The Asian Balance: Recognising good neighbours

My new monthly column in Business Standard is called The Asian Balance. It “will devote itself to chronicling and interpreting the unfolding geopolitics of East Asia. It will be a unabashed advocate of Looking East far beyond the Straits of Malacca. Rebuilding the economic, cultural and political relationships that India historically shared with the countries and the peoples to its East has never been more important to our future than it is today.”

The first piece is up. Here’s an excerpt:

Three factors will shape the Asian balance: first, nuclear weapons—what I call the New Himalayas—will shift the India-China contest away from a direct military conflict along the land border. It will take place, among others, in and around the Indian Ocean. It will play out in the form of increased Chinese presence in the waters off India’s coast and renewed US engagement of Asean countries. The big question is to what extent will India be a player in areas that China considers its backyard.

Second, the small- and medium-sized countries of the region will prefer a balance where no single power dominates over them. If they do not see this forthcoming, they are likely to join the stronger side. What this implies is that the importance they give to their relationship with India will depend on their assessment of whether New Delhi has the capability, and the will, to contribute to the balance.

Third, unless there is an addition to the number of nuclear powers in East Asia, there will be a preference to create and work through regional multilateral institutions like the Asean Regional Forum (ARF) and the East Asia Summit (EAS). The absence of direct nuclear deterrence in the Western Pacific has emboldened China to claim almost the entire South China Sea as its own. All the activity in East Asia trying to form one big workable grouping is premised on the unfounded hope that a powerful China will play by the rules it promises to. [Business Standard]

2 thoughts on “The Asian Balance: Recognising good neighbours”

  1. India’s economy is one-third the size of China and its trade is even smaller. Competitiveness is a major issue. The Free Trade Agreement with ASEAN is a major step in shifting trade orientation away from the moribund economies of the E.U. and the U.S. Still, Indonesia appears to capture the imagination of Indian business only as a source of cheap coal, or an outlet for surplus stocks of Bajaj scooters. And all the civilizational links, etc., are either an afterthought or an academic anchor for geo-platitudes amidst the rising and probably enduring role of China, in India’s neighborhood.

    Nitin is right in pointing out the enormous scope for economic synergies, common regional political positions and so on. But, asides from SBY’s visit to New Delhi, are we ready to really institutionalize this bilateral relationship in a way that reshapes East Asian politics for a long time to come? I don’t see any evidence to that effect at all.

    Moreover, Indonesia itself is a status quo power, and, although, it is the biggest country in ASEAN, it rarely projects power or drives the ASEAN agenda in any meaningful way. It occassionally gets into territorial or cultural spats with neighboring Malaysia, but, other than that, they are quite content with grappling with their internal corruption versus reform issues. They have their own lighter version of bollywood drama (Jollywood?), have ups and downs with their islamists and their ahmadiyas.

    So the bottomline is, it is a rising economy and all, I love the people and Bali is really fascinating; but, I’m struggling to visualize a coherent narrative for why and how a closer India-Indonesia relationship will be such a tremendously good thing?


  2. Nitin

    Indonesia is important but not the only player in the game. If India has to be a dominant player in the cold war unfolding in the two oceans to our East, we have to develop suitable alliances and work in tandem. By ourselves we can only achieve marginal trade payoffs.

    There are all other nations in awe of China and willing to be closer to America. Where does India fit into this calculus?

    Did you get the earlier piece on the cold war emerging in the region…We think we can play a major role in ASEAN backed by US, if needed, for greater cooperation trade and of course military to military exchanges. The NY Times articles linked to the post show US in dire straits and looking for greater influence with India in the region to counter Chinese influence. What is your take…how should India handle this opportunity with its dignity intact?

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