Friday, June 10, 2011

India, China and the Global Village: Finding a Way to Live Between Two Giants

For the first time since Asia’s colonial period, China and India are rising simultaneously.

This historical moment weighs closely on the destiny of Southeast Asia, the region defined by its position south of China and east of India. If the two Asian giants cooperate, they will help to consolidate Southeast Asia’s own rise. If they contend, they might tear the region apart. Those grave stakes impinge on the choices made by Indonesia, the region’s pivotal country.

In this context, it is interesting to note that the economic rise of China and India is bringing them closer, but the growth of their military power is not. China is India’s largest trading partner. Bilateral trade went from barely $2 billion at the beginning of this century to $60 billion in 2010, and the two countries have agreed to increase it to $100 billion by 2015. The astonishing growth of economic links has led to the coining of the term “Chindia.” The word signifies the emergence of two Asian powers which, acting together, could reshape the region and even global affairs. Chindia is, indeed, a noble aspiration in a world looking for new economic choices.

However, there is no strategic Chindia. Instead, the strategic reach of nuclear India is seen prominently in its Look East policy, particularly in the cutting-edge naval aspects of that policy. That reach extends from the Bay of Bengal through the Malacca Strait to the South China Sea and all the way to the eastern edge of the Indian Ocean. The westward naval interests of nuclear China cover the South China Sea, the Malacca Strait, the Bay of Bengal and across the Indian Ocean to East Africa.

India’s Look East policy could turn South Asia and Southeast Asia — the Suvarnabhumi (Golden Land) of classical Indic lore — into a single strategic region. China would do the same for Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia, historically the Sinic Nanyang (Southern Ocean). But which way will the region go?

The answer is still unknown, but what is significant today is that the overlapping naval interests of India and China are intersecting closely in Southeast Asian waters. If those interests overlap but do not come into conflict, they will enhance the maritime security of this region. However, if the two powers compete and contend for supremacy here, they might force difficult choices on a region that both New Delhi and Beijing regard as an intrinsic and immediate part of their natural spheres of influence.

Put bluntly, Southeast Asia is a buffer zone between China and India that can remain a buffer only so long as neither country insists on the region being an exclusive part of its sphere of influence.

Given all this, what can Southeast Asia do to preserve its strategic unity and autonomy? The answer lies at the foot of the organization that encompasses the region: Asean. If Asean continues to preserve its internal coherence, then bloc members will be able to depend on one another’s support to balance the pulls from both China and India. If Asean is weak, those forces could well split it.

Beyond its own unity, the key to Asean playing a balancing role between the two powers depends on it being scrupulously fair to both. This is to say that Asean cannot be so pro-China as to antagonize India, and vice versa. If Asean remains fair, both powers should be able to engage it in an atmosphere of trust to protect and advance their legitimate strategic interests. That way, even if the interests diverge one day, Asean can continue to negotiate its autonomy vis-a-vis both.

In fact, Asean can act as an honest broker between China and India because it is a regional organization that is credible enough to make a difference to diplomatic outcomes, but is incapable of threatening either power militarily. Asean’s relative military weakness is paradoxically a source of strength in its political and economic dealings with the m .

Indonesia’s chairmanship of Asean this year is an opportunity for the grouping to strengthen its external partnerships. China and India, along with the United States and Japan, are critical international partners. But even beyond Indonesia’s chairmanship, it has the ability to help stabilize Southeast Asia’s relations with the two rising powers.

Anindya Novyan Bakrie is vice chairman of the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Kadin), CEO of Bakrie Telecom and chairman of Viva Media Group.

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