New Delhi: Ahead of the arrival of leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in New Delhi to attend India’s Republic Day celebrations, Kishore Mahbubani, former dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, released his book, The Asean Miracle: A Catalyst for Peace, co-authored with Jeffery Sng.
In an interview, Mahbubani spoke about why Indian’s engagement with Asean needs to deepen, how Asean member-states (Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam) view Sino-Indian power play, and why Indians should be studying Asean history in more detail.
India ranks seventh as a trading partner and seventh in investments in the Asean region. Would having all Asean leaders invited as one bloc to attend the Republic Day ceremonies in India mean things will improve in the coming years?
Inviting the 10 Asean leaders together is a brilliant move by Prime Minister (Narendra) Modi. This is hugely symbolic. When you look at the Asean and India relationship, it is important not to think about it from a perspective of a few months or a few years, but take the perspective of 2,000 years. Most Indians are not aware that South-East Asia is essentially an Indian cultural hub. Nine out of the 10 Asean states have an Indic base, with only Vietnam with a Sinic base. The impact is very deep and profound.
These ties were cut off in the colonial period and thereafter we all became tied to our colonial mother countries. India looked more towards the West than the East. The 21st century provides a magnificent opportunity to India to re-establish the 2,000-year-old relationship. India needs to make a deeper commitment to Asean, which is why I am glad that PM Modi has invited the 10 Asean leaders.
Do you think the Asean countries and India share similar challenges and can learn from each other?
We can certainly learn from each other, but we can also work with each other. That’s very important, too. The vertical history is very clear: the economies that open up and integrate with the rest of the regions are the ones that do better. One reason why Asean is successful in its economic development is because it has opened up to the rest of the region. I know many Indians are afraid of competition, but look at how well Indians do at the global stage. No country has as many CEOs (chief executive officers) of major American corporations as India does. If Indians can compete so well in the most competitive human laboratory, which is the US, then why is Indian dreading competition?
Traditionally Indian trade negotiators have been rather conservative, and sure, there are short-term economic costs when you open up, but in the long run, things improve. India should pay attention to the long-term objectives.
India has changed its slogan from ‘Look East’ to ‘Act East’ What does it mean for Asean?
Different political parties have to change slogans from time to time. It’s part of the democratic process. There has been an overall continuity in India’s policy towards South-East Asia. I think this is bipartisan consensus. The previous Congress government was also committed to developing good ties with Asean and so does PM Modi.
You have spoken about Asean being in China’s backyard. Recently, India and China had a face-off at Doklam, in the trijunction with Bhutan. How did Asean view this?
If you look at the longer history of South-East Asia, the two countries that have had the maximum influence are India and China, although, culturally, India has much more influence than China. But, interestingly, even the Indianized kingdoms in this region 1,000 years ago, paid tributes to China, not to India.
It is in South-East Asia’s interest to see both China and India do well. In the book, we quote the former PM of Singapore, Goh Chok Tong, who said Asean can take off if India is one jet engine and China the other. Our growth is tied very much to both these countries. If India and China have difficult relations, South-East Asia is also affected. If your two big neighbours have tensions, you of course will get worried, too.
But the way India stood up to China, was that noticed in Asean?
Anything that happens between India and China is noticed carefully in Asean. We saw how firm India was, but we also noticed at the end of the day, how the issue was peacefully resolved.
India rejuvenated BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) in 2015. That straddles Asean and South Asia. How do you see that taking off?
The more multilateral initiatives there are in the region, the better it is. Each initiative is a trust-building mechanism. That’s Asean’s biggest contribution within South-East Asia because there used to be a lot of distrust among the neighbours. If BIMSTEC helps to erode distrust and brings countries closer, that’s good. We have to wait and see if it takes off. There have been many organizations that have a long and consistent record of improving cooperation between nations, and Asean is one of them. BIMSTEC has a long way to go right now.
Can India’s soft power have a visible impact in Asean?
In 1987, President Suharto was the president of Indonesia, the world’s most populous Islamic country. He wanted to build a big statute in middle of Jakarta to celebrate Indonesia’s achievements, and the statute he commissioned was that of Arjuna from the Mahabharata. Indonesia has been an Islamic nation for seven or eight centuries, yet Arjuna surfaces in the 1980s.
Most Indians are not aware of how deep the Indic cultural roots run in the region. The textbooks in India need to change and emphasise the deep historical links between these two regions.
How do you see the formation of the quadrilateral (India, US, Australia and Japan) and emphasis on the Indo-Pacific?
The Indo-Pacific is an idea whose time has come, but it is important that the idea of Indo-Pacific is driven by New Delhi, and not Washington DC, because DC would drive purely for geo-strategic reasons. They will see it as a way of balancing China’s influence in the region. Asean would like to see a balance of power, but not a containment of China. That’s a big difference.
The quad is a geo-political movement in which US, Japan, India, Australia in some ways want to balance China. It’s a complicated thing because Australia and India are in two minds.
When India worries about the Chinese influence in Asean...
I would say do not be paranoid. That’s my big advice. Asean has good relations with China, US, Japan, South Korean. Asean nations are not going to emerge in any way as satellite states of China.
What about Saarc (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation)? Is it on the right track at all?
Saarc is very far behind. You have cancelled meetings. Just as an example, there is a normal trade relation between all Asean countries; but in Saarc, there is no normal trade relation between India and Pakistan. Saarc can learn a lot from Asean on how to generate regional cooperation.
But what about Asean’s challenges? You say in your book that unlike the European Union (EU), Asean nations do not have a strong custodian nation.
This is the big secret. Asean is the most imperfect regional organization in the world. It is like a slow moving crab: it takes two steps forward, one step back, then one step sideways. If you watch Asean in slow motion, it always seems to be going around in circles; but if you take a long view, it works.
The reason why we emphasise the threat to Asean at the end of our book is because it has been successful for so long that its success is being taken for granted. It’s important for Asean countries not to be complacent.
In the era of extreme nationalism in many parts of the world, does a bloc like Asean really remain significant?
Since there is a consensus that regional cooperation works for Asean countries, there is no backtracking. All Asean countries have benefitted from the bloc; for example, the remarkable development of year after year they have been opening up their economies, their sectors and integrating themselves. EU used to provide the gold standard for regional cooperation. Asean countries can learn both positive and negative lessons from EU. Among Asean countries, there have been no wars. But among EU nations, there is an added aspect: there is zero prospect of war. That’s a much higher level of achievement, and Asean should attempt to replicate that. The negative lesson is that European nations gave up too much of their sovereignty and ended up in a situation where they could not convince the core population of the value of this.
The ASEAN Miracle: A Catalyst for Peace By Kishore Mahbubani and Jeffery Sng, Oxford University Press, 284 pages, Rs750.