When Subramanyam Jaishankar, the external affairs minister, claimed recently that ASEAN － the Association of South-East Asian Nations － had lost its “centrality” to Asia, what he probably meant was that ASEAN is no longer important to an Indian government fixated on the United States and Israel.
As I write this on an Indonesian island amidst waters stretching away to the Indian Ocean in one direction and the Pacific on the other, I am conscious India has always been an elusive entity in South-East Asia. There are few visible signs in this vastness － except in Bali － of India’s footprint. Jaswant Singh, the now bedridden and disgraced Bharatiya Janata Party veteran, was once holding forth on Hindu influence in Indonesia when Paul D Wolfowitz, George W Bush’s Bahasa-speaking deputy defence secretary, murmured Rabindranath Tagore’s enigmatic comment, “I see India everywhere but find it nowhere.” Given Narendra Modi’s priorities and preference for rhetoric above action, the likelihood of India playing a vital role in regional affairs has receded even further.
Chagrined at not being invited to join ASEAN at the beginning, and at the same time deeply suspicious of such staunchly pro-Western stalwarts as the Philippines, Thailand and Singapore, India was never a serious player. Sri Lanka was invited and would have liked to join but New Delhi’s pressure prompted Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party to stage protests and mock ASEAN members as “the errand boys and running dogs of the United States in Asia.” “India was the unhappiest” noted Canagaratnam Gunasingham, Sri Lanka’s high commissioner to Singapore. “It saw its sphere of influence and claim to hegemony being eroded.”
China and the Soviet Union also played on Colombo’s non-aligned loyalties, with Indira Gandhi, although still profoundly disdainful of ASEAN, proposing an alternative Council of Asia. Mahommed Ali Currimbhoy Chagla, then her foreign minister, dutifully announced it in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta. There were no takers. As Mrs Gandhi herself admitted, India was seen as a large but poor country that would be a burden on South-East Asia’s economies. Even when India was allowed in, Indonesia’s foreign minister Mochtar Kusumaatmadja declared patronisingly that ASEAN was talking “even” to “developing countries” like India. That attitude may still rankle in New Delhi’s corridors of power.
Actually, November has been a busy month for ASEAN. Following the organisation’s 35th summit in Bangkok, South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in hosted an ASEAN plus South Korea summit in Busan. An unprecedented opportunity for expanding cooperation lapsed when North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un rejected Mr Moon’s invitation to attend. But this was not a dampener on the proceedings. ASEAN is South Korea's second-largest trading partner, accounting for 14 per cent of its exports and imports last year. In particular, trade with Vietnam jumped to $68.3 billion in 2018 from $2 billion in 2010.
What matters more are the challenges that underline ASEAN’s crucial relevance. The US-China trade war is one threat. Struggles for control of the South China Sea present another. There are fears that Hongkong’s rumbustious students might threaten regional stability. All this explains the compact between Lee Kuan Yew, P V Narasimha Rao (whom Lee dubbed India’s Deng Xiaoping) and Manmohan Singh long before Mr Modi turned to a different trajectory. Only three weeks before receiving Mr Modi last year, Indonesia’s president, Joko Widodo, hosted China’s premier, Li Keqiang. China is Indonesia’s biggest trading partner, the region’s largest investor and a strategic partner. But as in Vietnam, China’s bullying obliged an ally to look with renewed enthusiasm at alternative links.
Any mention of China revives memories of Indonesia’s 1965-66 bloodbath when three million Chinese, members of the world’s biggest communist party, may have been massacred. Nevertheless, Indonesia’s Chinese still matter. Even if it’s an exaggeration that 3.5 per cent of the population controls 70 per cent of the economy, ethnic Chinese own most top conglomerates.
Sukarno’s ridicule of Jawaharlal Nehru’s pronunciation of Allahabad covered more serious objections that the Chinese exploited. They must have been gratified in 1965 when Sukarno threatened to seize the Nicobar Islands (92 nautical miles away) and send a submarine, two air force squadrons and a million “volunteers” to fight India. India’s embassy, consulate and information centre and Air India’s Jakarta office were ransacked. Flights were suspended, and Indonesia’s Calcutta consulate closed.
Being wary of any hint of hegemony, Indonesia snubbed Singaporean efforts to induct India into ASEAN, convinced it alone should dominate South-East Asia. It was only when Sukarno’s successor, Suharto, discovered the Chinese were entering the region in a big way that he changed his mind and supported Goh Chok Tong’s “India fever” while Lee explained to Rajiv Gandhi that if the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation hoped to emulate ASEAN, it should remember that “Suharto set out by letting it be known he was not going to be the big boss”. Later, Indonesia allowed East Timor to secede. It would be an unthinkable precedent for Nagaland or Kashmir.
Re-elected president for a second term, Mr Joko has healed the wounds of history while building a new future with China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a Jakarta-Bandung high-speed train and higher palm oil sales to China. The Shared Vision document he and Mr Modi endorsed recalled Narasimha Rao’s pledge that “the Asia-Pacific region will be our springboard to the global market-place”. The 30-day visa scheme fell short of Nehru’s dream of “a common nationality for India and all these regions of South-east Asia”. Even the name game has lost its novelty. If Mr Joko’s grandson is Srinarendra, Biju Patnaik suggested Megawati, Goddess of the Clouds, for Sukarno’s daughter. She, in turn, called her daughter Orissaputri, Daughter of Orissa. Muslim Indonesia has so thoroughly internalised the Ramayana that there’s an old story about a visiting Indian dignitary being asked after a performance, “I believe you have something like it in your country, too?” Earlier this year Indonesia issued a Ramayana-themed postage stamp to commemorate 70 years of India-Indonesia diplomatic relations.
If Rajiv Gandhi had something to learn from Suharto, all Indian politicians have much to learn from Mr Joko. Asked recently about his retirement plans, Mr Joko replied he wanted a house in Solo, his hometown in central Java, instead of Jakarta, where previous presidents had retired. Land was cheaper in Solo. “I just want to go back to be a carpenter” says Mr Joko. Even after two terms as president, he remains a humble man with no personal ambition.
Ironically, India’s original objection to ASEAN was that it was an American construct. Now, New Delhi probably feels it’s not American enough. ASEAN is too Asian. But it remains at the centre of Asian concerns and actions.
The writer is the author of several books and a regular media columnist.
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