India and the Pacific Region

  • With rising new Asian powers like India and China, the balance of power in world politics is shifting dramatically

Mar 21, 2019-

The focus of international politics changes along with the rise and decline of powers. The Europe that dominated world politics for a long time discontinued to do so following the emergence of the two superpowers in the post-Second World War context. That too changed after the collapse of the Soviet Communist regime in 1990 making the United States of America the sole superpower. This scenario is also changing fast with rising new powers like China and India; the former being taken more seriously by the US because of China’s potentials of upgrading to rank first in power hierarchy. India’s economic growth record, stable democratic political structure, military might with nuclear power, population, and capacity to reach out to the wider world have of late  attracted the attention of both big and small powers.

Thus, Asia is in sharp focus with a plethora of books and policy papers surfacing in recent years as if Asia-Pacific region is being rediscovered. SD Muni and Rahul Mishra’s new book India’s Eastward Engagement: From Antiquity to Act East Policy (Sage, 2019) is yet another addition to the literature concerning the Asia-Pacific region. In fact, the book endeavours to re-establish the civilisational links of India with the countries east of India stating that “India’s idea of the East has evolved through centuries. Geography, ‘civilisational and cultural moorings, economic aspirations and strategic concerns” are the drivers of Indian policy thrust.  The extent to which the Hindu, Buddhist and Islamic religions have made impacts on South East and East Asian countries are now revived for greater connectivity and economic benefits.  It is also interesting to note that such influences coming from South Asia have contributed to the evolution of a “synthesis” of various religious and cultural trends. So it is “indeed unique that mostly the Islamic and Buddhist countries of the region (except Vietnam) continue to celebrate different forms of the Hindu epic Ramayana as a cultural art [sic] form. Mughal cultural life evinces a fascinating blend of Persian and more local styles” so much so Emperor Akbar was committed to translate Sanskrit classics into Persian ( see What China and India once Were, (Penguin, 2018, p.10).

Chapter 2 of the book has a good narrative of “waves of history” with highlights Hindu and Buddhist waves, the spread of Islam in Southeast Asia, the Colonial Rule and the development of a common goal of anti-colonialism. In fact, Muni and Mishra have underlined three broad driving forces for making India’s Eastward engagement. The first is common religious and civilisational linkages, the second deals with the spread of Islam in Southeast Asia, and the third is related to colonial rule, and the freedom struggle in India and other Asian countries. A separate chapter the “Nehru Wave” presents a good narrative of Jawaharlal Nehru’s India and other countries of Asia-Pacific region (now Indo-Pacific).  Nehru’s ideology and world vision had made deep impacts on formulating the principles of Panchsheel or five principles of peaceful coexistence. The Bandung Conference, held in 1955 in Indonesia, has been described by the authors as “the zenith of India’s multilateral diplomacy, especially in the context of its eastward engagement”. It is here that China was also roped in the group but later proved to be inconsequential insofar as China- India relations were concerned.

The post-Bandung phase of bilateral and multilateral dynamics brought some significant changes, with divergences

dominating in their approaches to each other. Although some of the members of the Bandung conference were instrumental in giving shape to the Non-aligned movement held in Belgrade, Yugoslavia , in 1961, the old camaraderie soon punctured. How Nehru’s image shrunk after Bandung has been well analysed in the book. It was also observed that Nehru’s vision of democratic world also suffered a setback when country after country started turning to authoritarianism. President Sukarno of Indonesia opted for Guided Democracy tailored to his authoritarian ambition, military dictatorship in Burma, just to mention a few, made Nehru sad. The Sino-Indian border conflict in 1962 shattered him as he had never expected China would ever open a war front against India.

How personality (leadership) matters in international politics—either for changing the course of history or for ruining the prospects of peace and stability—has been demonstrated by focusing on leaders and their respective ambitions, temperaments and strategies. In the Indian context, however, Nehru’s successors, Indira Gandhi, Rajive Gandhi, Atal Behari Vajpayee, PV Narasimha Rao, Man Mohan Singh and now Narendra Modi have further given impetus to India’s Look East (now Act East) policy.

India as an ‘emerging power’ has achieved its status in the hierarchy of nations. One of the most striking aspects of such emergence is its democratic stability. The country is well poised for emerging as a strong country despite multiple challenges faced by it. The renaming ‘Indo-Pacific Region’, in lieu of Asia-Pacific, is taken as recognition of India’s stature as if it is the fulcrum of the regional strategic order. India has had been consistently advocating for declaring the Indian Ocean a free area in order to neutralise big powers’ rivalry in its vicinity. Such declaration might have come in the wake of the cold war tensions, but now it is more focused on China than on other Western powers, who, along with India, perceive China as the principal rival power in the world. Nevertheless, Prime Minister Modi’s major policy speeches made in recent years suggest that India can neither fully embrace the strategic objectives of Western powers led by the US, nor can it be too aggressive against China with whom it needs to be both competitive and cooperative. Realising their limitations, China and India have been able to maintain peace along the border despite the occasional flash points seen for bigger conflagration. In the concluding chapter, the authors are of the opinion that “India has been seeking peaceful coexistence with China since the early 1950s”.

India has thus taken initiatives from time to time, the latest being the Wuhan Summit and the institutionalisation of ‘informal summit’ that takes place regularly. For authors, the “broader policy-level challenge for India in the Indo-Pacific region is to cope with the uncertainty precipitated by the Sino-US rivalry” that manifests in a variety of areas including trade and strategic calculations. Not only India, other smaller countries of Indo-Pacific region also face the dilemma on formulating a sound foreign policy to calibrate the emerging trends in the region.

Based on a plethora of source materials that have been dug out from ancient to present time, the book provides enough inputs for tracing India’s engagement with the Indo-Pacific region.  It is less analytical in its thematic development, but the narrative itself is full of flavour making it a valuable contribution to India’s foreign policy.

Baral is a professor of Political Science and former ambassador of Nepal to India.

Published: 21-03-2019 10:00

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