Book Review: India-Southeast Asia-China Triangular Dynamics

Originally published as Jabin T. Jacob, ‘Insights on a Triangular Relationship’, The Book Review, Vol. XLI, No. 12, December 2017, 12-13.

Amitav Acharya. East of India, South of China: Indian Encounters in Southeast Asia (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2017).

Karen Stoll Farrell and Sumit Ganguly (eds) Heading East: Security, Trade, and Environment between India and Southeast Asia (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2016).

The two volumes under review are dissimilar books – dissimilar in structure, approaches and style. And yet, in their juxtaposition also emerges many interesting insights on the common theme in the two volumes namely, of the triangular relationship between India, Southeast Asia and China. Amitav Acharya’s East of India, South of China has China much more upfront as a central factor but Heading East edited by Karen Stoll Farrell and Sumit Ganguly would not stand either without China being the unspoken elephant in the volume.

This is not surprising. India’s interest in Southeast Asia today is largely commerce-driven but China has never been far from the surface as a factor. Indeed, it has been the glue holding disparate Indian interests and faltering attention together for over the nearly three decades since the Look East Policy was announced. But only just. And this is evident in the scant resources devoted to the study of Southeast Asia and China in Indian academic institutions or to desk specializations within the government. And this despite a change in nomenclature to an ‘Act East’ policy, frequent claims of Indian civilizational contributions to and geopolitical interest in the two regions and despite China being India’s largest neighbour.

While India has a famed (infamous, according to some sections) group of China-wallahs within its foreign ministry, it is slim pickings almost in every other area of India’s foreign policy and segment its government or non-governmental sector.

This is true of Southeast Asia, too. Most Indians actually do not even count Thailand and Indonesia, and on occasion even Myanmar, as India’s neighbours. That is the level of both sea-blindness and lack of attention towards the east on which runs India’s Act East Policy and the background against which these two new volumes must be considered.

Farrell and Ganguly’s work have every sign of the conference collection – unbalanced in content and focus, even if the individual chapters are all well written. The editors do try to stitch together the disparate chapters into some sort of a unified narrative but do not quite succeed and their introduction remains thin and weak. The Indian policy analyst will find almost nothing that is new or original in the security and trade dimensions. The three chapters on the environment are all equally interesting if nothing else for the fact that the issues they cover – transboundary waters, knowledge sharing, the political economy of big infrastructure projects, including dam-building, are little examined in the study of India’s foreign policy. And yet, these chapters are also the weakest in terms of their ability to connect India and Southeast Asia. China is the stronger presence in this latter section and Southeast Asia inserted almost as if an afterthought.

Acharya’s work is, by contrast, an offbeat dive into the history of the ‘ideational and normative’ that animated independent India’s role in Southeast Asia. While not claiming to be comprehensive, he still manages to offer a coherent narrative and a clear hypothesis – that Southeast Asia is not likely to be subject to any sort of hegemony involving China or India.

Acharya’s book is quirky in places – ‘there were supposed to be more spies than delegates’ at the 1955 Bandung Conference (p. xxi) – and a delightful romp through history and personalities. One particular vignette that stands out is Nehru’s characterization of John Foster Dulles – ‘A man like Dulles is a great menace. He is a Methodist or a Baptist preacher who religiously goes to Church and he is narrow-minded and bigoted’ (p. 81) – cutting but accurate in its description of policymakers and the pious in more than one country and of more than one religion.

The strengths of Acharya’s book are in its sharp questions and his attempt to place the normative at the centre of geopolitics involving Southeast Asia and to show the way forward for a new kind of India-China bilateral relationship using their common neighbourhood as a medium. And yet as chapters by Bertil Lintner and Sanjoy Hazarika focusing on Myanmar and Northeast India respectively, in the edited volume indicate, both Nehru’s and Aung San’s ideas of an ‘Asian Federation’ were even in their time running up against problems of ethnic unrest and insurgencies and their related foreign and security policy implications that literally physically prevented Asian connectivity and continue to do so to this day.

The Farrell and Ganguly edited volume has three central themes that run through it – of the significance of borders, of the (lack of) implementation of India’s grand plans and projects both at home and in the neighbourhood, and of (the lack of) democratic accountability. Acharya’s volume too, reflects these issues, if obliquely.

A big part of India’s problems in Southeast Asia have to do with its inability to see the connection between the political ideals it professes at home and the foreign policy it implements abroad. Even a liberal and democrat like Jawaharlal Nehru did not often attempt to promote internationalism at the expense of his nationalism or of those of others. And the tendency has only grown weaker with each successive Indian political leader in power at New Delhi.

This in turn has led to the other problems of valuing sovereignty and its accouterments – including rigid ideas of borders and territorial spaces – above norms and ideas, and indeed, above any sense of Asianism. Finally, without either motivating principles or ideals, implementation of promised projects will be difficult, if not impossible, especially for countries like India whose state-owned companies and entrepreneurs are neither run by government diktat nor fear the lash of the whip whether of their political masters or of the market. And that is exactly what the record for India shows as David J. Karl brings out in his outstanding chapter in the Farrell and Ganguly volume on the gap between promise and performance of India’s connectivity projects in Southeast Asia.

And this Indian weakness is what in turn weakens Acharya’s central hypothesis that Southeast Asia will not be dominated by China or India, that ASEAN, despite being dwarfed by the Chinese economy and threatened by China’s military might, retains considerable agency and remains a central player in its neighbourhood. The region could still be dominated by China even if, as Acharya argues, China will neither be capable of imposing its equivalent of the Monroe Doctrine nor be able to rejig the current Asian regional order to return to past imperial hierarchy with itself at the centre, simply because neither nearby New Delhi nor distant Washington offer genuinely viable political and economic alternatives to China.

As Acharya notes, great powers require not only hard power but legitimacy based on an attractive ideology, an ability to provide international public goods and ability to exercise restraint towards smaller states (p. 123). China, clearly fails in the first and third categories and most spectacularly so in its Southeast Asian neighbourhood, itself but India hardly does any better. If India has not been a more obnoxious power in recent years in Southeast Asia as many felt Nehru to be during the Bandung conference, it has perhaps less to do with any change of nature as with the lack of capacity and reach in the region. Certainly, India has a well-deserved reputation as a bully in its own neighbourhood – including in the latest instance imposing a painful fuel blockade of Nepal in 2015 – leavened only by such occasional magnanimity as under the Gujral Doctrine.

Acharya also underestimates China’s ability to keep ASEAN divided by turning on the charm and devoting considerable economic and political resources to the effort even as it goes about its salami slicing tactics in the South China Sea. The effort is all the more highlighted when viewed against the reality that none of China’s rivals for influence in the region devote such resources to counter the Chinese or support ASEAN. Indeed, India cannot, given its lack of both government and economic capacity.

Next, Acharya’s approach and optimistic view of the ASEAN’s role are driven by his observations of the structure of international relations and the regional order in isolation from domestic dynamics and the discourse in China and India of their place in the world. In China, for instance, narratives such as the ‘century of humiliation’ and the near total control that the state exercises on the flow of information to its own citizens lend considerable power and flexibility to its foreign policy.

China and India are also extremely large and complex societies with leaders currently who perforce think of foreign policy objectives as subservient to domestic priorities – perhaps, not more so than at any other time in their histories but certainly with more instruments of economic and political power as well as of force and technology than any of their predecessors possessed. This reality allows them to engage in tasks of nation-building that they perceive to have been left unfinished by their predecessors while also allowing them to ignore the niceties and conventions of international diplomacy when necessary. This is a far cry from both Nehru and Zhou Enlai at the Bandung conference, leaders who valued international stability and recognition as tools of domestic legitimation. Today’s Chinese and Indian leaders on the other hand, tend to value and view domestic acclamation as the source of their international standing.

Indeed, the Chinese and Indian political leaderships today, appear to be moving increasingly away from any universal norms, and on occasion are willing to drop even any pretensions to this effect. Their black-and-white views of what their respective domestic institutions and values ought to be as well as how they wish their external environment to look like – more often than not with little to no sensitivity towards what their neighbours or the rest of the world might think – are facts that cannot be dismissed lightly. Both China and India are turning increasingly towards nationalism as a source of domestic legitimacy. What is worrying and different from the ‘America first’ policy of the Donald Trump administration is that this turn away from universal ideas and norms is taking place in countries that are rising powers that ought to be more confident and self-assured of themselves.

And therefore, this reviewer has to disagree with Acharya’s contention that ‘India and China are going to develop fundamentally different identities as world powers, at least judging by their current developmental approaches and political systems’ (p. 125). If anything, the way the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party operates the levers of the government and its institutions as well as runs and justifies its politics and policies have some very disturbing similarities with the methods and rationale of the communists in China. And as the Chinese will be the first to tell you, there is no foreign policy that is not based on domestic fundamentals and interests. The Chinese and Indian governments today, and the objectives of their foreign policies might be more similar in nature than analysts acknowledge.



Published by Jabin T. Jacob

China analysis from an Indian perspective

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