Progress – Not Culture or Diaspora – Will Enhance India's Influence in Southeast Asia

The government needs to reconsider its reliance on cultural ties and Indian diaspora to strengthen its position in Southeast Asia in favour of economic progress.

Can “culture” enhance contemporary India’s military and economic profile in Southeast Asia?

Over the last couple of years – especially at the meeting with ASEAN leaders in New Delhi last January – the Modi government has highlighted the possible role of the Indian diaspora in building ties with Southeast Asian countries. The spread of Hindu and Buddhist culture from India and the Indian diaspora’s presence in the region can be traced back to cultural, political and commercial contacts that were made several centuries ago.

But contemporary reality must be kept in mind. China’s latest defence budget – $175 billion – reminds us that its growing military power rests on more than 30 years of economic progress. Unlike the 19th century European imperial powers, China’s claim to “great power” does not stem from the acquisition of colonies carved out through conquest. And unlike the 20th century US, China does not sustain its clout through military alliances worldwide.

In fact, China was already “East” long before India started acting “East” barely four years ago. Its version of “history”, geographical proximity to Southeast Asia – and most of all, its economic strength – underlie its territorial hawkishness.

Moreover, China’s political and economic influence in Southeast Asia does not hinge on the presence of the large Chinese diaspora – some 30 million – there. That is a lot more than the six million or so strong Indian diaspora which New Delhi hopes will help strengthen its “eastern act” with ASEAN and Southeast Asian countries.

True, the image of Cambodia’s world famous Angkor Wat, which started as a Hindu temple and eventually became Buddhist, appears on Cambodia’s national flag. The Garuda is Thailand’s national emblem and part of the state insignia of Indonesia. But it is unlikely that references to centuries-old cultural exports and the Indian diaspora will promote India’s political and economic interests in Asia.

Culture is never static

India’s own cultural diversity – like that of Southeast Asia – stems from centuries of foreign conquest, political changes, cultural influences, migration and international trade. Several cultural and religious influences, including those of China, the US, Islam and Christianity have shaped the politics and societies of Southeast Asia.

In fact, Islam is the most prevalent religion in Southeast Asia. In Malaysia, which has the largest population of Indian origin, Islam is the state religion. Hindus make up just over 6% of its population, Muslims nearly 62%. Secular Indonesia, is home to the world’s largest Buddhist temple at Borobudur and also to the world’s largest Muslim population. More than 87% of its population is Muslim, while Hindus make up 1.7%.

Ninety percent of Philippines’ population identifies as Catholic. Especially after the sixteenth century, the diverse cultural influences in the Philippines were derived particularly from periods of the Spanish and American rule. Even prior to that, trade with India and China did not result in a major Chinese or Indian cultural influence in this archipelago.  

Meanwhile, in Singapore – whose air force is the only military to have bilateral agreements with India for all its service arms – ethnic Chinese comprise about 75% of the population and Indians 9%. But, for Singapore and other Southeast Asian countries, the dispute over the South China Sea takes the sheen off an economically strong but expansionist China.  

Such an array of facts should impress on New Delhi that ethnicity, religion and culture do not determine political and economic choices made by countries.  

The trade story

China accounts for 39% of Cambodia’s imports, India for 0.77%. The total trade between India and Cambodia in 2015 stood at $187.36 million in 2015 while that between Cambodia and China was $4.8 billion in 2016.

An analogous picture emerges from Thailand. Currently, Japan is the largest foreign investor in Thailand. Twelve percent of Thailand’s exports go to the US, 11% to China and 2.4% to India. Considering imports, 22% of Thai imports come from China and only 1.4% from India.

In today’s globalised world, most people emigrate for economic reasons. As with, say, Americans of Indian origin, citizens of Southeast Asian countries who are of Indian origin will participate in India’s economic efforts only if they perceive India offering them favourable conditions for investing.

With China’s economic and military power looming large over Southeast Asia, India has often reiterated its support for maritime freedom and security in Asia’s international waters. But by the time India first joined the US in October 2014 in expressing concern about maritime safety in the South China Sea, China had already deployed missiles, fighters and surveillance equipment on the reefs in its possession.  

India is the only Asian country which has the size, demographic, economic and military potential to counter China. But if India’s economic and strategic relations with Southeast Asia are being strengthened by its $2-trillion-plus economy, China’s ties with the region are being driven by its $12-trillion-plus economy.

This puts a question mark over India’s possible contribution to maintaining security in Southeast Asia. China’s strong economy has given an impetus to its burgeoning arms industry and trade. In contrast, India imports nearly 70% of its weapons. The awkward fact is that India’s strengthening of economic and military ties with ASEAN countries is not synonymous with competing on a level playing field with China.

Economic progress and perhaps some cultural exports reflecting that progress, rather than extolling the virtues or influence of age-old Hindu and Buddhist cultures, will polish India’s image as a country capable of making a major contribution to the stability and security of Southeast Asia.

Anita Inder Singh is a Founding Professor of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution in New Delhi.