A recent conclave drew youths from all ten members of Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and this was followed by the successful first-ever Indo-ASEAN artists camp in Udaipur as well as Indo-ASEAN music festival in Delhi last week. The camp featured prominent artists from all member states as did the music festival, which saw some of the musical troupes participating outside their country for the first time.
Other such initiatives to create a bridge between the youth of India and ASEAN are in the pipeline as India prepares to host leaders of all ASEAN countries at the 2018 Republic Day to celebrate 25 years of partnership through a commemorative summit. Ahead of that, in mid-November, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is due to travel to Philippines for India-ASEAN and East Asia Summits, where he is expected to outline India’s vision for Indo-Pacific region, besides outlining rich cultural and historical bonds that India shares with ASEAN.
“India’s soft power in ASEAN is second to none,” said Prabir De, chair of India-ASEAN Centre at think tank RIS run by the external affairs ministry. “Contrary to popular belief, younger generation in India and Southeast Asia are speaking more to each other through cultural space – music, arts, games and education. Social media has made most positive impact on cultural ties.”
An official said 3 Cs – commerce, connectivity and culture – are at the core of India’s Act East policy.
“India’s goodwill in Southeast Asia is based on its benign approach, similar to its role in Africa, West Asia and Central Asia,” said an expert on Indo-ASEAN ties. “Unlike China, India is not pursuing an aggressive foreign policy sidestepping local sentiments. The potential of India’s soft power must be fully utilised to create bonds with the region, which is part of our extended neighbourhood.”
While yoga is gaining popularity in the ASEAN region, the Buddhist links and Buddhist circuit in India are acting as a bridge to connect the two regions. India’s soft power is reflected in Buddhism, yoga, revival of Nalanda University, chairs of Indian studies in universities (Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia), Indian cultural centres (Jakarta, Bali, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Suva, Lautoka), and joint restoration of monuments (Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos).
Recalling Indonesia’s Indian linkages, Yose Rizal Damuri of Jakarta-based CSIS said, “Indonesians spend billions to restore all Hindu monuments and temples. They name their currency rupiah, their airways Garuda, 20,000 rupiah note has Ganesha image, their universities have names like Gajah Mada, Sri Vijaya University, Saraswati University, and they have Kubera Bank, Ganesh Bank… Hanuman is their military mascot… the list goes on. Ramayana and Mahabharata are their cultural treasures.”
On the contrary, while more Chinese diaspora is present across Southeast Asia and ‘China towns’ are visible all around, China has a businesslike approach and Southeast Asia is key to China’s OBOR project, with little space for soft power.