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. Read more

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China in South Asia: Influence and Feedback

Presentation made at the British High Commission, New Delhi, 22 August 2013.

Outline

A. Developing countries, Duo

–          ideological connect

  • non-Western
    • genuine Marxist feeling in the unity of the Third World
    • minus the Maoist “you’re either with us or against us”
  • coalition building

–          common national interests

  • anti-Western / non-Western
  • international organizations
  • trade
  • energy security

B. China Solo Read more

Issues and Considerations in Connectivity Projects in the BCIM Region

This is an updated version of a presentation made at Session II: Strengthening Multi-modal Connectivity, 11th BCIM (Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar) Regional Cooperation Forum, Dhaka, Bangladesh, 24 February 2013. 

The objective of this presentation is to draw some lessons for the implementation of physical connectivity infrastructure projects in underdeveloped areas within the BCIM sub-region using experiences from some ongoing infrastructure projects in the region.

1. Objectives of Connectivity

At the outset it is important to define what physical connectivity will achieve. ‘Economic development’ is an objective, certainly but the expression can mean different things to different constituents. Ordinarily, better roads and improved telecom connectivity lead to increases in the volume of trade, the movement of labour and so on. However, in the absence of a rational policy on and/or management of border trade for example, better roads will only increase the volume of illegal/informal trade. This does not help the authorities in increasing revenues in the form of tax collections and therefore, in getting adequate returns on investments made in developing physical infrastructure. Read more

India and Myanmar: Some Chinese Perceptions and Linkages

Manmohan Singh’s visit to Myanmar in late May – the first by an Indian Prime Minister in 25 years – inevitably brings up comparisons to what China does in Myanmar. It is therefore interesting to see how the Chinese themselves perceived the visit.

While the Chinese Foreign Ministry did its job by being diplomatic and welcoming the Indian visit, the state-run Global Times – known for its vituperative comments about China’s rivals – had an editorial titled “Myanmar trip shows India’s deluded mindset,” (29 May) that seemed designed to offend. Yet, the article also captures the many lines of thinking that operate simultaneously in China when it comes to India. Read more

Institutionalizing the BCIM: The Next Steps

Presentation made in Session 5: Institutional Arrangements at the 10th Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar (BCIM) Regional Cooperation Forum, Kolkata, 19 February 2012.

There has been a constant debate between India and China about bringing the Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar (BCIM) Regional Cooperation Forum up to the full Track-1 level. There is the example of the Russia-India-China Track-2 dialogue that has a parallel Track-1 process starting with meetings of the three foreign ministers and later followed by regular meetings of the heads of government. This was no doubt inspired also by the post-9/11 scenario of unilateral US actions and the need for an alternative global order formulation. The point is that this can be done.

Today, the BCIM is in effect a Track-1.5 process, involving both scholars as well as officials even if the level of official participation varies from country to country. It is understood that for all the flexibility of the Track-2 mechanism, any real action is only possible if government officials are involved.  But since the flexibility is useful, a case can be made for Track-1.5 plus Track-1 level interactions, so that governments have a role to play at all stages. Read more

Regional Connectivity: The Gaps ‘on the Ground’

Presentation made in Session 3: Regional Connectivity: Tourism, Transport & Infrastructure at the 10th Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar Regional Cooperation Forum, Kolkata, 18 February 2012

Assam has the look of great reserves of strength and potential power…I have no doubt that great highways by road, air and rail will go across her connecting China and India, and ultimately connecting East Asia with Europe. Assam will then no longer be an isolated far away province but an important link
between the East and West.

Jawaharlal Nehru

after a visit to then undivided Assam, December 1945[1]

Nearly 70 years later – including over 10 years of the BCIM initiative – regional connectivity has little to show by way of progress. There is an almost never-ceasing flow of ideas, as well there should be, in a sub-region with a long history of cultural and economic connections. But despite the end of the Cold War and the rapid expansion of regionalism the world over, including in the immediate neighbourhood in the form of various ASEAN mechanisms and the SCO, the BCIM sub-region seems caught in a time warp of sorts. Why is this the case?

One part of the answer might lie in other regional mechanism that neighbours the BCIM initiative, namely, SAARC. With the South Asian grouping still moribund, let us face it – the infection that ails the BCIM process is of Indian subcontinental origins.  The connectivity “gaps” in the BCIM sub-region extend to 4 major areas: population movement, transport infrastructure, communications infrastructure and development infrastructure.
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The Age of the Lilliputians

There has been a flurry of visits over the past few months by leaders of the smaller South and East Asian nations to either or both of the Big Two of Asia, namely China and India.

In the space of a few weeks, the presidents of Vietnam and Myanmar and the Prime Minister of Nepal have come visiting India. Pakistan’s top ruling elite have increased the frequency of their visits to China in recent years while in August, the Sri Lankan President made his second trip to Beijing in less than a year.

What is interesting about these visits as well as return visits by Chinese and Indian leaders is that the old paradigm of the smaller countries being the supplicants is changing. Read more

Hillary Clinton’s India Visit: Chinese Elephant in the Room

During her visit to India for the 2nd Indo-US Strategic Dialogue, last week, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called upon India to “not just to look east, but to engage east and act east as well”. But the problem in New Delhi might well be an incapacity to ‘think east’ beyond the boundary dispute with China or trying to retain a toehold against Chinese dominance in Myanmar.  What engagement there is occurs in the economic domain but India remains overcautious in its political and military outreach to the Asia-Pacific. Read more

Rising India’s Foreign Policy: A Partial Introduction

Originally published as Jabin T. Jacob, “Rising India’s Foreign Policy: A Partial Introduction,” in D. Suba Chandran and Jabin T. Jacob (eds.), India’s Foreign Policy: Old Problems, New Challenges (New Delhi: Macmillan, 2011): 1-22.


Current Indian foreign policy is informed by a realization that a combination of economic reforms and the end of the Cold War has steered India into a position of some considerable influence in the post-9/11 world. This is influence of a kind that India did not have in the years following Independence. What India had then was a moral standing which it could make little use of, boxed in as it was by the contingencies of a Cold War division of the world. This division allowed very little leeway for the Indian policy of non-alignment, which ended up being not so much an alternative as a means of holding the line, until India could find itself in a more favourable geopolitical situation. Further, unlike in the post-Independence phase, India today often appears reluctant to exercise what influence it has outside South Asia and sometimes even within the region, keenly aware of the several continuing limits on its capabilities and having suffered from blowback on the few occasions it did, as was the case most tragically, in the assassination of former Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi.

Even as some old problems continue to keep India off-balance in international affairs, notably the issue of Kashmir, the world has also not stood still and new problems – both traditional and non-traditional – have emerged that have required India to step up and take a position on. These have included the fall of the monarchy and the ascension of the Maoists in Nepal in the immediate neighbourhood, the issue of Iran’s nuclear programme in the extended neighbourhood, and issues of global import such as climate change. And all this, even as the Indian foreign policy establishment remains woefully ill-equipped and understaffed to meet these challenges. What then are the patterns of Indian foreign policy behavior in the new century?

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