Book review on “South and Southeast Asia”, The Hindu, November 2010

Emerging geo-political and security challenges
by V. Suryanarayan
November 2, 2010

This compendium of 10 essays, presented at an interaction in 2009 among scholars of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore, and the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi, covers a wide range of subjects related to the political and security trends in South Asia and Southeast Asia.. They include: the role of extra-regional powers and their growing naval presence in the Indian Ocean; the evolving Asian regionalism; India’s ‘Look East’ policy; the political situation in Myanmar; and the non-traditional security challenges to Asian security.

Since the end of World War II, the pattern of international relations in the two regions has undergone a radical transformation. This is particularly true of the role of external powers in Southeast Asia. Though the relative clout of the United States and Japan has declined, the ruling elite of the region would like Washington to maintain a high profile. The growing economic linkages between China and the United States and between India and China have a momentum of their own. However, China’s recent assertive postures in the Indian subcontinent and the South China Sea have created a sense of unease and have even given rise to suspicion about its intentions and objectives.

In South Asia, profound changes are taking place. The nuclearisation of India and Pakistan has added a new dimension to the troubled region. The struggle for democratic rights, the fight for justice by the ethnic minorities, and the secessionist movements, with covert support from external powers, pose grave challenges to the stability of South Asia.

Given the space constraints that preclude coverage of all the essays, only a limited review touching upon a few of the striking contributions is attempted here. In his analytical piece, “Major Powers in South Asia: What is their game?” Dilip Lahiri projects the scenario that is likely to emerge, one that will have profound consequences. Despite their divergent national interests, the U.S., India, Japan, South Korea, and Australia are likely to come together to ensure that the rise of China is non-threatening and does not disturb the peace and stability of the region. Admiral P.S. Das and Vijay Sakuja examine the roles of China and India as growing maritime powers. China’s deepening ties with the member-states of ASEAN and their consequences are highlighted. Equally interesting, the authors pinpoint the strengthening of the links China has established with India’s immediate neighbours — Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka. In this context, India’s ‘Look East’ policy assumes great significance. As Admiral Das points out, “looking East” is no longer an economic jargon; it is descriptive of the totality of India’s relations with Southeast Asia.

STRATEGIC UNEASE

Discussing the major powers vis-à-vis the security concerns of Southeast Asia, Daljit Singh makes the point that, while China’s image and standing in the region has “improved a great deal”, there is also a “strategic unease” about China on account of its “[huge] size, proximity, growing power, and uncertainty about its long-term intentions.” China’s bilateral relations are driven solely by considerations of realpolitik and strategic interests. Witness Beijing’s continuing support to the military regime in Myanmar, its military aid to Sri Lanka during the fourth Eelam War, and its covert support to Pakistan’s nuclear programme.

From India’s point of view, there is concern over a perceived shift in China’s position vis-à-vis Jammu and Kashmir. Hitherto, it had recognised India’s de facto control of J&K, while, at the same time, advocating a peaceful resolution of the contentious issues with Pakistan through bilateral negotiations. The recent denial of visa by China to Lieutenant General B.S. Jaswal is held out as a pointer to this subtle shift. Many scholars are so blind in their admiration for China and its remarkable achievements that they do not want to see any signal or be reminded of any historical evidence that shows it in a negative light. Such an approach will be detrimental to the interests of India. The essays — contributed among others by diplomats, naval officers and academics — are scholarly, absorbing and stimulating.

Link to original publication.

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