External Affairs

‘Wide Angle’ Episode 19: What ASEAN Means For India

Maya Mirchandani interviews former Singaporean diplomat Kishore Mahbubani about what ASEAN means for India and South East Asia.


Maya Mirchandani: Hello and welcome to this week’s episode of ‘Wide Angle’. The Republic Day chief guests in India this year are leaders of all ten ASEAN countries. It’s the 25th year of the India-ASEAN strategic partnership. Joining us to talk about what ASEAN means for India, what it means for the region, what it means for global peace and stability and economic cooperation is former Singaporean diplomat Kishore Mahbubani who has just co-authored a book called The ASEAN Miracle. Your book is very timely, of course, given that it’s releasing as the leaders arrive in India. But it is a very optimistic picture of what ASEAN can be going forward at a time when there are tensions between two major countries in the region: India and China.

Kishore Mahbubani: Well, I mean ASEAN is a miracle because it has weathered even bigger storms than what you see between China and India today. In fact, ASEAN was an organisation that should have failed on many counts – it was founded in 1967 when the biggest wars were being fought in the world in Southeast Asia. More bombs were dropped in Indo-China than all of Europe in World War II. And so we have experienced far greater conflict and far greater tensions and the remarkable thing about ASEAN is that it has survived, outlived and succeeded despite these many challenges, therefore, it is a real miracle.

MM: You also talk about how this region is very diverse in terms of culture, religion, language, national identity, etc and yet, have been able to come together for this grouping. Nonetheless, you do point to certain weaknesses within ASEAN. What do you think, in spite of the strength of the grouping, what do you think are its major weaknesses?

KM: Well, I’m glad that you raised the point of diversity because one of the important facts of ASEAN that almost nobody knows is that ASEAN is the most diverse region on planet Earth. Out of 600 million people, you have 240 million Muslims, 110 million Christians, 150 million Buddhists – Mahayana Buddhists, Hinayana Buddhists – and then you have Taoists, Confucianists, Hindus and Communists. So it’s an amazingly diverse region and that’s why its success brings a lot of hope in a world where we are so frightened of a clash of civilisations.

But when you mention the weaknesses of ASEAN, the real paradox of ASEAN is its strength lies in its weakness. Because it is perceived to not be a strong superpower of its own but actually a relatively weak organisation, it is trusted by all the great powers, therefore, the only organisation that provides a geopolitical platform for all the great powers to meet every year – US, China, Japan, India, Russia, EU, Australia, New Zealand, Korea. Why do they come to this ASEAN meetings? Because, everybody trusts ASEAN. So, sometimes the weakness of ASEAN is the strength of the organisation.

MM: But you also talk about how the grouping itself has no strong institutions – that’s one of the things you point out – and more interestingly, for someone like me who is looking at the issue of identity, you make the comparison with the European Union where you say that for many years, EU member citizens identified themselves as citizens of the Union as well as their own individual national identities. ASEAN doesn’t have that. If I, as a citizen of an ASEAN member state for example, don’t identify myself as ASEAN, don’t relate to that identity. Is that a weakness?

KM: Yes, in fact, I can see you read the book very well. I compare ASEAN to the EU. Certainly, the EU is ahead in some ways and the man in the street in Europe identifies more with the European Project than the man in the street in ASEAN does. Which is why one of the biggest achievement of this book that I have just written, The ASEAN Miracle, is that it is the first book that is going to be translated in all ASEAN languages. So it will be accessible to the man in the street also, but we have to do more than that.

In fact, one of the concrete recommendations of the book is that if you compare the EU to ASEAN, the economy, the total GNP of the European Union is six times that of ASEAN – much bigger, obviously. But the budget of the European Secretariat is 8,000 times larger than ASEAN. So I think one way to remedy this is lack of ownership of ASEAN by the ASEAN people, is to strengthen the ASEAN secretariat and get it to do a better job of educating the populations within ASEAN about what a miracle ASEAN is. That’s why – as you know – I have recommended in the book, that ASEAN should receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Once ASEAN receives the Nobel Peace Prize, the people in ASEAN wake and say, “Wow, we’re ASEAN members and we have received the Nobel Peace Prize.

MM: Coming back to the geo-strategics of the region, you start off by saying that at its inception, 50 years ago, ASEAN was fundamentally a pro-US grouping. The world has changed, whether you want to call it multi-polarity or uni-polarity, but it’s certainly not the United States which is now the most active player in this region even though they have a strong military presence. When Donald Trump came to power, and the US decided to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific partnership – the TPP – there has been concern amongst ASEAN member countries as well of being left to their own devices when it comes to dealing with China. There’s been an argument for India to step up or step into the role and the vacuum created by America’s exit. Do you see that as something that’s workable in a strategic way?

KM: For a start, let’s be clear on our assessment of what Donald Trump has done in his one year in office. I would say his bark is worse than his bite. If you look at all his campaign promises – “I’ll declare China a currency manipulator on the first day in the office, I’ll get Japan and South Korea to pay for their defense” and so on and so forth – you know, he has made all kinds of statements. But, actually there has been far greater continuity in American policy and America’s commitment to engagement with Southeast Asia has not gone down at all under Trump.

In fact, Trump, in his first year, has visited more Asian countries than any other American president in his first year in office. He was there in Manila, as you know, for the East Asian summit where amazingly, at the opening ceremony in Philippines – a Catholic country – he saw a performance of the Ramayana taking place in front of him. So, America has not left and I don’t think America will leave the region, but, nonetheless, despite that, whether America stays or America goes, it’s very clear that the ASEAN countries want to have a deeper engagement with India. This is for reasons, not just for contemporary geopolitical reasons, but is because the relationship within Southeast Asia and India goes back several thousand years.

You know, most Indians are not aware, that out of the ten ASEAN countries, nine of them – only exception being Vietnam – have cultural foundations which are Indian in origin and, you know, everywhere you go in Southeast Asia you’ll see shadow playing of Ramayana, Mahabharata. In 1987, just 30 years ago, when the leader of the world’s most populous Islamic country, Indonesia, wanted to erect a monument in the centre of the city to commemorate celebration he erected a monument of Arjuna, from the Mahabharata. So one of the biggest monuments in the world’s biggest Islamic country is dedicated to Arjuna from the Mahabharata. So, that’s an indication of how deep and ancient the links are between India and Southeast Asia, they were cut off by 200 years of colonial rule, they were cut off during the Cold War but they can be restored again.

So the current geopolitical ups and downs are not the fundamental reason why ASEAN countries want to see greater engagement with India, they see it as much more of a natural relationship which should be strengthened for the next 1,000 years.

MM: You’re right, the Arjuna Vijaya statue in Jakarta is, I think, a point to the
cultural linkages and as you point out there are many cultural similarities – even if not linguistic – but religious and cultural similarities across the region including with India. One of the reasons, perhaps, why India, sort of, focused on its Look East policy all those years ago as a major foreign policy initiative and therefore, the partnership with ASEAN. India is now also seeing itself, perhaps, part of the Look East policy but also, looking West, I mean, looking west as it traditionally has done and at the western edge of the the eastern world perhaps. So the quadrilateral, for example, that the Americans have been talking about – the India, Australia, Japan, United States partnership of the quad. How does that play out in this large of geo-strategic space?

KM: Just a quick point, a linguistic point actually – Sanskrit is deeply embedded in Southeast Asia. Singapore comes from two Sanskrit words: ‘Singha’ and ‘Pura’ – Lion City. So it’s, it’s there. But your point about the quad, I think, you know it’s too early to make a judgment on how resilient the quad is, you know. It is basically a marriage of convenience, you know. It is not a marriage of love, I guess. Among four countries and do and everyone knows, I mean, this is not a big secret: it is driven by a common concern about China.

MM: Right.

KM: Clearly, I mean, one concern that the US, Japan, Australia and India have is about a rising China and how you manage it and and so on so forth. So the quad could be one way of managing it. But, I think, the better idea is the one that, actually that President Trump has proposed of an Indo-Pacific community and an Indo-Pacific community is much more inclusive. It includes more countries and it also, by the way, includes China. So the best we are managing the rise of China is to try and integrate China into the regional fabric, so that there’ll be less incentives for China or there’ll be constraints on China to become more aggressive as it emerges . So that’s why when President Trump proposed the Indo-Pacific community, I thought that was a much better idea and that’s an idea that I think will be a better way of integrating India into East Asia into the Pacific region.

MM: And yet, that may be true that it’s a marriage of convenience, but there is also this issue as you pointed out, about concerns vis-a-vis China. India’s concerns about China’s expansionism via the maritime Silk Route – the Belt and Road initiative. What’s going on, on our eastern borders as well – whether it’s the military standoffs. There are serious concerns, there are serious tensions and so India is going to find itself in a complicated situation, you’re saying that ASEAN countries don’t want to be
caught in this choose India-choose China-choose America kind of situation because the relationship with all three is equally important. But, national interest doesn’t play out that way often it’s kind of Utopian.

KM: I think, I think all of us, all the neighbours of China have to learn to manage a rising China. Okay, I mean clearly a China that becomes the number one economy in the world and in PPP terms China’ is already the number one economy in the world in nominal terms. Within a decade, maybe the number one economy in the world so you’ve got to learn to manage a rising power. And, so, the question is how do you do it? And, I think in the case of China and India, actually, if you look at it objectively, it’s quite remarkable how stable the relationship has been, despite the ups and downs and the border has been very very peaceful for decades now. So the question is how do we keep it even more peaceful?

MM: Even the issues with China but, you’re saying the US, whether they’ve said things they’ve said, the policies kind of have a continuity to them. I think India, also, often finds itself as possibly in the same situation that many ASEAN countries do vis-a-vis India and China. India finds itself in that position vis-a-vis US, as well of having to choose and yet not wanting to, balancing out its own national interest. Nonetheless, you know coming back to the strengths and weaknesses of ASEAN, when you talk about, sort of, identity as as a Union, no strong institutions, do you think India, even as a dialogue partner, strategic partner for ASEAN, can step in and would ASEAN countries want to see a greater, full partnership, full membership?

KM: There’s no doubt that the ASEAN countries would like to see a bigger role being played by India in the geopolitical sphere. The question is how does India, how do you say, maximise its leverage in this game. I’ve written an article about this, saying that if you can imagine a see-saw with the US on one end and China on the other end, and that’s the big game is gonna be within the US and China. Both sides are playing a very clever game, you know, I mean if you, on the surface, if you watched Donald Trump, how warm he was to was President Xi Jinping and all that. I mean it’s a very clever game that they’re playing.

The question is where does India position itself in the see-saw? The best place to be is to stand in the middle, so, whichever foot you put in, you, you affect the balance and in fact, Henry Kissinger, in his book on China, pointed out that the the way the US defeated the Soviet Union was to get China to join its side against the Soviet Union. All right? So the US positioned itself in the middle, very cleverly, right? And so, that’s the best position for India to be in in this seesaw relationship between US and China. Of course, that will maximise your leverage and the more leverage that India has globally the better it is for ASEAN. Because it is good for the Southeast Asian region to have many powers present in the region, you know, to have China there, to have US there, to have Japan there, to have India there, so that’s good for, that’s good for the region, so, you’ll find that when Indians come to Southeast Asia and
knock on the doors, the doors are open for Indians to come back into Southeast Asia.

MM: In fact, at the beginning of your book you refer to something called the ‘Indian wave’ or the ‘India wave’. Is this a sort of second Indian wave that you’re talking about?

Mahbubani: Yeah, I think, well, I think, what, it’s important to ask ourselves what is normal in the relationship within India and Southeast Asia and what is abnormal. So what we have now the gap in the distance within India and Southeast Asia – that’s abnormal. There’s only 200 years, if you look at the previous 1800 years for example, India and Southeast Asia were blended together almost like one community. That’s why there’s no other part of the world – whether Central Asia or Middle East or Africa – where you have as much Indian influence on cultures as you have in Southeast Asia. So, it’s abnormal to have this gap and distance between India and ASEAN. So, that’s why, when when the
ASEAN Leaders come here what you should celebrate is not just a momentary even, but as, you should celebrate the re-establishment of a close relationship that goes back 2,000 years. That’s the significance of this ASEAN-India meeting.

MM: One of the things that is sort of a top priority as far as Indian foreign policy is concerned is the fight against terrorism. It’s specific reference, of course, is to Pakistan and cross-border terrorism for Pakistan but the general arc of Islamic terror that most countries in the world are engaged in countering right now. That arc spreads to some ASEAN countries as well. Your own country, Singapore, has an
extensive counter-terrorism strategy that is evolved. Is that an area of partnership, because again as you pointed out Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world, outside the Middle East – the volatile Middle East – India is the second largest Muslim nation in the world and and yet we have this predominance of focus on counter-terrorism focused on Islamic terrorism. How does that play out in ASEAN?

KM: Oh, I think, the good news here is that there’s a complete unanimity of views that we have to work together to counter terrorism and, by the way, I think Indonesia suffered as many attacks as other countries have, as India has. And you know they’ve had bombs going off the entrances to hotels, so today, if you go to Indonesia just as you come to hotels in India, you have to do your cars to be checked in and in Indonesia your car has to be checked too. So, again, in the battle against terrorism you find complete unanimity of views and actually the good news is that we are in this region, succeeding in the battle and that is actually one of the side effects of the 9/11 episode is that intelligence cooperation globally against terrorism has gone up significantly. The US, actually, has played a very important role in in trying to coordinate global intelligence against terrorism and, you know, as you know, ASEAN countries do work with the US on counter-terrorism efforts. So, I’m sure they’d be happy to work with
India or so to counter terrorism efforts.

MM: You just made the case about how there’s been success stories as well in counter-terrorism, you’re right, the Bali bombings were, in fact, an inflection point how Southeast Asia looked at Islamic terrorism as well. You’re saying that they could work together on counter-terror strategies but, I think also, what about how ASEAN countries and partners like India, work in terms of creating or changing the discourse on counter-terror, globally, not just for the region itself.

KM: Yeah, I think I would say in the case of counterterrorism there’s actually quite a strong global consensus that we have to work together to solve the problem because terrorism attacks as you know happen everywhere, they have happened in Africa, they’ve happened in Europe, they’ve happened – 9/11 in America and I was there when 9/11 happened in New York, they’ve happened in Bali you mentioned, happened in Australia so it’s not a problem that’s confined to one region.

MM: I think the question is in developing counter strategies could ASEAN, because of its own internal successes, in partnership with countries like India, which has a strong counter-terrorist strategy domestically as well, could they lead the narrative globally in counterterrorism? Because right now it’s seen as a very Western led strategy, Western led focus.

KM: I would say that the counterterrorism battle is best for quietly and behind the scenes with strong intelligence cooperation. That’s far more critical than anything else, because I mean it’s not a case of trying to develop a consensus against terrorism because no country stands up and says I’m in favour of terrorism. So the important thing is to make sure you develop the networks and close trust among intelligence agencies and I think that that’s happening you know. My sense that it is happening. That is one dimension but at the same time, I think,if you really want to build relationship of trust between ASEAN and India it’s got to be a multi-dimensional relationship. You can’t just focus, so the economic part is very very critical and as you know India has some hesitations about opening up its economy and so on and so forth. So those sorts of issues are far more important in terms of bringing India and ASEAN closer together.

MM: In fact that brings me to my final question, you talked about how there have been issues on the trade front as well. Globally we’re seeing a move towards protectionism. Across economies, whether it’s in the European Union, whether it is from the US, again Trump’s policy announcements on protectionism against free trade, things like that. How two ASEAN countries negotiate that within themselves and how will they work on negotiation with India to increase free trade, to work on the economic zones and free trade areas?

KM: Well, I think the good news here is another example where Trump’s words are worse than his deeds. And actually in terms of protectionism he has not so far taken any actions that you can can say is protectionism, apart from the fact of course, that he walked away from TPP, but he’s walked away from an agreement that hadn’t been signed yet. So that’s a different matter but the ASEAN countries, by and large, believe in trade. In fact the reason why ASEAN has succeeded so well is because ASEAN trade with the rest of the world is phenomenal you know. And it’s growing very fast and fortunately as you know, last year and this year, probably 2018, global trade is still growing and the ASEAN countries have found that the best way to raise their economies is to have greater trade flow. So you’ll find, for example, Singapore is the chairman of ASEAN, this year in 2018 and one of the priorities that Singapore set for itself is to try and complete their RCEP, the regional cooperative economic partnership, which brings together the ten ASEAN countries, Japan, Korea, China, Australia, New Zealand and India. And I think that it’s sort of well known that India is the most reluctant in some ways. So this is an area where I think, it’s good for India to do some long term calculations and find out if it really wants to be part of the Indo-Pacific community and I think the Indo-Pacific community is a great idea that Trump has launched.

Then you’ve got the best way to integrate yourself in the Indo-Pacific community is to trade flows and that should be the the priority. Its difficult at first and we assign countries, of course. We ourselves found it difficult initially to open up our borders to each other. I mean Indonesia was afraid, like India Indonesia used to be afraid, Oh my god, we opened up our biggest market. Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore will take advantage of it and in the end they found that they have also grown. Indonesia has outperformed basically every middle power in the last 20-30 years. If you look at my book, there are their charts and statistics that show how Indonesia has outperformed Nigeria, outperformed Brazil. Everyone talked about the Brazilian miracle, Indonesia has done better. And why? Because Indonesia took the brave decision to open open up its markets to ASEAN and Indonesia also joined the China-ASEAN free trade area agreement. So you know it can be done. It’s a question of, you know, one of the fundamental aspects of free markets is that you will give creative destruction. You can’t stop creative destruction. The economist Joseph Schumpeter told us that.

So if you open up your economy some sectors will become uncompetitive but you’ll discover new competitive sectors. You don’t know where they’ll be but they’ll happen, you know, that’s part of the process of how free markets work. And we must, when you allow the free markets to work then your economy grows and ASEAN is living proof of that because no other region can match ASEAN’s records in economic growth and ASEAN’s really the seventh largest economy in the world and only on the way to becoming the fourth largest economy in the world, as a group, that’s amazing.

MM: So the free trade agreement, or the implementation of a free trade agreement?

KM: Yeah, free trade agreement is a very critical part of the ASEAN success story.

MM: As we said, the leaders are coming for Republic Day. All ten of them as chief guests and I think that itself is a significant symbol of where India is looking for its strategic and economic growth as well but perhaps these conversations will lead to some sort of fruition as well at those meetings could show. Kishore Mahbubani, thank you very much for everything.

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