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China in India’s Post-Cold War Engagement with Southeast Asia -Book Review

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Chietigj Bajpaee, China in India’s Post-Cold War Engagement with Southeast Asia, Routledge, Abingdon, UK, 2022, Hardback, ISBN: 9780367464066, Price: £120.00, 316pp.

India adopted the “Look East” policy in the 1990s to revive the importance of Southeast Asia in its foreign policy agenda and focus on maximising the economic potential of the relations with Southeast Asian countries. China’s role in India’s engagement with Southeast Asia has been an important point of discussion but has been rarely documented in a systematic manner. This is the gap that Chietigj Bajpaee’s China in India’s Post-Cold War Engagement with Southeast Asia attempts to fill by providing an in-depth analysis of India’s Look East Policy (LEP) by explaining its evolution through different phases.

The fundamental aim of the book is to explore China’s role in India’s post-Cold War engagement with Southeast Asia with a focus on the Sino-Indian relationship. The author underlines that their relations show the extent to which China has been a priority in the transition from Look East to Act East policy. The book takes note of a report by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) of 2020-21, which states that “ASEAN centrality has been, and will remain, an important aspect of India’s ‘Act East policy which is a central element in India’s Foreign Policy” ().

This book contains eight chapters, including the introduction and conclusion. The introductory chapter talks about an overview of India’s Look-East Policy (LEP) and its historical linkages to it. It has attempted to critically analyse the historical background of the LEP. Chapter two talks about the evolution of India’s engagement with Southeast Asia and focuses on the post-Cold War period under the Look East/Act East policy. The author goes deeper into verifying if the rhetoric of the policy corresponds with India’s engagement with Southeast Asia in areas of economic integration, maritime security and soft power engagement.

Chapter three focuses on the methodology for establishing strategic elites as the agents of Indian foreign policy. The author employs Regional Security Complex Theory to bound India and China within the same region centred on Southeast Asia’. Mr Chietigj has explored this area through the assumption that the origins and evolution of India’s foreign policy can be traced to an interaction between structure and agency.

The following four chapters explore how China has been a priority in discourses on India’s LEP.  Each chapter begins with a brief explanation of the Sino-Indian and China-Southeast Asia relationship during the period. The chapters have been divided into four phases. The book explores the phases in terms of, ‘A broadening’ and ‘deepening’ of India’s eastward engagement has characterised each phase of the LEP’. Chapter four deals with the phase of the launching of the LEP, that is, until 1996. This chapter explores that the China factor played a vital role in the launch of the policy. It explains the Sino-Indian relationship in brief and considers engaging China’s narratives by focussing on China-Southeast Asia relations. “ ‘Balancing China’ narratives emanated from calls for a ‘balanced’ regional architecture amid concerns of a post-Cold War regional order dominated by China, as evidenced by India’s admission to the ASEAN Regional Forum in 1996”.

Chapter five elucidates the first phase until 2004 as several developments accelerated the pace of India’s interaction with ASEAN. This phase includes the Asian financial crisis and the expansion of ASEAN membership to further include countries in the Indo-China subregion. The author explained that China’s view in the LEP was quite prevalent in the official discourses which evolved through the convergence of Chinese and Indian interests in Southeast Asia.

Chapter six explained the second phase until 2014 and the author observed that over time balancing the China narrative became prominent in official and strategic elite discourses. This phase saw hedging and soft-balancing amid China’s growing regional assertiveness by deepening India’s participation in the regional architecture. China’s aggressive behaviour was also to be challenged in the South China Sea (SCS)  by working towards a peaceful resolution of maritime territorial disputes. “ ‘Balancing China’ was also evident in calls for deepening relations with countries with historically difficult relations with China, both in Southeast Asia – such as Myanmar, Vietnam and Indonesia and the broader East Asia region, such as Japan.”

Chapter seven explains the third phase of India’s Act-East policy since 2014, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The Act-East policy focuses on India’s broader engagement with Southeast Asia and East Asia. India also became willing to challenge China’s assertive regional behaviour. ‘Act East Policy encompassed the Indo-Pacific region, comprising Southeast Asia and East Asia’. ‘India became more willing to challenge China’s regional behaviour, although China’s emergence as a major power made it wise for India to bandwagon with China on occasion.

The last chapter summarises all the chapters of the book and examines the importance of the China factor in India’s engagement with Southeast Asia. China’s regional role has further contributed to the resilience of the LEP. It concludes that China’s regional role has contributed to the resilience of the LEP.

One of the drawbacks of this book is that it has used a lot of theoretical terms of international relations (IR) like hedging, and bandwagoning which may not cater to the understanding of the general audience. Therefore, it could be difficult for a person who does not possess much knowledge of theories of IR to understand. Nevertheless, this book provides an important yet insightful analysis of the interplay between India’s relations with Southeast Asia and China. This book will intrigue academicians, scholars, policymakers and experts in the fields of international relations, China’s foreign policy and also Indian foreign policy. The book is highly recommended for the experts in these fields to gain a better understanding of China’s role in the LEP over time.

Simran Walia is a Research Associate at the Centre for Air Power Studies and has pursued M.Phil in Japanese Studies under the Centre of East Asian Studies from Jawaharlal Nehru University. Her research interests include Japanese politics and foreign policy, Indo-Pacific and also East Asian foreign policy too. She has published articles and papers in magazines and websites like, 'The Diplomat', 'Indian Defence Review', Global policy journal and elsewhere. She can be reached at: Simranwalia995[at]gmail.com

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South Asia

Politics of Pakistan: A Riot or an Opportunity

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On 14th August, 1947 Pakistan appeared on the world map as the largest independent Muslim state of that time. Sixty-five million people out of Ninety-five million population were Muslims. Despite of the shared religion of its majority, Pakistan is still struggling to build a national identity. Earlier, linguistic and cultural diversity were a hurdle but, in the Common Era political imbalance, rivalry and groupings left Pakistan with nothing but social, political and economic crisis with no future of stability.

Division of Sub-continent into India, West Pakistan and East Pakistan was a kick start to the largest demographic movement in history. Unfortunately, Muhammad Ali Jinnah died when Pakistan was less than a year old. The politics of Pakistan has not been less than a roller coaster ride. Till date the State has been ruled by 27 different Prime Ministers where some of them ruled twice and even thrice. Adding to that, the state has been under dictatorship four times since its independence. This political chaos has badly affected the economy of Pakistan. Not that Pakistan is a barren landlocked country with no reservoirs or no beneficial source to strengthen the economy, but, the political riot has played a vital role in paralyzing the social and economic bodies. Pakistan’s politicians have obediently followed the tradition of blame game since independence. Political representatives have always considered it necessary to blame the opponents for unstable environment in rather than being united against the state issues. The truth is that none of the political party could ever succeed in fulfilling the objectives of their five-year plan.

Due to sudden change of government, corruption, fragile institutions, the country’s economy suffered harsh weather. In 1980’s the economic growth was an impressive 6.3% which had a sharp decline during 1990’s and dropped to 4.9%. By the end of dictatorship the growth decelerated to 1.7% in 2008 and political instability accelerated to -2.4%. During the regime of PPP, the Nation succeeded in nothing but increase in economic instability, rise in corruption, inflation, and unemployment. PPP has set Karachi as a portrait of their inefficiency which the city witnesses every year during monsoon season. In 2013, the biggest political parties of Pakistan, PMLN and PTI fought the elections and undesirable results ended in a 126 days long dharna in the Capital of Pakistan with the inclusion of rallies, aggressive speeches and corruption cases against the opponents to hold them responsible and throw them out. The dramatic political unrest forced the country to lose hundreds of millions, foreign trust, foreign investment as well as paralyzing the Capital of the state. Nawaz Sharif was proven guilty and sent to jail, PMLN succeeded in making the institutions fool and Nawaz Sharif flew to the UK for medical treatment. In 2018, the ineligibility of Nawaz Sharif, Panama leaks and support of the number of people of the nation gave Imran Khan a chance to win the majority vote in National assembly. Forced to habit, the opposition instead of efficiently working with the government for the welfare of state, jointly formed PDM to demolish PTI’s government. Protests, long march, boycotts became the fate of Pakistan and which couldn’t affect the government much but, to lead to vote of no confidence in April, 2022 which resulted in Imran Khan’s removal. PTI blames PDM for joining hands with US in their regime change strategy. Even during PTI’s government, the instable economy was in the destiny of Pakistan. Currently, Shahbaz Sharif is the Prime Minister of the State and the economic conditions are nowhere near to a betterment; a total chaos.

The fake promises of every government has left the nation with nothing but empty bank accounts, economic collapse, inflation, extreme foreign debt, intolerance and extremism among its own people. The prime reason to every government’s failure is more or less their self- priorities. It was and is never about the betterment of state and its people but the authority, rivalry and seat. Every government without any discrimination focused on plans which would temporarily benefit the Nation during their tenure but, later due to huge foreign debt and IMF instructions, the country suffers inflation and hurdles in development of the country. Moreover, every new government finds the work of the former useless and terminate the projects, plans and policies initiated by them. This restricts the foreign investors from huge investments as more political instability leads to more economic deceleration.

Another huge drawback is that every government demands the state’s institutions to work their way, for example; the security departments’ ultimate duty is to protect the state from internal and external threats but what they do nowadays is to arrest the opponent leaders, raid their houses, protect red zone and blindly work under government’s thumb.

The biggest threat to Pakistan is its own poisonous politics. The political parties do not find their victory in providing the Nation with excellence and betterment but, the lust of power and hatred has forced the public to witness a psychotic political behavior. Election campaigns, days of protests in Islamabad, societal unrest and cyber-attacks have become a trend which has divided the Nation into groups.

Pakistan is on the verge of losing everything. IMF and other states have either denied or are delaying in providing aid to the country and the major reason is the political unrest but, a bitter reality is that politics cannot be ignored as it plays a prime role in connecting Pakistan on national and international levels. Political stability shall be the ultimate goal as it would help in formation of beneficial policies and would allow the institutions to work in a normal way which would only make Pakistan a healthy developed state. This 75th year and the years coming ahead can be good for Pakistan if elections are truly conducted on their time and the losing parties instead of creating a chaos, aids the ruling party in running the affairs of Pakistan smoothly.

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South Asia

Seventy-Five Years of India’s Independence

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If anyone had asked Jawaharlal Nehru as he made his midnight speech on August 15 and freedom dawned, how he visualized India 75 years hence, he would have described a Fabian paradise of equality and plenty.  Would he be disappointed?

The neo-liberal agenda, far removed from socialism, introduced by Manmohan Singh a few decades later was designed to invigorate the economy.  He lowered taxes, privatized state-run industries and encouraged foreign investment.  It did spark an economic boom but the withdrawal of the state from healthcare, education, banking and credit made it a country obsessed with profit.

If cities boomed, rural areas were left to stagnate.  GDP grew but the growth favored the upper 50 percent — the lower half did not enjoy a similar access to education or healthcare or have the same mobility.

According to the World Food Programme (WFP), a quarter of the world’s undernourished people now live in India and a fifth survive on less than $1.90 per day.  WFP has been working in India since 1963, and it reports that in the last two decades per capita income tripled yet the minimum dietary intake fell, and the gap between rich and poor actually increased despite this high economic growth.

Nehru’s ideal was a country of different faiths and different ethnicities, speaking many languages but living harmoniously and sharing a common Mother India.  Instead, unbalanced growth at the cost of the lower half of the population has led to scapegoating and the major target is the sizable Muslim minority.

The blame game now includes historical revisionism blaming Mughal emperors from India’s glory days when the exquisite Taj Mahal was constructed, the arts flourished and India generated almost a quarter of the World GDP.

This game also chides the Hindu Rajput princesses that Mughals married or the respected Hindu advisers that served the Emperors.  The much decried last great Mughal emperor in this blame game is Aurangzeb who extended the empire to almost India’s southern tip, ruling a vast area stretching into Afghanistan and its borderlands in Central Asia. 

The Aurangzeb narrative excludes a simple fact:  the majority of Aurangzeb’s advisers were Hindu.  A Hindu chronicler, Bhimsen Saxena, penned a memoir titled Tarikh-i-Dilkusha or a history that warms the heart, describes life as a soldier in service to the Emperor for more than a quarter century.  He may rail at Aurangzeb’s tactical or strategic errors but is forever loyal.  Hindu generals, nobles and advisers … they were not on the outside looking in, they were an integral part. 

For centuries, religion was not a divider.  Adherents of the two principal faiths worked together, lived together, married each other, and fought together including in 1857, during what the British called the Indian Mutiny and Indians refer to as the First War of Independence.

Thereafter, the British instituted systems and processes to develop rivalry and resentment, including quotas for intake into the prestigious Indian Civil Service as well as the lower level jobs.  The rivalry progressed into mistrust, then riots and killings, eventually into two countries fighting wars, and then to a nuclear stand-off and a divided Kashmir.

North versus South, East versus West, a continent is difficult to govern.  Have we heard this story before?

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South Asia

The two Punjabs

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Even in the midst of tensions between India and Pakistan, people to people linkages between both countries – with both Punjabs (Indian and Pakistani) as key stakeholders – have given reason for cautious optimism.

While cultural commonalities and the emotional attachment on both sides has been the driving force for Punjab-Punjab initiatives, the potential economic benefits of improved relations have been repeatedly reiterated not just by the business communities, but political leaders (especially from Indian Panjab)

In recent years, ties between both countries have steadily deteriorated. After the Pulwama terror attack in 2019, economic linkages between both countries have got severely impacted, and this has taken its toll on the economy of Panjab (India). India imposed tariffs on Pakistani imports, and revoked Most Favoured Nation MFN status to Pakistan in February 2019, while in August 2019, trade links via the Wagah (Pakistan) -Attari (India) land crossing were snapped after the revocation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir. The suspension of trade ties between both countries has had a serious impact on the economy of the border belt of Punjab (India) with over 9,000 families being impacted as a result of job losses in the tertiary sector.

Developments of the past few months

The one glimmer of hope has been the Kartarpur Religious Corridor which was inaugurated in 2019 (in 2020 this was closed due to the covid 19 pandemic but re-opened in November 2021). The Corridor connects Dera Baba Nanak (Panjab, India) with Darbar Sahib (Kartarpur, Narowal, Pakistan) which is the final resting place of Guru Nanak (the founder of the Sikh faith). Devotees from Panjab (India) can pay obeisance at Darbar Sahib (Kartarpur) without a visa, though they do need to carry their passports. While the number of people crossing over, via the corridor, is way below the initial target of 5000, it has helped in promoting people to people ties as well as re-uniting a number of separated families. There has been a growing demand for easing out visa procedures for individuals over the age of 75 years and those from separated families (some of the individuals reunited at Kartarpur have been issued visas) which has been backed strongly by civil society organisations – as in the past.

 The phase from 2019-2022 has been witness to people to people linkages, especially with regard to religious tourism, but interactions between state governments of both the Punjabs, or what is referred to as ‘paradiplomacy’ unlike earlier years has been restricted. After the re-opening of the corridor in  November 2021, then Chief Minister of Panjab (India) Charanjit Singh Channi, and other political leaders from the state, paid obeisance at Darbar Sahib (Kartarpur), while also flagging the need for resumption of trade via the Wagah-Attari land crossing — though to no avail. 

There have however been calls for resumption of trade from sections of Punjab’s political class, business community as well as farmers from Indian Punjab. Pakistan which has been buying essential commodities including wheat at exorbitant prices could purchase the same from Panjab (India) and the Punjabi farmer could benefit by getting much higher prices for his produce.

Conclusion

In conclusion, even in the midst of strained ties between both countries, the Punjab has played an important role in trying to reduce tensions and build bridges between both countries, and the role of civil society, business community on both sides and the diaspora needs to be acknowledged. In the 75th year of independence while ties between New Delhi and Islamabad remain strained developments of the past few months, in the realm of people to people contact have given reason for hope as a result of the tireless efforts of civil society and some individuals committed to peace. The next stage of this should be easing out of visa regimes especially for certain categories of individuals – specifically those over the age of 75 who want to visit their ancestral homes. Resumption of trade via the Wagah-Attari land crossing will benefit not just Panjab (India) but other parts of North India and the Pakistani consumer. If both countries can focus on giving a greater fillip to people to people linkages and economic ties — with the Punjabs taking the lead – ties  between India and Pakistan could be less frosty.

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