Geo-civilizational Links and Role of Soft Power:
Towards Deepening ASEAN-India Cultural Relations
Professor Baladas Ghoshal*
How to broaden and widen India-ASEAN links?
Broadening and widening of India-ASEAN relations, promotion of each other’s national interests and strategic objectives need not be only through the projection of each other’s hard military power as the ‘Realist’ school would have us believe, but could be more effective through strengthening their civilizational linkages and the exercising each other’s soft power, in terms of education, culture, democracy and scientific achievement.. The liberal institutional approach emphasizes soft power aspects with cultural attraction, ideology and international institutions as the main resource. Soft power strategies rely more on common political values, peaceful means for conflict management, and economic cooperation in order to achieve common solutions. India’s ability to play a major role in the Indo-Pacific region lies not so much in the area of trade and investment, undoubtedly important for development of relations between countries, and where China has overwhelming presence, but in its human resources, democracy, culture and achievement of excellence in certain areas scientific and institutional development which it has a distinct advantage over other Asian countries. It is in the area of creating and maintaining capabilities that India has a competitive advantage vis-à-vis China, starting with a basic feature such as a widespread, working knowledge of the English language, and a large education and skills infrastructure. From a geopolitical and geo-economic perspective, major discourses among the strategic community revolve around the concept of a ‘net security provider’ in an area of strategic uncertainty. Security is undoubtedly an important concern for all countries and all instruments need to be used to bolster it, but it cannot be fulfilled through hard power alone. It has to be supplemented by other measures to correct the soft underbelly of a state by building capacities of delivery and implementation. As countries within a civilizational space face similar problems and challenges, the member that has greater capabilities need to share its capabilities to build capacity for the other to face those challenges. From the perspective of geo-civilization, our focus should be more on ‘net capacity-building provider’ – to share one’s capacity with the one that lacks it in specific areas.
Two Dimensions of India-ASEAN Civilizational Links
Now how does one operationalize such geo-civilizational links and perspective to build meaningful cooperation between India and the ASEAN countries to build further synergies? There are two dimensions on India’s Civilizational and cultural links with Southeast Asia: the first one is investigation and research into various aspects of the cultural linkages between India and Southeast Asia, to throw new light on existing knowledge about cultural links, explore new areas hitherto unknown facts, particularly Northeast India’s links with Southeast Asia or the maritime links (relevant in the context of Indonesian President Jokowi’s enunciation of Indonesia as the maritime axis the region); the other one is the culture as a tool to find commonalities in the contemporary context and promote political, economic and strategic cooperation. How does the historical and cultural links create a resonance in the minds and hearts of the people of Southeast Asia and how that could be built and expanded to create synergies between the two regions, build people to people contact and share each other’s experiences in nation building to promote harmony, development and prosperity in their respective countries. As far as the first dimension is concerned, the recommendations from the last International Conference, which was organized by the ASEAN-India Centre (AIC) held in New Delhi on 23 – 24 July 2015, could be pursued and cooperative research and investigation could be undertaken in order to arrive at a balanced account of India’s civilizational links with Southeast Asia. Narratives of these links have come so far mainly from Indian historians and Western scholars with very little work from the Southeast Asian scholars, particularly in English language. We know more about India’s cultural influences on Southeast Asian religion, customs, traditions, dresses, textiles and various other aspects of everyday life in Southeast Asia, but we are not aware of whether Southeast Asia culture, traditions, food, dress and language had any impact on India. Ahoms from Northeast India claim their ancestry from Thailand. Was there any major migration from that part of Southeast Asia to the Northeast of India? We know about Indian diaspora in Southeast Asia. Can we trace a Southeast Asia diaspora in India?There is an urgent need for a collaborative study with the involvement of both Indian and Southeast Asian scholars to undertake such studies. There is also a need for Indian scholars to study Malay/Indonesian or Thai language to find whether those languages have any impact on the Indian languages? An interesting example is a word ‘sampan’ which is a Malay word and means a small boat. The people from Eastern part of Bengal use the same term to indicate a small boat. Possibly one might find more such words in Indian languages, particularly in Bengali, Oriya and Tamil, the three language groups who had interactions with Southeast Asia. Therefore, for a proper appreciation of India’s civilizational links with the region and how that link can be leveraged to strengthen current relations, there is a need for getting a Southeast Asian perspective of what they think of these links. The various facets of cultural relations should be documented in order to help policymakers to derive strategy towards deepening the relations between ASEAN and India. The need is to undertake specific projects at the micro level which would help us in undertaking policies in the area of civilizational links between India and Southeast Asia.
Democracy and Education
At the same time, the second dimension of the India’s cultural links shall be pursued simultaneously. India's objectives in its Look East / Act East Policy and visibility in Southeast Asia can be furthered through areas like education (human resources development), democracy and culture, where it has a comparative advantage over other Asian countries. Indian and Indonesian cultures and values, for instance, are closely related. If pursued, cultural diplomacy can further cement the bond between the two regions based on pluralist traditions and belief in 'unity in diversity'. Therefore, one theme of our future interactions could be culture as a tool to find commonalities in the contemporary context and promote political, economic and strategic cooperation.India's democracy has shown a lot of creativity in managing a multiracial, multicultural society, and, in the process, promoting people's empowerment. India can make an abiding contribution to the process of democratisation and nation-building in the region by helping countries in democratic capacity-building. Southeast Asian countries are not only multiracial and multicultural, some are also in the process of democratic transformation. The western model is not of much relevance to them, as their societal and historical circumstances are quite different. India's experience in nation-building and democracy is much more relevant. Organising elections involving around 670 million voters is an incredible undertaking India is proud of. Helping Southeast Asian countries in similar transformations can further its interests. Countries like Indonesia, Myanmar Thailand and even Cambodia could learn from the speed and transparency with which votes are tallied and the extensive powers accorded the Election Commission. Many Indonesians have great respect for India's democracy despite its shortcomings. While the Indonesian government has implemented devolution of powers, hoping that a fairer distribution of national wealth will reduce separatist sentiments and regional violence, there is lack of local level institutions to absorb autonomy. Here, India can help through its technical cooperation programme, training in local self-government and grassroots level institution-building. With little investment, it can reap rich dividends in terms of promotion of democracy in a vitally important neighbouring country and acquiring the goodwill of its leadership and people. Myanmar is another country which has been going through a process of transition to democracy but it lacks the capacity in many areas where India can help. The idea is not to export Indian democracy but to share its experiences with these countries to see whether these could be relevant to them and whether they could learn anything from these experiences. Another area could be sharing experiences in building multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-lingual and multi-religious societies and integrating them into citizenships. In the context of radical Islam spreading into the region, promoted by ISIS and al Qaida, a dialogue between the religious leaders of India and the countries of Southeast Asia could bear fruits in terms of identifying forces and issues that promote radicalism and how that can be confronted with new ideas and actions. Indonesia’s Islamic links with India is quite extensive through the Tablighi Jama’at. Farish Ahmad Noor of Malaysia has done extensive work on this. He could be asked to write a paper on this to see what kind of understanding can be built to have a better appreciation of Islam in these two countries.
Higher education is another area. Indonesia is a prominent beneficiary of our technical cooperation programme for developing countries. Around 1,000 Indonesian experts and officials received training in India, which offered over 1,100 scholarships to Indonesian students to study at Indian universities. India has alreadyopened two vocational training centresone in Jakarta and the other one in Aceh. Also, everywhere in Asia, there is a demand among the younger generations to learn English. Whether Myanmar, Cambodia or Lao PDR, our English language teachers are helping undoubtedly, but they could help more at much less cost than the British or Australians. China currently is engaged in a massive soft power diplomacy in Southeast Asia by inviting students from those countries not just through scholarships and other incentives, but also by advertising their best-known universities and attracting them even to study through self-financing. India has a much greater comparative advantage in higher education, especially our skill in the English language, and possess much greater potential to take advantage of that, yet India has not fully exploited those opportunities. Possibly India’s public universities are constrained by demands from within which sometimes outweigh the facilities they have to provide opportunities for foreigners, but New Delhi can enlist the support of private universities like Symbiosis, Amity and Shiv Nadar and many other technical institutions and business schools to attract students from Southeast Asia to study in India.India has a lead in information technology. Many Southeast Asians are not only interested in studying in our IITs and IIMs, but also want campuses opened in places like Indonesia. Businessmen of Indian origin would be only too glad to raise money to open these campuses and support faculty. What they want is the brand name and some experienced backup faculty from India. Here again, there is scope for developing closer bonds between and ASEAN countries through sharing of each other’s competence and build capacities for those who are short of such skills.In education, Indonesian universities can be opened in affiliation with Indian universities to teach high IT and other advanced courses.
Tourism as a means to cement cultural bonds
Tourism as a means of people-to-people contact can be an instrument of cultural diplomacy. Indonesia, for example, happens to be the world's largest Muslim country, yet its Hindu-Buddhist cultural heritage is also manifest in the temple architecture of Prambanan and Borobudur in Central Java and innumerable Candis scattered in the area. Indonesians have contributed significantly to enriching this culture. Indian tourists could be encouraged to visit those sites in greater numbers to discover the inherent genius of the Indonesian peoples in cultural preservation as well as the common bonds between the two countries. So far, tourism has largely moved in one direction: Indians go to Southeast Asia, not so much in the reverse direction. Similarly, heritage and architecture are important dimensions of cultural links. Islamic heritage and monuments are part of our composite culture, which needs to be presented to the Muslims of Indonesia and Malaysia. Taj Mahal, Fatehpur Sikri, Ajmer, Delhi, Hyderabad, Tipu Sultan's abode in Mysore and innumerable Islamic sites and Sufi shrines could be a spiritual feast for them. In that way, they could discover Indian pluralism and multiculturalism. As for India's Buddhist heritage, Nalanda is one of the world's oldest universities. Apart from Bodh Gaya and Sarnath, it could be a place of pilgrimage for Southeast Asia's Buddhists. India and Vietnam together can think imaginatively to develop Bodh Gaya as an annual pilgrimage for Buddhists from all over the world on the day of Budh Purnima, birth day of Lord Buddha, every year like Mecca for the Muslims. The annual gathering for the Buddhists can bring them not only closer to each other but can also become a platform for developing other linkages. Recalling the glorious past, Nalanda could be a "centre of civilisational dialogue and inter-faith understanding". If culture is the most durable bond between countries, Nalanda can be the bridge between Asia's peoples.
Other Areas of cooperation
India too has, the potential of developing as regional financial centre, given its sound financial system, well-developed capital market, its advantageous locality between the financial centres of the east and west, availability of skilled, English speaking workforce, stable legal system etc. Indian health care service has significant skills, talents and technology which make it attractive for outsourcing health care services. Qualified doctors and nurses can provide their services and some of the patients from Indonesia suffering from serious diseases can be referred to India and the insurance covered for those who might seek treatment at Indian hospitals. With the opening of Indonesia’s medical service industry healthcare investments, there is huge potential for health tourism. Indians can help develop this sector. Tourism is very important for Indonesia as a significant portion of its GDP depends upon tourism. For this, it can involve in meeting the diverse interests and requirements of domestic and international tourists. Indians can also invest in the hotel resorts in some of the cities where FDI is allowed 100%. India’s traditional systems of medicine such as Ayurveda and Yoga also need to be officially recognized in Indonesia.
Countries and states flourish through healthy cooperation and sometimes even through competition, but not through geo-strategic or geo-economic competition that results in conflicts. Strengthening geo-civilization links is an important tool to cement further bonds that provides a win-win situation for all. India’s and Vietnam’s soft power can serve that purpose.
* Secretary General, Society for Indian Ocean Studies & Visiting Professor in Public Policy, Amity University, Noida; Former Professor and Chair, Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.