India’s soft diplomacy in Asean: Re-building a bridge that was never broken?

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The Indian PM’s visit to Malaysia was hardly a case of a foreign premier visiting a foreign land; it was more akin to a visit by a long-gone relative, coming home to say hello, observes Farish Noor.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and wife being welcomed by Malaysian Human Resources Minister S Subramaniam and wife at KLIA - Photo credit: PTI/The Hindu

Indian premier Manmohan Singh’s recent visit to Malaysia comes at a time when India is also rediscovering its long historical and cultural links to the region, which scholars once dubbed ‘Greater India’. It coincides with efforts by numerous Indian bodies such as the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) to rebuild the cultural bridge with a part of the world that is so close to India, and yet somehow distant.

It also coincides with what appears to be a growing ‘soft diplomacy’ race by both India and China to re-assert their respective presence in the Asean region via diplomatic, academic and cultural activities. While India is busy trying to re-establish its long historical links to the region, few have noted that China has likewise joined in the race too: Over the past decade China has invested large amounts of money and intellectual capital into the many Confusianist Centres that have been set up in Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand. The role of these Confusianist Centres is likewise a cultural one: to trace the long presence of Confusianism in the Southeast Asian region and to promote the notion that Southeast Asia is also the home of millions of Confusianists. It therefore appears as if Southeast Asia is once again on the diplomatic and strategic map of the two great emerging powers of Asia: China and India.

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India’s seriousness in gaining a visible presence in the region should not be underestimated: The ICCR jointly organised a conference-tour of Indonesia with the help of Universitas Indonesia of Jakarta and Universitas Gajah Mada of Jogjakarta; and I was among the many Asean scholars who were invited to take part. Needless to say, these efforts signal a positive note in an increasingly upbeat relationship between the two regions – South and Southeast Asia – that ought to be encouraged and reciprocated by the governments of Southeast Asia as well.

Yet one of the findings of the conference-tour in Java was the lamentable lack of knowledge – particularly on the public, popular level – of our respective regions and societies. That the ICCR is now trying to rebuild the cultural and historical bridge with Southeast Asia is laudable, but it also beggars the question: surely, after thousands of years of cultural contact, we ought to realise that the bridge between our two parts of the world has never really been broken, even during the interregnum of the colonial era?

However it has to be noted here that the predicament we now face is partly to be blamed on the logic of nation-states and narrow ethno-nationalism as well. Historians will remind us that South and Southeast Asia have always been part of a common cultural continuum, and that the Indian Ocean has been the corridor that linked the shores of South and Southeast Asia together. For centuries the Indian Ocean was the populated seascape that connected communities and facilitated the movement of peoples, commodities and ideas. Hinduism, Buddhism and later Islam, arrived to Southeast Asia via the same sea-routes that brought generations of medicants and philosophers, merchants and sages to our shores.

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But in the postcolonial era much of our history has been written with the nation-state as the primary actor and mover of historical progress. And as a result, our national histories today – across Southeast Asia – are precisely that: national histories that begin and end at the frontiers of our respective nations. At the ICCR/UI/UGM conference it was pointed out that, even among Southeast Asians, knowledge of neighbouring countries is scant. Malaysians know little of Thailand, Thais know little of Indonesia, Indonesians know little of the Philippines. If that be the premise of our argument, then is it any wonder that we today know so little of India?

Here then lies the crux of ‘foreignness’: To be foreign, and to be regarded as such, has nothing to do with geography and everything to do with perception. If we think of the Other as foreign, then that is precisely what the Other is: foreign, alien, distant, incomprehensible and unknown. It is one of the most lamentable outcomes of narrow nationalism today that we in Southeast Asia know more of New York, London, Tokyo and Paris than we do of our neighbouring countries. And India seems to have receded way into the background as a distant concept tottering on the horizon of our knowledge of the world. The visit of India’s PM to Malaysia was therefore timely and must be followed up with effective gestures and programmes to ensure that this perception of distance and alienation are overcome. For a start, Area Studies are woefully under-resourced and under-financed in almost all of the universities of Asean today. Asean’s governments have simply not spent enough on the discipline of Area Studies, and in almost all Asean countries knowledge of their neighbours is derived from secondary media reports. How many Indonesian specialists does Malaysia have? And how many Malaysian specialists does Indonesia have? The same question can be asked around the table, only to be met with embarrassing silence.

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Here is also where academia can and ought to play a role in policy-making and data-collection. From research into the long historical connections with India (Sanskrit for example was and remains the basis of many languages of Southeast Asia, including Bahasa Malaysia, Bahasa Indonesia and Thai) to current developments in political economy. The ICCR’s efforts to bolster relations may be seen as a case of soft power diplomacy at work, but that should not detract us from its genuine academic and political worth. For when all is said and done, we have to remember that India is hardly a ‘foreign’ state to Southeast Asia, and never was: the Indian PM’s visit to Malaysia was hardly a case of a foreign premier visiting a foreign land, for a historian with a long-term perspective will tell you that in the broader context of our shared history, it was more akin to a visit by a long-gone relative, coming home to say hello.

Dr Farish A Noor, an Aliran member, is a Senior Research Fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, NTU, Singapore.

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1 COMMENT

  1. Your article by Dr Noor on Dr Manmohan Singh visit to Malaysia was interesting and evokes certain futiristic points.The influence of India,Indians,Sanskrit vechicular language,Hinduism and Buddhism and the various kingdoms that have influenced South East asia over the 2000 years have been forgotten by India.It will not take long for the Indian government to pursue along these lines to gain further diplomatic and cultural ties to these countries.But the present leadership of Indian polticians is not very long term like China.China seems to have a greater vision and looks at long term benefits for themsleves and this region by introducing Confucianist institutes.Hopefully Chinas interest does not loose its limits and become too greedy for this region.there is already early weak signals in Vietnam,ship encounter with Japan, and South China Sea.(These smaller nations want America back.)Observers and analysts have to observe carefully and can only watch with awe and fear which nation will step out of its boundary.It is very unlikely that India would want to annex further nations as it has never done in the history of India.this is a soft point for China as it has already taken sea routes to its advantage.It may want Indian ocean to be renamed far south West china Seas.The next 30-50 years will decide the future of these small nations.

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