regional representative of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, and has lived in Southeast Asia for more than twenty years.