Hindu culture forms a deep substratum underlying many of the societies of the region, and it is partly on this substratum that India hopes to build the foundations for future engagement with other nations. According to scriptures of the 09th century, crossing the kala pani—“black waters,” or the great oceans surrounding India on 03 sides was a taboo so strict that it caused the traveler to lose his caste. Yet Hinduism spread throughout Southeast Asia, and Hindu empires such as those centered in Angkor and the Javanese complex of Prambanan, rank among world’s great civilizations. However post World War II, the experience of European colonization led to the deterioration in the relationship between India and Southeast Asia despite the seeds being sown centuries ago.
However lately, the present government’s foreign policy actively engages with the region and further strengthens the ties that can have multi fold benefit for India most importantly by countering China’s growing tendencies of hegemony. The South East Asian region is an emerging geo-strategic and geo-economic concept that has been gaining significance in the field of defense and security studies. It has recently gained traction in geopolitical circles as critical Sea Lanes of Communications (SLOCs) that are crucial for energy transportation contributing to 65% of the world trade, that pass through this area. India’s Look East Policy (LEP), has not only helped India in reviving her traditional relationship with the South East and East Asian countries but also interlinking across the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The present government has recently renewed India’s LEP into an ‘Act East Policy’, which not only seeks to increase the people-to-people contact and greater connectivity in the region but also seeks to play a larger and active role in international relations of regionalism and power. But this recent set up is against a backdrop of ever-increasing power of China and her hegemonic tendencies that create obstacles in India’s path to development in the region. However, the contrast between the two nations’ policies is exemplified by the Carrot and Stick Approach that makes it easy to identify the Chinese motives in the region as opposed to India’s hand of friendship.
The “carrot and stick” approach is an idiom that refers to a policy of offering a combination of rewards and punishment to induce behavior. It is used in the field of International Relations to describe the realist concept of ‘hard power’. The carrot can stand for benefits; the stick can stand for the use of (psychological) violence and threats by the government such as manipulation, realist expansion and threat.
This theory works particularly well in the region of South East Asia where India often takes a “soft power” or the ‘carrot’ approach towards diplomatic relations with nations that she wants a mutual benefit with. As a contrast, China exercises the “hard Power” or the ‘sticks’ approach to avail the trust and profit by arbitrary annexations, ulterior motives and a hegemonic idea of diplomacy. China claims most of the South China Sea as her territory based on the Nine Dash Line theory and has clashed with the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei over the Spratly and Parcel Islands. Though Indonesia does not have any island or reef disputes with China, but the claims in the South China Sea challenge Indonesia’s control over the waters adjacent to the island of Natuna, the site of Indonesia’s largest offshore gas field. China is building maritime facilities in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) in a move that feels like encirclement to Indian strategists termed as “String of Pearls” which include the ports of Gwadar Pakistan, Hambantota Sri Lanka, Chittagong Bangladesh, and Kyauk-pyu Myanmar and are envisaged as a potential threat to India.
This use of the ‘stick’, only because of the power that China is in the region is something that makes her feared by other smaller nations. However, she often hides this realist agenda by balancing her coercive efforts to stake claims in the South China Sea. China is trying to exercise influence by engaging ASEAN diplomatically wherein multilaterally, she supports establishing a regional security architecture and free-trade agreement centered on ASEAN as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. Chinese leaders consider stability in South East Asia as critical to their nations economic and security interests hence have devoted considerable diplomatic attention, including military diplomacy towards the regional relationships. But deep within, lies the motives of realist expansion to rebuild the ‘Greater China’ that flout International Relations and sovereignty, which goes un noticed for her might and regional homogeneity with the smaller nations, makes it easy for her to be manipulative.
India’s approach is a huge contrast to what China preaches with the aim of balancing the power in the region with the ever-growing China and does not possess hegemonic notions of power. Since 1950s, India’s founding Prime Minister Nehru expanded the notion of pan-Asianism to a global stage, conceptualizing a community of decolonized nations that would be independent of USA and erstwhile USSR. This Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) was the core of Nehru’s foreign policy for more than a decade, and one of the pillars of his legacy. As circumstances changed, India had to resort to assistance from the USSR in times of the hostility from her neighbors during the Sino-Indian war in 1962 and till the 1970s, India’s relations with the South East Asian nations deteriorated with the leaning of India towards the Soviet Union. The collapse of the USSR in the 1990 was the harbinger of building the centuries old relationship between India and the South East Asian region. The impetus for India’s re-engagement with East Asia was economic rather than geopolitical and India’s Look East Policy, whilst being grounded in ideas NAM, took on its current shape after India’s balance of payment crisis of 1991 under Prime Minister Narsimha Rao and in status quo Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
India’s ongoing agendas of road, air and maritime connectivity along with exchanges of trade, energy, institutions, security co-operations and disaster reliefs with Vietnam, Philippines, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia and Indonesia serve purpose for India in balancing power equation with China in the region. India’s commitment to engagement with South East Asia is evident with assistance being provided to Vietnam for upgrading of their military hardware and the strategic road link from Kolkata to Hanoi. In Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, India’s interests are largely shared with USA, so either nation’s engagement can serve as a force multiplier for the other. As far as Philippines in concerned, India has shown less interest in intervening in South China Sea disputes on behalf of the Philippines than it has on behalf of Vietnam, but India shares Philippines’ core demand that all territorial disputes should be settled through negotiation. Similarly, nations of Cambodia and Laos have a historical cultural bond with India namely Hindu Khmer Empire, which lasted from the 09th to 14th century, and was centered in Cambodia’s sacred city of Angkor extending well into Laos. However they are closely linked to China than any other members of ASEAN and India’s has commenced her engagements with them in view of the historical ties.
India’s adoption of friendly alliances and abiding by the Peace of Westphalia, the Breton-Woods System and other such treatise of peaceful co-existence, goes to show her exercise of the ‘carrot approach’ wherein, mutual co-existence which are non threatening, yet persuasive in nature, yield the fruits that Indian diplomacy deserves. In a world of conflict today, India realizes the worth of freedom and independence and looks down upon violations made in the global fore of International Relations. This respect for regionalism is what makes India, a big brother to the smaller nations and the hard power as opposed to the threat that China exercises, which make her, symbolize that of a bully.
The process of the region’s positive view of China is slowly crumbling with the threats from Taiwan from East, Tibet in South, the Muslim population of China’s far-flung Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in the West that have shaken China’s hold in the region which is further weakened because of the maritime disputes with other nations in South China sea. Taking into consideration the aggressive posturing of China, India’s economic engagement in the region is being viewed as a counter-balance to China’s growing regional hegemony. With the advent of the BIMSTEC, ASEAN and SAARC, India has cemented her regional ties with the Sino-dominant narratives. India’s prospects are not to create hegemony in the region but to confine China to her own territory and economically surpass her for India’s say in the international fore. According to my analysis, India needs to aggressively engage with the nations in the region like development of Sittwe Port in Myanmar, facilitating the trade of arms to countries in the region for enhancing nation security, engaging in asymmetrical warfare and increasing economic ties and humanitarian assistance. Taking on the dominant role in the region would accrue long-term benefits for India and would strengthen her position as the regional power that is asserting her rights in the international forum. The stick represents threat, hard power and realist expansion whereas the carrot symbolizes the benefits that nations can share by bilateral and multilateral trade and exchanges, on particular terms and conditions. India, by adopting the latter is slowly gaining the trust of all in the region and will soon emerge as a balance to the arbitrary power that China poses as antithetical in the contemporary world of peaceful-coexistence.