As one of the world’s oldest continuing civilisations, India has always been enriched by its interaction with other cultures and civilisations around it. As India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru told the delegates to the 1947 Asian Relations Conference in Delhi, India is “so situated to be the meeting point of western and northern and eastern and southeast Asia. Streams of culture have come to India from the west and the east and been absorbed in India, producing the rich and variegated culture which is India today.” “At the same time,” Nehru added, “streams of culture have flowed from India to distant parts of Asia… If you would know India you have to go to Afghanistan and Western Asia, to Central Asia, to China and Japan and to the countries of Southeast Asia. There you will find magnificent evidence of the vitality of India’s culture which spread out and influenced vast numbers of people.” If the idea of a culturally interconnected Asia animated the Indian national movement, the hopes of constructing an “Asian Federation” emerged as an aspiration on the international stage.
Yet, the fact is that the scale, scope and intensity of its connectivity with Asia varied over the millennia. There have been periods of expansive engagement with its neighbouring regions, interspersed by centuries of isolationism. Nehru’s own stewardship of independent India saw Delhi intensely embrace Asia only to turn its back on it soon after. Today, integrating with Asia has once again become a major theme of India’s economic and foreign policies. This essay reviews the changing ideas of Asia, the tension between forces of unity and division within the great continent, and India’s imperatives in connecting Asia and promoting peace and prosperity in the region.
United and Divided
The idea of Asia’s unique identity endures and takes many forms. There is the notion of a ‘cultural Asia’ that has been propounded by the Japanese art historian Okakura Kakuzo way back at the turn of the 20th century, as the region began to discover shared civilisational roots. “Asia is one,” was the simple but profound first sentence of Kakuzo’s highly influential work, The ideals of the East, published in 1903. As they gained national consciousness, became more aware of the world around them and intensified the effort to free themselves from colonial yoke, many in the region defined Asia as the ‘spiritual other’ in the East to the ‘materialistic West.’ Some in Asia were deeply wary of the idea of an Asia that defines itself in anti-Western terms. Instead, they sought to imagine the Asian identity in more universal terms.
Contemporary Asia’s first great power, Japan, instrumentalised the idea of pan-Asianism to promote its own imperial interests in the first half of the 20th century. As it occupied vast swathes of Asia, Japan talked of an ‘Asia for the Asians’ and presented its own conquest of the region as a ‘liberation’ from European colonialism. In contrast to the notions of Asia’s imperial unity, the anti-colonial struggles generated a very different version of Asian unity. This sense of solidarity expressed itself at Asian Relations Conference in Delhi and the The Afro-Asian Conference at Bandung (1955). It eventually morphed into the Non-Aligned Movement.
Asia’s sense of unity, however, was shattered quickly as inter-state and intra-state conflicts, exacerbated by narrow nationalism and Cold War geopolitics, enveloped the region. As the West prepared for a triage of the new nations, the so-called ‘Asian Tigers’ surprised the world by demonstrating the prospects for rapid economic growth through globalisation in the 1960s. Their example was emulated by others, including China and India, in the subsequent decades. Their separate efforts turned Asia into the world’s economic powerhouse and laid the foundation for the great reverse in the balance of power between the East and the West.
Complementing the rise of an ‘economic Asia’ was the new ‘institutional Asia.’ If Asian regionalism and internationalism in Asia rapidly dissipated in the 1950s, the end of the Cold war saw the dramatic expansion of trans-regional institution building in Asia under the leadership of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). What seemed an impossible dream in the middle of the 20th century turned into a reality by the beginning of the 21st century amidst the proliferation of regional institutions, including those focusing on political cooperation such as the ASEAN Regional Forum, the East Asia Summit and the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building in Asia.
Asian nations are now more economically connected than ever before. They are striving to deepen regional integration through trade liberalisation agreements at the sub-regional, trans-regional and international levels. In the middle of the 20th century, regionalism ran into opposition in Asia from those emphasising ‘economic sovereignty.’ Today Asian nations have the luxury of dealing with competing trade pacts. As it seeks to build an economic community among its ten members, the ASEAN is also promoting the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership with six other partners— China, Japan, Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand. The United States has led the effort to draft a more ambitious trade pact among 12 nations, including some members of the ASEAN, called the Trans-Pacific Partnership. China has proposed a much wider arrangement called the Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific. Meanwhile, market forces are pushing different parts of Asia and its immediate neighbourhood together. The rise of China and India has made them the largest and preferred customers for the oil resources of the Gulf and mineral resources of Africa. Trade, investment and aid volumes from China and India with the Middle East and Africa have surged.
Beijing has also lead the creation of new Asian and international financial institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the New Development Bank under the non-geographic forum BRICS involving Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. Its ambitious Belt and Road initiative to build physical connectivity across borders promises to recast Asia’s economic geography. Its project for overland industrial belts extend all across Eurasia. Beijing’s Maritime Silk Road project connects the Indian and Pacific Oceans, long viewed as separate maritime domains. Japan, which had led the efforts in the second half of the 20th century to build Asian infrastructure, is now taking fresh initiatives. As a result of these initiatives, Asia is going to be more intricately tied to itself through new roads, high-speed railway systems, energy pipelines and optical fibre networks.
The moment to celebrate the extraordinary triumph of the idea of Asian unity, however, seems to be marred by the re-emergence of conflict and power rivalry in the region. Regaining control of national destinies was one of the main objectives of the post-colonial states in Asia. The region today is no longer a mere theatre for European colonial powers. It is the motor of global growth and has agency in shaping the world’s financial and political order. If the reviled Vasco da Gama moment has ended in Asia, the region is also facing sharp internal divisions. While the focus of the last two decades has been on the shifting balance between Asia and the West in favour of the former, the region is now coming to terms with structural changes in the evolution of Asia’s ‘internal’ balance of power. The rapid rise of China relative to the other powers in Asia has raised big questions about the future strategic order in Asia. China has overtaken Japan to become the second largest economy in the world and is poised to surpass the US in the near future. The widespread hopes for Beijing’s peaceful rise have evaporated amidst the sharpening maritime territorial conflicts between China and its neighbours.
To make matters worse, the great power harmony in Asia that has existed since the normalisation of Sino-American relations in the 1970s and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 has been replaced by mounting tension between China and Japan on the one hand, and between Beijing and Washington on the other. There is renewed emphasis on alliances, defence partnerships and military modernisation across the continent. At the same time, the project to build a comprehensive cooperative security architecture for the region is in disarray. There are deep disagreements on the nature, scope and terms of any such arrangement, some of which have turned the idea of Asia into a contested one. One view, articulated with great vigour in Beijing, reaffirms the slogan of ‘Asia for Asians’ and demands that outside powers quit the region. Others wary of Chinese power eagerly seek American military presence in the region. As they develop strategic partnerships with America, they also strengthen military cooperation among themselves as an insurance against a potential US-China duopoly in the region. A century after the ideas of unity and shared identity gained regional traction, Asia enjoys levels of integration and cooperation that few could have imagined. Yet, the political fault lines in the region have never been so deep.
Engagement and Isolation
As Asia enters a period of great churning, the question of India’s role in the region has become an important one. The great potential and persistent challenges to India’s role in Asia can be seen in terms of a paradox: Through the ages, India was both a self-contained (sub)continent in itself as well as the geographic pivot between different parts of Asia. India’s history has seen periods of expansive engagement with the neighboring regions interrupted by extended periods of self-imposed isolation. This pattern has repeatedly played out over the centuries.
The dynamic interaction with the Aryans from inner Asia, its maritime linkages with Greece and Rome, the spread of Buddhism from India by land and sea and its links to the Silk Road all marked a significant interaction with the world in the pre-Christian and immediate post-Christian era. This engagement took place despite the physical barriers—the seas to the south, the deserts to the west and the great Himalayas to the north and east. When the Indian society turned inward around the 10th century, its engagement with the world was confined to the margins of the subcontinent. In this era too, the impact of Muslim rulers from Arabia, Turkey and Central Asia saw the enrichment of Indian society. But it was the rise of capitalism in Europe and the colonial era that dramatically reconnected India to the world.
While it subjected India to alien rule, colonial rule began the process of globalising Indian economy. The region was no longer producing for itself and trading with the limited agrarian surpluses. The new era saw local production for global markets and the emergence of India itself as a market for goods produced elsewhere in the world. The colonial era also saw the movement of Indian capital and labour across the world and formed the foundation for India’s global footprint and human connectivity. Through the colonial era, India became the economic connector of different regions in Asia and in the Indian Ocean littoral. The colonial era saw the construction of three major ports—Bombay, Madras and Calcutta—that became critical nodes in the new global maritime trading network. The British Raj continuously opened new markets and new trading routes between India and its abutting regions in inner Asia, from Xinjiang to Yunnan. It built road and rail networks, much in the manner that China is doing with its Silk Road initiative today.
At the political level, the colonial Raj saw the territorial consolidation of India. Although the Raj never fully approximated to the coherence of modern European states, it did become the largest empire that the subcontinent had ever seen. The need to concentrate the means of violence under colonial rule saw the creation of a massive armed force, that built on the many indigenous formations before. This force inevitably emerged as the centre of British imperial defence system. India’s armed forces became the main security provider in the Indian Ocean and its abutting regions—from the South China Sea to the Mediterranean and from Southern Africa to Siam.
Independent India, wittingly or unwittingly, abandoned this legacy of a massive external economic and military engagement with Asia and the Indian Ocean. By making a conscious choice in favour of economic self-reliance and import substitution, India disconnected itself from the regional markets. The great Partition of made matters worse by breaking up the political and economic unity of the subcontinent. The creation of new borders and the tensions between India and Pakistan meant that the region’s military energies, directed outward during the Raj, were now turned inwards. The unification of China, its control of Tibet, and the boundary dispute between Delhi and Beijing resulted in shutting down the long frontier between India and China. If an insular approach to development diminished India’s relative economic weight in Asia and the Indian Ocean, Delhi’s foreign policy rooted in non-alignment reduced India’s weight in the security politics of Asia. That India became increasingly isolated in a region that was its natural space for leadership underlined the tragic paradox of India’s foreign policy in the early decades after independence. It took the end of the Cold War and an internal economic reorientation to put Asia back at the Centre of India’s foreign and economic policies.
That India’s Look East policy came in the wake of its economic reforms initiated at the turn of the 1990s was not surprising. Reconnecting to Asia, Delhi recognised, was critical for the modernisation of the Indian economy that had fallen behind the rest of the region and to rejuvenate its foreign policy in the new era. Since then, India has made considerable advances in connecting with Asia. It is now part of the major regional institutions, has growing economic and trade links and has stepped up its security cooperation with most Asian nations. Yet, there is a widespread sense of disappointment in Asia with India’s recent record in the East. Asia’s regional dynamic—in economic, political and strategic domains—has moved much faster than Delhi’s readiness to adapt. Asia today hopes that the ‘Act East’ policy unveiled by the government of Narendra Modi will bridge the gap between India’s promise and performance. To meet the regional expectations for leadership, India will need to accelerate its internal economic reforms, deepen its integration with its South Asian neighbours, seize the opportunities for strengthening physical connectivity with different parts of Asia, play a more active role in the regional institutions and intensify its defence diplomacy. Delhi cannot afford to miss the unprecedented opportunity to accelerate Asia’s march towards prosperity or disavow the historic responsibility to shape its future political order.
Firstpost is the media partner for Raisina Dialogue
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