India’s potential as an Asian power
May 22 2014
It was significant that Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe was amongst the first to congratulate Narendra Modi on his spectacular victory. The victory of the successful chief minister of Gujarat and the decisive mandate he had gained for the Bharatiya Janata Party have come at the right time. It is as if even in the remote villages of Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra, people have instinctively felt that the election was the historic chance for India to break out of economic, political and social stagnation.
The time for a new, reinvigorated, proud and decisive India to straddle the world stage is ripe. The world, particularly east Asia, needs India’s renaissance as a powerful global actor. In recent times, unease about China throwing its weight around has grown considerably. Relations between Tokyo and Beijing are very tense. China and Vietnam are in open conflict about some islands in the South China Sea which both countries claim as their own. In all southeast Asian countries, there is fear and apprehension about China’s designs and its re-emergence as a dominant world power.
It is significant that after Japan, India is the second major Asian country to embark on a marked departure from traditional politics. In Japan, we are witnessing this with “Abenomics”, a package of reforms that go far beyond economic reforms. When US president Barack Obama visited Japan in late April, he encountered a newly self-confident country that is eager and ready to play a more active role in regional and global security policies. Obviously, under Shinzo Abe, Japan has woken up fully to the challenges posed by China. However, Japan’s new international profile is not limited to postures on defence and security. It also includes a strong projection of economic power both near and far away. Japanese companies are investing billions in southeast Asia and in India. This is not only due to the fact that for demographic reasons domestic markets in Japan are shrinking. It is also because the Japanese are welcome as a counterweight to the Chinese.
Traditionally, India has been focused on its own region, notably on its rivalry with Pakistan. Further afield the main attention has been given to the west, particularly to Great Britain and the US. During the Cold War, relations had been particularly strong with the then Soviet Union. Although in the past, Indian culture had a strong influence on southeast Asia, Indian decision makers in politics and in the economy paid insufficient attention to this part of the world. It is high time that under the new government in Delhi, this will be corrected.
The US will, of course, deserve major attention as for the foreseeable future they will continue to be the only super power in the world. To focus on Britain, however, is a waste of time as the country has shrunk to a marginal player in Europe with an economy that has hardly anything other to offer than real estate and financial services. Germany is clearly Europe’s powerhouse and its strong industry has to offer India as much as Japan does and considerably more than the US. There is widespread interest that India shall increase its profile in eastern Asia. Here there are gigantic markets that can absorb Indian goods. Here are powerful countries that have common security interests with India. Here are huge populations that could not only provide consumers but also tourists to India.
Asia is a huge continent and indeed it is much more varied than Europe. This diversity is difficult to understand for the Chinese who in their own country are used to a large amount of uniformity. Equally, Japan and South Korea that have no substantial minority of any kind, have difficulties dealing with other cultures. On the other hand, India is a cosmos in itself of immense variety. Indians instinctively understand how to deal with other people who do not speak the same language, do not follow the same religion, or do not use the same script. This is an immensely important asset for the future forays of Indian business and Indian diplomacy into eastern Asia. It is high time that India, which in every respect, from politics to the economy, from culture to historical identity is the opposite of China, projects itself as a powerful and attractive alternative to the Middle Kingdom. The field is wide open for the new government and Asia is eagerly waiting to have India play the role of a major Asian power.
(The writer is the Far East correspondent of Swiss daily Neue Zurcher Zeitung)