Dr. Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation

India’s crucial role in South-East Asian countries

Besides historic relations, India’s ‘Look East’ policy has further cemented the ties

Whenever we talk of South-East Asia, India comes to one’s mind because of its positive role and relevance in the region. There are 11 countries in the region: Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Singapore, Philippines, Myanmar, Malaysia, Laos, Timor, Cambodia and Brunei. The people in the region speak over 20 languages, and their population is 676,513,631, just about half of India’s population.

India’s ‘Act East policy’ or ‘Look East Policy’ has brought about many changes for the better with South-East Asian countries. These policies have aimed at better political and economical relations with these counties that have been closely in touch with India since times immemorial. India has the advantage with these countries of having geographical proximity as well as close cultural ties.

However, to be precise, both the ‘Act East’ and the ‘Look East’ policies are two successive and dynamic phases in the evolution of India’s policy towards South-East Asia and East Asia. The ‘Look East Policy’ was introduced in 1991 and the ‘Act East Policy’ in 2014. Both the policies were tuned to the demands of the times India had been then going through.

It was a great ‘leap’ for India when, in 2009, a trade and investment agreement was signed with the ASEAN (Association of South-East Asian Nations) that came to be known as ‘Free Trade Agreement’. The whole purpose of the agreement was to enhance not only trade and business but also to give a flip in other areas like culture, arts and social sciences. These are the countries with which India has been sharing customs, traditions and values.

India’s relationship with ASEAN is a crucial aspect of its foreign policy and the foundation of our ‘Act East Policy’. The 2012 up-gradation of the relationship into a strategic partnership was a natural and dynamic progression. India had become a partner of the ASEAN in 1992, ‘Dialogue Partner’ in 1996 and ‘Summit-Level Partner’ in 2002. All put together, India and the ASEAN are today working on 30 dialogue processes. Besides, to give a further boost to trade, India set up a separate ‘Mission to ASEAN’ in April 2015 with an Ambassador to strengthen engagements with ASEAN-centric processes. In 2017, India and the ASEAN observed the 25th anniversary of the first dialogue by undertaking 60 commemorative activities, both in India and at our missions in ASEAN member-states.  And that also led to the ASEAN-India commemorative summit, ‘Shared Values, Common Destiny’ on Jan 25, 2018, in New Delhi. India’s Prime Minister and the ASEAN leaders adopted the ‘Delhi Declaration’ and decided to identify cooperation in the maritime domain as the key areas of cooperation.

In 2012, ASEAN and India commemorated 20 years of dialogue partnership and 10 years of summit-level partnership with ASEAN with a commemorative summit in New Delhi, under the theme, ‘ASEAN-India Partnership for Peace and Shared Prosperity’ in December, 2012. The summit endorsed elevating the partnership to a strategic partnership. It also adopted the ‘ASEAN-India Vision Statement’ that paved the way for greater trade.

To further intensify and diversify India-ASEAN engagements, a roadmap for long-term engagement was signed at the 3rd ASEAN-India Summit in 2004 in Vientiane, Laos. A ‘Plan of Action’ for the 2004-2010 was also drawn up. Another ‘Plan of Action, 2016-20’ was adopted by the ASEAN-India Foreign Ministers in August 2015. ASEAN and India also identified priority areas for the period of 2016-2018.

Political Security Cooperation

An ever-rising export of terror, hatred, and violence demands a common and effective security measures, and our partnership with ASEAN seeks to craft a response that relies on coordination and sharing of experiences at several levels. In this regard, ASEAN has worked for 50 years to help secure peace and prosperity in the region. India places ASEAN at the centre of its vision of ‘Security and Growth for All in the Region’.

India-ASEAN trade and investments have been growing quite steadily, with ASEAN being India’s fourth largest trading partner. As a result, India’s trade with ASEAN stands at USD 82 billion, and that is almost 10.6% of India’s total volume. Our export value to ASEAN stands at almost 12% of our total exports.

Moreover, investments too have grown substantially both ways, with ASEAN accounting for approximately 18.28% of investment flows into India since 2000. FDI inflows into India from ASEAN from April 2000 to March 2018 was about USD68.91 billion, and FDI outflows from India to ASEAN countries, from April 2007 to March 2015, was about USD 38.672 billion.

Connectivity Progress

Several ASEAN-India connectivity measures were taken up in 2013, and with that India became the third dialogue partner of ASEAN to initiate an ASEAN ‘Connectivity Coordinating Committee-India Meeting’. Since then India has made substantial progress in implementing the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway and the Kaladan Multimodal Project. There is also a plan to extend the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway to Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Also, a consensus has been reached on finalising the proposed protocol of the ‘India-Myanmar-Thailand Motor Vehicle Agreement’. This will lead to an important role in having a seamless movement of passengers, personal and cargo vehicles along the roads linking India, Myanmar and Thailand.

Our Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, had announced in November 2015 a credit of USD 1 billion to promote projects that support physical and digital connectivity between India and ASEAN and a ‘Project Development Fund’ with a corpus of INR 500 crore to develop manufacturing hubs in these countries at the 13th ASEAN India Summit held in Malaysia.

India has been cooperating with ASEAN by implementing various projects in the fields of agriculture, science & technology, space, climate change and several other areas. In July, 2018, India had what is now known as ‘Delhi Dialogue’ for discussing politico-security and economic issues between ASEAN and India. Since 2009, India has hosted ten editions of the ASEAN-India conference. The ‘Delhi Dialogue’ was the 10th of its kind and was held on July 19-20, 2018, with the theme, ‘Strengthening India-ASEAN Maritime Advantage’.

Ties since Gupta Period

Historically speaking, the South-East Asia region has been having Indian mercantile class since times immemorial. As a result, some of our people there had called the region Swarna Bhumi (the land of gold), Takola (the land of cardamons) or even Narikeldeep(the land of coconuts). And our trade with these countries took via two routes: 1. Assam, Bengal and other northeast states. 2. The sea from Coromandal to Cape Comorin and also via the Malacca Strait so that they could reach the Malay Peninsula quite easily.

It was during the Gupta period that India, being the land of riches, could trade with the region in various textile and other products. The Indians then were great experts and highly skilled in various fields like textile, crafting gold jewellery and several other metal objects which were of great attraction with the local trader. It is very interesting to note that Funan in the Mckong Delta, Vietnam, was the first trading post for Indians. Our traders first made this place their base, and then slowly started fanning around to the neighbouring countries. As a result, India could get the best the region was known for: Spices and the best quality of rice.

Within a span of a few years, our traders, accompanied with Buddhist monks, travelled far and wide in the region and popularised our products, culture and values of life in those countries.  It was because of such movements that Indian thoughts, culture and customs were absorbed by the local people. The advantage with our traders was that they were known to be ones with no political ambitions, and their entire exercise in the region was directed to popularise Indian culture, and trade with them for the benefit of both the sides. They set up a large number of hermitages and Ashrams to the great liking of the local people. The local people there welcomed our traders and monks to be a part of their lives for the celebration of success in every sphere of life.

The main countries where most of our merchants travelled to, with Hindu and Buddhist monks, were the kingdoms of Cambodia and Indonesia. Along with trade and business, they spread Indian culture, religion and various aspects of our rich civilisation. An important point to be observed here is that most of the kings in the region wore India-made silk and other kinds of Indian textile products. Even the common people there had a great liking and demand for Indian’s printed and woven textile.

Once Indian trade and business thrived in the region, Indian religion, political thoughts, apart from art, literature and mythology, took deep roots in no time. As a result, more and more Indians started settling in the counties and that led to further spreading of the Indian presence as a part of the total and overall developmental process of these countries. It was in the third century BCE when Buddhism took deep roots in the region as King Ashoka sent thousands of Buddhist monks to these counties. And today you see in the region a big imprint of Indian religion and culture even when most of the countries are not Buddhist or Hindu majority states.

The Sanskrit Impact

One of the greatest Indian factors to influence and shape South-East Asia was Sanskrit. It is proven that Sanskrit script was the first form of writing in the region. All the local languages in the region adopted similar alphabets. Therefore, one can claim that the alphabets used today in Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and a few other countries had been driven from Indian prototypes. Ancient scriptures discovered of late in these countries were all found to be in Sanskrit script.

Even in legal services, Sanskrit terminologies were used in the courts. And it is clearly mentioned that they used the Indian codes of law too. It is also a proven fact that these Indian codes of law were adopted by many kings in the region. What is of greater interest is that even the concept of ‘God King’ was adopted in public administration. The local people went to the extent of considering themselves as incarnates or descendants of Hindu or Buddhist deities.

History reveals that Brahmins along with Buddhist monks had a very crucial role, particularly in Siamese courts. They were very popular as experts in astrology and in conduction of religious and cultural ceremonies. In other words, Indian ways of life had a complete grip on the very psyche of the local people. Yet another key feature of Indian influence was that the Brahmins were not only a much-sought-after lot for conducting ceremonies, they were also experts in political affairs and architecture. Since they had a kind of expertise in every aspect of social life, they were invited by the kings in several counties to be their advisors, administrators, besides as priests.

History also tells us that in the medieval times, the 6th to 14th century, there was a maritime empire based in the Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra. Many Indian artisans, mostly from Kalinga (today’s Orissa) used to work in the courts and they played a crucial role in legal affairs. That is why, today, when you visit Indonesia, you find a kind of mini-India in several parts of the country. Most of the motifs on the walls of Borobudur and Angkor Wat seem to be the exact replicas of India’s Konark and other medieval temples along the eastern coastal side of India.

Even today, in Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia and Myanmar, many remnants of Indian influence are very much clearly visible in their art and culture, and, hence, in civilisation too. India has been a source of inspiration in various walks of life in the region.  But, this is not to say that the South-East Asian countries have nothing of their own. They too have their own rich culture, art and cilvilisation, but they made it a point to add to their art and culture the elements of Indian art and culture, thereby giving them an added quality in several spheres of life.

In other words, the South-East Asian countries did not accept everything foreign just because that was good and beneficial. The region was highly discriminative to the needs of their times, and they started to have the option of only ‘pick and choose’ so that they could not only preserve their indigenous culture but could also give a ‘flip-shot’ to make it go better. And yet, one exception was the Ramayana. They accepted it in its totality because it was easy to understand and good to retell, thereby enriching their culture to a great extent.

Having said all this, it needs to be noted that the South-East Asia region could be still called pockets of ‘mini-India’ because you are reminded of Indian art and culture wherever you go to in the region. But the beauty here is that the Indian cultural conquests were of utmost peaceful nature, and there are no instances of forced conversions anywhere in history books, be that ours or theirs.

(The writer is a New Delhi-based Editor-at-Large, columnist and professional speaker. The views are his own.)