Look East, but don’t appease China

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India should develop its Buddhist circuit for ASEAN pilgrims.
India should develop its Buddhist circuit for ASEAN pilgrims.

The recently concluded Indo-ASEAN Summit in New Delhi marked the most notable success of Indian foreign policy over the past two decades.

Sadly, no recognition is being accorded to the visionary role of former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, who realised the crucial importance of greater economic cooperation and integration of a liberalised Indian economy, with the dynamic economies of Japan, South Korea and India’s South-East Asian neighbours, who are all now members of the ASEAN regional grouping.

Rao’s visionary policies have been carried forward by successor Governments, headed by Atal Behari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh.

It has also to be acknowledged that Rao’s efforts were successful, largely because of the recognition of Singapore’s elder statesman Lee Kuan Yew and his successor, Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong that an economically vibrant India would have an important role in the maintenance of peace and security in ASEAN’s neighbourhood, extending from the Indian Ocean to the shores of South China Sea.


India’s dialogue with ASEAN is not limited to annual Summits. There are now annual meetings between the Defence Ministers of ASEAN on the one hand and its partners such as China, Japan, South Korea and India, on the other.

ASEAN is the driving force behind the East Asian summit, which brings together its ten members with the US, Russia, China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand.

India has consciously taken a low-key posture in ASEAN forums, stressing the need for ASEAN to be the driving force for consensual efforts to build peace, security and progress across the entire Indo-Pacific Region.

Interestingly, the Vision Statement issued at the New Delhi Summit alludes to ASEAN appreciation for “India’s role in peace and stability”. India, in turn, recognises “ASEAN’s centrality” in “economic structures and institutions currently emerging in the region”.

Whether ASEAN can retain its traditional unity in dealing with external challenges, in the face of an assertive and domineering China, however, remains to be seen.

While attention is focused on India’s trade relations with China and the US, what is often overlooked is that India’s trade with ASEAN, which reached an estimated $79 billion last year and is scheduled to reach $100 billion by 2015, has increased ten times over the past decade. Investment flows in the same period amounted to $43 billion. Moreover, with a virtual “open skies” policy governing air travel, more and more Indians now visit ASEAN countries, notably Thailand and Singapore.

While economic integration with Japan, South Korea and ASEAN has been mutually beneficial, India would do well to tread cautiously on its endorsement of the China-backed proposal for a “Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.”

This proposal seeks to convert India’s entire eastern neighbourhood, including China, into a free trade and investment area. Indian industry is already reeling under the pressure of imports from China. There is a total absence of transparency in China’s fiscal and economic policies and the obvious subsidies to its exports. Further opening of the Indian economy to Chinese goods and services must be undertaken only when it includes measures that safeguard Indian industry, particularly in key areas such as power, communications, electronics and other employment-oriented areas.

Given its strategic partnership with ASEAN, India can no longer perpetually sit on the fence, on emerging tensions between ASEAN countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines on the one hand and China, on the other.

China appears ready to use force to enforce its territorial claims, ignoring the provisions of the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas, on its maritime frontiers with South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia. China is also becoming more rigid on its border claims on the entire State of Arunachal Pradesh and in Ladakh.

Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung noted: “I hope India fully supports ASEAN in the full implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and the six point principles on South China Sea…”

External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid virtually rejected this appeal asserting: “Sometimes doing nothing about conflict is about not doing something”. This may sound glib, but it wins us no friends and is a recipe for appeasing a China that supplies nuclear weapons wherewithal to Pakistan and seeks to undermine Indian influence across its Indian Ocean neighbourhood.


Very little has been done to utilise our “soft power” through the promotion of the ancient Buddhist links between India and its eastern neighbourhood. There are between 150-190 million Buddhists in South-East Asia, with an estimated 134 million Theravada Buddhists in Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia.

While the Union Government is developing the Nalanda University, the Madhya Pradesh Government has undertaken a commendable initiative, establishing an International University for Buddhist-Indic Studies in Sanchi.

It is imperative that New Delhi develops a comprehensive scheme for developing and linking the sites of Buddhist heritage across Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and UP into a global hub for Buddhist tourism and studies.

The scheme should include the development of international airport facilities in Patna and Bhopal, together with six lane highways linking Buddhist sites and a range of hotels, rest houses and other facilities.

A comprehensive proposal on these lines can perhaps be put forward at the next ASEAN and East Asian Summits, by the Prime Minister.

(The author is former High Commissioner to Pakistan.)

(This article was published on January 2, 2013)
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