What’s behind Anwar’s visit to India?


January 15, 2019

What’s behind Anwar’s visit to India?

It is common knowledge that South and Southeast Asia have extensive historical links. For thousands of years, there have been economic, cultural and religious interconnections.

Diplomacy has been a key activity which spurred widespread trade, investment and people-to-people ties between India and Malaysia. Through this, a steady Indian diaspora established itself in Malaysia.

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Statistics from 2017 show that 8% (or 2.4 million) of Malaysia’s population comprise Indians. This makes it the Asian country with the third largest population of Indians or non-resident Indians. Only Nepal (four million) and Saudi Arabia (three million) are ahead. For these reasons alone, it is not surprising that Malaysia’s political elite take a keen interest in India.

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Anwar Ibrahim arrived in India for a five-day visit on January 10. He delivered a speech at the 4th multilateral Raisina Dialogue, organised by the Ministry of External Affairs and the Observer Research Foundation. The Raisina Dialogue is India’s flagship annual geopolitical and geostrategic conference. This year’s theme was “A World Reorder: New Geometrics; Fluid Partnerships; Uncertain Outcomes”.

The Indian Express quoted Anwar as saying he is “a very old India watcher and frequent visitor”. Maybe so, because Anwar knows Malaysia cannot afford to ignore India. Several domestic currents in both India and Malaysia have direct implications for regional politics and bilateral relations. And currently, whatever happens in or to India has direct repercussions for Malaysia. Communalism, religious extremism and democratic legitimation are three trends which both nations need to guard against.

Communalism and religious extremism

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Anwar’s speech in New Delhi was replete with attacks on nationalism, jingoism and xenophobia. Some of us may not yet be familiar with the term “jingoism”, but Anwar has been using it for decades. For instance, in 1995, at the International Conference on Jose Rizal, he spoke of Rizal, Rabindranath Tagore and the Asian Renaissance. His message then was that Asian countries must have the political will to battle corruption and the abuse of power. However, he used the concept of jingoism to warn against a total rejection of alien ideals in the process of cultural rebirth. Rather than chauvinistic nationalism (which is what jingoism is), Anwar was all for synthesising the ideals of justice and compassion that exist in all civilisations of the north, south, east and west. He recognised these as universal values.

In 1994, at the International Conference on China and Southeast Asia in the 21st Century in Beijing, Anwar again mentioned jingoism. He spoke of the travels of Vasco da Gama and Zheng He (Cheng Ho), and international trade. His main point was that Asian societies should not succumb to the globalisation of Western interests, but instead counter economic protectionism while promoting a global trading platform that serves Asia’s interests. But Anwar cautioned Asians not to be the chest-banging King Kong at the expense of recognising a global system with multiple centres.

It is clear that we should not reject everything Western. Western civilisation has a good track record of rediscovering and reinvigorating its classical roots during its encounter with Islam. Much of Western science, art, mathematics, literature, music, technology and astronomy got a re-boot during the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods.

Anwar’s latest jingoistic comments in Delhi seemed to focus on the threats to international peace and security. He referred to nationalism in Europe, communalism in India, and wars and conflict in the Middle East. We can all agree that Donald Trump’s “nativist” economics and Europe’s unhealthy nationalism is the very communal politics of the far right that is so familiar to India and Malaysia.

India and Malaysia have been preoccupied with identity politics for decades. Call it what you want, but communalism, racism and ethnocentrism are “three sides of the same coin”. In India’s case, it has lingered for over a century. For Malaysia, it has been 61 years and counting. Both nations have had to come to terms with this, more so in the 21st century. The nation state, whether we like it or not, is subject to global geopolitical trends. Trump’s wall idea and Europe’s anti-immigration laws are couched in economic truisms, but generally, they reek of racist and communal effluvium.

After four years in power, the popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (part of the National Democratic Alliance, NDA) has declined 7%. After six months in power, the popularity of Dr Mahathir Mohamad and PPBM (part of the Pakatan Harapan alliance) has declined 19%. The main reason for the drop in BJP’s popularity was the Modi government’s failure to fight communalism. A key politician in the ruling PH coalition attributed its popularity decline to another “communal” excuse – that the goodwill of the Malays was fast eroding due to unfulfilled pre-election promises. One only has to look at the discourse around the Felda settlers, education policies, the ICERD fiasco, resistance to the Unified Examination Certificate, the Seafield Temple debacle and the “cross-on-building” mishap.

So, was Anwar deft in resurrecting the issue of “jingoism” in Delhi last week? Probably. The extreme patriotism and chauvinism in current Malaysian politics is akin to excessive bias in judging one’s own race and religion as superior to others. Fully aware that these sentiments are very much alive in our own political climate, Anwar may have made that speech in a convoluted attempt at bridging closer bilateral relations. Or it could be a case of “misery loves company”!

Anwar’s other agenda in Delhi was to meet with Rahul Gandhi, President of the Indian National Congress party. Known as India’s “crown prince”, Rahul has been known to say that Hindu extremist groups could pose a greater threat to the US than Muslim militants. Comments like these have caused a storm in India. Also, in 2011, Zakir Naik’s Islamic Research Foundation, the IRF, donated Rs 50 lakh (approximately RM20 million) to the Rajiv Gandhi Charitable Trust. At that time, Manmohan Singh, a congressman, was Prime Minister. India was governed by the United Progressive Alliance coalition. The donation was made after Naik was barred from entering Theresa May’s UK in 2010 due to his “inflammatory speeches”. In a desperate bid to escape inquiry over terror-related and money laundering charges, the donation was the next logical step. The congress has since claimed it returned the IRF donation. Nevertheless, what’s done is done.

Why, then, did Anwar feel the need to meet with Rahul last week? Naik is a permanent resident of Malaysia, much to the chagrin of many Malaysians. In December last year, Naik and his wife were “touring” Perlis, where the televangelist spoke at mosques, Islamic centres and universities in the state. The tour was organised by Muslim activist Zamri Vinoth, who is a staunch supporter of state mufti Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin. Naik’s Facebook page has approximately 17 million likes, which gives us an idea of his massive popularity among Muslims in Malaysia. At this juncture, we can only speculate on the details of the Anwar-Rahul meeting. Until more information is revealed (if at all), my hunch is that Malaysia is trying to find a way out of the diplomatic mess surrounding Naik’s permanent resident status, Malaysia’s refusal to extradite him, and the need to maintain a working bilateral relationship with India.

Democratic legitimation

Modi and Mahathir pride themselves on leading governments that are committed to the rule of law. Modi has been viscerally attacked by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The latter claimed that under Modi, corruption had peaked and the “credibility of institutions systematically denigrated”. Manmohan said, in no uncertain terms, that “democracy and the rule of law are under attack”. He accused the NDA of failing to home in on the rights of women and farmers, on youth unemployment and the rising prices of petrol, diesel and cooking gas.

Mahathir and the PH government are being attacked, too. An impatient public has become restless amid unfulfilled pre-election pledges. From the abolition of tolls to the eradication of money politics and cronyism, PH’s failures have been attributed to Mahathir’s policies which were set in motion decades ago. This is grossly unfair and analytically warped. Even if undemocratic policies were in place during Mahathir’s first term as Prime Minister, the scourge of corruption and cronyism continued and peaked with the last of the BN mavericks.

Malaysians should stop finger-pointing and finding petty excuses. Anwar gallantly decided to address the Raisina Dialogue. In Delhi, he reiterated that both he and Mahathir are committed to reforms and to “cleaning up the system”. They both know, though, that the system is still disease-laden. The latest political appointees at government-linked corporations such as PTPTN, MARA Corporation and the National Kenaf and Tobacco Board are three cases in point.

India and Malaysia seem to look up to each other as influential Asian powers that are democratically matured. But outside the pristine settings of bilateralism and diplomacy, both nations are nursing mutually inflicted wounds. The good old days of Jawaharlal Nehru and Tunku Abdul Rahman are over. It is vital to deal with jingoism at home as courageously and confidently as we do on the international stage.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.

Book Review: Gandhi and the End of Empire


December 8, 2018

Book Review : Gandhi and the End of Empire

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Two new books bring sharply different perspectives to bear on the history of British imperialism in India up until the end of the Raj in 1947. Together, they offer important insights into how national political identities can evolve on the basis of self-awareness or self-delusion.

NEW DELHI – The books under review both describe the people and events that shaped the final years of the British Raj in India, and demonstrate a magisterial command of their subject. But the similarities end there: these books could not be more different in the ground they cover or, ultimately, in their sympathies.

The first is by Ramachandra Guha, a well-known Indian historian whose previous works include an excellent biography of Mahatma Gandhi’s early life until 1914 (Gandhi Before India), and a historical survey of modern India following the Mahatma’s assassination in 1948 (India After Gandhi). Guha’s new book, Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World, 1914-1948, fills the gap in between, describing the final three and a half decades in the life of a saintly nationalist hero who would eventually be remembered as the father of a newly independent India. By contrast, the Mahatma plays no role in The British in India: Three Centuries of Ambition and Experience, the historian David Gilmour’s study of India’s colonial tormentors.

Gandhi’s Larger Truth

Gandhi, as we know, was the extraordinary leader of the world’s first successful non-violent movement against colonial rule. But he was also a philosopher committed to living out his own ideas, whether they applied to individual self-improvement or social change; hence the subtitle of his autobiography: “The Story of My Experiments with Truth.”

No dictionary definition of “truth” captures the depth of meaning that Gandhi found in it. His truth, Guha notes, emerged from his convictions, and contained not just what was accurate, but what was just and therefore right. Such truth could not be obtained by “untruthful” or unjust means, especially the use of violence.

Gandhi described his method as satyagraha, which literally means “holding on to truth,” or, as he variously described it, harnessing a “truth-,” “love-,” or “soul-force.” He disliked the English term “passive resistance,” because satyagraha required activism. To Gandhi, one who believes in truth and cares enough to obtain it cannot afford to be passive, and must be prepared to suffer actively for it.

Viewed in this way, non-violence – like the later concepts of non-cooperation and non-alignment – is not merely about renouncing violence, but about vindicating truth. In non-violence, suffering is intentionally taken upon oneself – instead of being inflicted on one’s opponents – because only by willingly accepting punishment can one demonstrate the strength of one’s convictions vis-à-vis one’s oppressors.

Guha details how Gandhi applied this approach to India’s movement for independence. Non-violence succeeded where sporadic terrorism and moderate constitutionalism had both failed. Gandhi showed the masses that freedom was a simple matter of right and wrong, and he furnished them with a form of resistance for which the British had no response.

Non-violent civil disobedience enabled Gandhi to expose the injustice of the law, giving him a moral advantage. By accepting his captors’ punishment, he held a mirror up to their brutality. And through hunger strikes and other acts of self-imposed suffering, he demonstrated the lengths to which he was prepared to go in defense of truth. In the end, he rendered the perpetuation of British rule impossible, by exposing the lie at the heart of imperialist paternalism.

An Enigmatic Life

Yet as Guha reminds us, Gandhi’s fight was not just against imperialism, but also against religious bigotry at home – a commitment that is very relevant to the current era. The descendants of Gandhi’s detractors on the Hindu right now hold power in India, and support for their brand of nationalism is at an all-time high. In their estimation, Gandhi went too far to accommodate Muslim interests. Within the jingoistic Hindutva movement, his pacifism is regarded as unmanly.

Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World, 1914-1948

But Gandhi, an openly practicing and deeply committed Hindu, defended a version of the faith that was inclusive and universalist, and thus demanded respect for all other faiths. Gandhi was murdered for being too pro-Muslim, and yet he died with the name of the Hindu god Rama on his lips. In the event, he had just come out of a fast that was meant to pressure his own followers, the ministers of the new Indian government, into transferring a larger share of undivided India’s assets to the new state of Pakistan. (Much to the Pakistanis’ horror, Gandhi had also announced that he would spurn the country he had failed to keep united, and spend the rest of his years in Pakistan.)

Such was the enigma of Gandhi. An idealistic, quirky, quixotic, and determined man, he marched only to the beat of his own drum, and often got everyone else to pick up the same rhythm. It has been said that he was half saint, half Tammany Hall politician. Like the best crossbreeds, he managed to synthesize the qualities of his component parts while transcending their contradictions.

But the Mahatma had a personal life, too. Guha describes in some detail Gandhi’s intimate friendship with a married woman, Sarala Devi Chaudhurani (though there is no suggestion of a physical relationship). He also recounts the troubling story of Gandhi’s experiments in sleeping naked with young women (including his own grand-niece) to test his vow of celibacy. Though there can be no doubt about the purity of his intentions – Gandhi gave up sex at the age of 35 – nor can there be any question that such idiosyncratic behavior alienated many of his followers (and remains controversial today).

Still, nothing in Guha’s thorough account diminishes Gandhi’s greatness or the extraordinary and lasting resonance of his life and message. While the world was disintegrating into fascism, violence, and war, the Mahatma espoused the virtues of truth, non-violence, and peace, and left colonialism utterly discredited. Moreover, he set an example of personal conviction and courage that few will ever match. He was that rare leader who transcends the inadequacies of his followers.

India for the English

The British ruled India for centuries with unshakeable self-confidence, buttressed by protocol, alcohol, and a lot of gall. Stalin, for his part, found it “ridiculous” that “a few hundred Englishmen should dominate India.” Though his numbers were off, he was right in principle: the British Raj operated with remarkably few people. Even at the peak of the empire in 1931, there were just 168,000 Britons – including 60,000 in the army and police, and a mere 4,000 in civil government – to run a country of some 300 million people. The British in India never accounted for more than 0.05% of the population.

In his monumental book, Gilmour sheds light on how they did it. He delves meticulously into the lives of Britons who lived and worked in India over the course of “three centuries of ambition and experience.” (An Indian might be tempted to substitute “looting and racism” to describe the colonial period, but we won’t dwell on that.) A decade ago, in The Ruling Caste, Gilmour took readers on a similarly deep dive into the lives of the Englishmen who worked in the Indian Civil Service (ICS). But in his new volume, he has broadened the range substantially to include the soldiers, journalists, and “boxwallahs” (commercial classes), as well as the hunters who single-handedly decimated most of the subcontinent’s wildlife. In the case of the latter, they lived by the motto, “It’s a fine day, let’s go and kill something.”

In describing the social backgrounds of the young men whom Britain sent to govern its far-flung empire, Gilmour takes us through their examinations, training, postings, social lives, professional duties, and extracurricular (sometimes extramarital) activities. Much of this is familiar ground, notably trodden by the ICS’s own Philip Mason in his 1985 book The Men Who Ruled India. But Gilmour has pored over a wealth of private papers and unpublished correspondence, leaving his narrative enriched by an intimacy that humanizes his subjects.

More broadly, Gilmour explains how the British sustained their empire in India through an extraordinary combination of racial self-assurance, superior military technology, the mystique of modernity, the trappings of enlightened progressivism, and brute force. Of course, it should also be said that the British benefited a great deal from the cravenness, cupidity, opportunism, disunity, and lack of organized resistance on the part of the vanquished.

Paternalism and Oppression

The British were in India to do a job: to advance the strategic, commercial, and political interests of their home country. Interestingly, Gilmour notes that two-thirds of the viceroys in the six decades from 1884 had attended Eton, as had half of the governors of the richest province, Bombay. Elitism at home reinforced racism abroad.

The British in India

Though Indians were permitted to take the civil-service examination from 1868 onward, they were long relegated to inferior positions. As one viceroy, Lord Mayo, put it, “We are all British gentlemen engaged in the magnificent work of governing an inferior race.” Needless to say, few shared Queen Victoria’s “romantic feelings for brown skins.” In Gilmour’s telling, the British had no illusions about preparing Indians for self-government. Their view of Indians was paternalistic at best, but more often contemptuous. Well into the twentieth century, Britons on the subcontinent spoke and wrote of the need to treat Indians like “children” incapable of ruling themselves.

There were British families that served the empire in India over the course of several generations – some for more than 300 years – without ever establishing roots. They would often send their own children “home” for schooling while they “endured” years of separation from loved ones. But it was not all self-sacrifice and hard work. The British in India were afforded not just generous furloughs and a guaranteed pension, but also the highest salaries in the empire. Some found it “quite impossible” even to spend their income. It is little wonder that English political reformer John Bright once described the empire as a “gigantic system of outdoor relief for the aristocracy of Great Britain.”

British society in India was shamelessly committed to its own pleasures. The families and hangers-on of senior officials routinely withdrew to mountain redoubts for months on end. As they whiled away their time with dances, banquets, and social fripperies, the Indian people, well out of their sight, continued to be ruthlessly exploited. In the summer capital of Simla, for example, so-called grass widows took in the cooler air while their husbands stayed behind to toil in the hot plains. These socialites’ principal activities included gambling, drinking, dancing, and adultery – usually in that order.

Meanwhile, racism became entrenched, pervasive, and increasingly repugnant over time. But while Gilmour acknowledges the racism, he does not address its connection to British self-interest. The Indians were systematically shown their place, with even those in government service being condemned to inferior ranks, piddling pay, and scarce opportunities for career advancement. As independent India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, once said of the ICS, it was “neither Indian, nor civil, nor a service.”

White-Washed Imperialism

Gilmour writes accessibly, often wittily, and with a wealth of telling anecdotes to bring the story to life. But he is unforgivably non-judgmental toward his subjects. The British imperial system was hopelessly disconnected from the Indians in whose interests it claimed to govern. Yet the very foreignness that Indians regarded as an indictment of colonial rule, Gilmour takes for granted, sometimes even framing it as a virtue.

Accordingly, he presents his cast of characters not just impartially, but often in an affectionate, sardonic light. Rarely does it seem to have occurred to him that these same men were racist oppressors, or at the very least the embodiment of a larger system of iniquity and injustice.

As a result, The British in India comes across as a curiously old-fashioned book, oblivious to the post-colonial currents that have already upended its assumptions. Because Gilmour demonstrates little awareness of the Indian perspective toward the British, we never learn what the subjects actually thought about their subjugators. The growing political consciousness among Indians that Guha describes makes no appearance, even though it provoked a British reaction.

Gilmour also disregards the unforgivable British attitude toward famines. Yet the deaths of 35 million Indians as a result of British imperial policy would seem to undermine his portraits of glittering durbars and elegant soirees.

The fact is that the British did little to advance the welfare of the people they were exploiting. As foreign rulers, they were more concerned with stability. Their job was to ensure imperial profit, not Indian progress, which would have undermined imperial rule anyway. Britain’s presence in India was motivated principally by pillage and plunder, but you wouldn’t know that from Gilmour’s telling. Only an Englishman could write about an emotionally fraught subject like colonialism with such benign detachment.

In reality, by the early nineteenth century, the British had established themselves as a ruling caste not within Indian society, but on top of it. They did not intermarry or even dine with Indians. They lived in bungalows within exclusive cantonments or “Civil Lines,” well apart from the “Black Towns” where the locals lived. They ensconced themselves in little islands of Englishness in the hill stations, where they planted ferns and roses, and built cottages with nostalgia-suffused names like Grasmere Lodge in Udhagamandalam (which the British, unable to pronounce the name, re-baptized “Ooty”). They patronized whites-only social clubs from which even Indian ICS men were blackballed.

More to the point, the British in India sneered at the people whose oppression paid for their comforts. Their loyalties remained staunchly wedded to their faraway homeland. Neither they nor their children mingled with the “natives.” Their clothes, books, and ideas all came from Britain, and British interests always took priority over those of the Indians under their rule. For the most part, the Britons would return “home” at the end of their careers. As the English writer Henry Nevinson observed in 1907, “A handful of people from a distant country maintain a predominance unmitigated by social intercourse, marriage, or permanent residence.”

That was the life of the British in India. Gandhi led the revolt that brought their sordid sojourn to an end. Guha and Gilmour offer an indispensable portrait of the people on each side of the colonial drama. As an Indian, though, I have little doubt about who is the worthier subject.

 

Southeast Asia: Changing Geo-Political Dynamics in the Trump Era


August 30, 2018

Southeast Asia: Changing Geo-Political Dynamics in the Trump Era

Widespread reports of China’s hegemony over the neighboring region miss the nuance of fast-shifting political and strategic dynamics

Phnom Penh 
A historical map depicting China's flag over Southeast Asia. Photo: iStock

Is China truly establishing dominance over neighboring Southeast Asia, or is it a prevailing perception among academics and journalists who have uncritically adopted a pervasive pro-China narrative built on Beijing’s rising investment and influence in the region?

Two recent Southeast Asian elections denote a shifting spectrum. Last month’s general election in Cambodia, by far China’s most loyal ally in the region, was taken by some as indication of how far the country has moved away from its past Western backers and closer to Beijing.

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As Cambodia abandons multi-party democracy for one-party authoritarianism, similar to the dominance of the Communist Party in China, some see Cambodia as the first domino to fall in China’s grand regional ambition for political and economic control over the nearby region.

Indeed, some in Cambodia’s exiled opposition have claimed that the country has become a de facto “Chinese colony” under Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

The Harapan coalition’s win at Malaysia’s May 9 general election, however, pointed in the opposite direction. The long-ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) was ousted by an alliance whose campaign narrative was built in part on opposing Chinese investment, which boomed under the previous government.

Now as prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad has cancelled US$22 billion worth of Chinese-backed infrastructure projects, including a Belt and Road Initiative-inspired high-speed rail line, for reasons of fiscal prudence.

While Mahathir warned of the risk of new forms of “colonialism” during a recently concluded tour of China, he also made the diplomatic point that his government isn’t anti-China.

Indeed, some in Cambodia’s exiled opposition have claimed that the country has become a de facto “Chinese colony” under Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

The Harapan coalition’s win at Malaysia’s May 9 general election, however, pointed in the opposite direction. The long-ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) was ousted by an alliance whose campaign narrative was built in part on opposing Chinese investment, which boomed under the previous government.

Now as Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad has cancelled US$22 billion worth of Chinese-backed infrastructure projects, including a Belt and Road Initiative-inspired high-speed rail line, for reasons of fiscal prudence.

While Mahathir warned of the risk of new forms of “colonialism” during a recently concluded tour of China, he also made the diplomatic point that his government isn’t anti-China.

Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad (L) and China's Premier Li Keqiang talk during a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on August 20, 2018.Mahathir is on a visit to China from August 17 to 21. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / HOW HWEE YOUNG

“We should always remember that the level of development of countries are not all the same,” Mahathir said this week at a joint press conference with Chinese premier Li Keqiang. “We do not want a situation where there is a new version of colonialism happening because poor countries are unable to compete with rich countries, therefore we need fair trade.”

It is undeniable that China now plays a major and growing role in Southeast Asian affairs, even if judged by only its economic heft.

A recent New York Times report noted that every Asian country now trades more with China than the United States, often by a factor of two to one, an imbalance that is only growing as China’s economic growth outpaces that of America’s.

With China’s economic ascendency projected to continue – the International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicts China could become the world’s largest economy by 2030 – some believe that Beijing aims to replace the US-backed liberal international order in place since the 1950’s with a new less liberal and less orderly model.

Cambodia’s case, however, tests the limits of that forward-looking analysis. The US and European Union (EU) refused to send electoral monitors to Cambodia’s general election last month on the grounds the process was “illegitimate” due to the court-ordered dissolution of the country’s largest opposition party.

Washington has since imposed targeted sanctions on Cambodian officials seen as leading the anti-democratic crackdown, while new legislation now before the US Senate could significantly ramp up the punitive measures.

Hun Sen aired a combative response to threats of sanctions, saying with bravado that he “welcomes” the measures. Some commentators read this as an indication that Phnom Penh no longer cares about the actions and perceptions of democratic nations because it has China’s strong and lucrative backing.

Yet the CPP still made painstaking efforts to present a veneer of democratic legitimacy on to its rigged elections, something it would not have done if it only cared about Beijing’s opinions. Hun Sen now says he will soon defend the election’s legitimacy at the United Nations General Assembly, yet another indication that he still cares what the West thinks.

China’s rise in Southeast Asia is viewed primarily in relation to the US’ long-standing strong position, both economically and strategically. Many see this competition as a zero-sum game where China’s gain is America’s loss.

Along those lines, some analysts saw US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent whirlwind trip to Southeast Asia as “parachute diplomacy” that only underscored certain entrenched regional perceptions of the US as an episodic actor that has no real strategy for Southeast Asia.

The Donald Trump administration certainly lacks an overarching policy comparable to his predecessor Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia,” a much-vaunted scheme with strategic and economic components that made Southeast Asia key to America’s policy of counterbalancing China.

Despite no new policy moniker, Trump’s administration has in many ways continued Obama’s scheme: Vietnam remains a key ally, support for other South China Sea claimants is unbending, military sales remain high, and containing Chinese expansion is still the raison d’etre.

It’s also been seen in the number of visits to Southeast Asia by senior White House officials, including high profile tours by Pompeo and his predecessor Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, and Trump himself to Vietnam in November 2017 and Singapore in June.

A little noticed December 2017 National Security Strategy document, produced by Trump’s White House, explicitly notes that “China seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model, and reorder the region in its favor.”

Yet perceptions of new Cold War-like competition in Southeast Asia often fail to note the imbalance between America and China’s spheres of influence in the region.

 

US President Donald Trump (L) and Vietnam's President Tran Dai Quang (R) attend a welcoming ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi in Hanoi on November 12, 2017.Trump told his Vietnamese counterpart on November 12 he is ready to help resolve the dispute in the resource-rich South China Sea, which Beijing claims most of. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / KHAM

Absent President Donald Trump’s Asia Policy, China emerges as the dominant  player in Southeast Asia

China’s two most loyal regional allies are arguably Cambodia and Laos, countries of less economic and strategic importance than America’s main partners Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore and Vietnam.

The historically pro-US Philippines has gravitated somewhat into China’s orbit under President Rodrigo Duterte, though at most there has been an equalization of its relations between the two powers rather than outright domination by China.

Strategic analyst Richard Javad Heydarian recently noted that Duterte likes to think of himself as a “reincarnation of mid-20th century titans of the so-called Non-Aligned Movement,” though Heydarian suggested that this could prompt a backlash from the Philippine public that remains resolutely pro-America.

Malaysia, another country that was thought to have been moving closer to China, has ricocheted strongly in the other direction after the change in leadership from pro-China Najib Razak to China-skeptic Mahathir Mohamad.

Thailand has boosted military ties with Beijing since the country’s military coup in 2014, which caused some panic in Washington, but a recent incident has shown just how fragile their bilateral relations remain.

After two boats sank near the resort island of Phuket in early July, killing dozens of Chinese tourists, Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan blamed the Chinese tour operators, commenting the accident was “entirely Chinese harming Chinese.”

His claim led to calls in China for tourists to boycott Thailand, which could cost the country roughly US$1.5 billion in cancellations, according to some estimates. Thailand’s tourism sector is now facing a major public relations problem after China’s jingoist state-owned media lambasted Prawit’s tactless response.

More explosively, rare nationwide protests in Vietnam in June were sparked by nationalistic concerns that a new law allowing 99-year land leases in special economic zones would effectively sell sovereign territory to China.

There are strong perceptions, aired widely over social media, that Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party is too close to Beijing, a cause of resentment that some analysts suggest is the country’s biggest potential source of instability.

Even in perceived pro-China nations like Cambodia and Laos, anti-China sentiment is rising in certain sections of the public. Arguments that Chinese investment actually harms the livelihoods of many Cambodians, especially in places like coastal Sihanoukville and Koh Kong, is on the ascendency.

Social media criticism has centered on a concession deal the Cambodian government entered with a Chinese company that effectively gives it land rights to an estimated 20% of Cambodia’s coastline.

The same goes for Laos’ ruling communist party, which has taken steps to curb the growth of certain sectors dominated by Chinese investment, such as banana plantations and mining, over public complaints about their adverse health and environmental impacts.

The IMF and others, meanwhile, have expressed concerns that Laos risks falling into a Chinese “debt trap”via its Beijing-backed US$6 billion high-speed rail project, a claim that Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith felt the need to publicly rebuff in June.

Still, there is a certain misapprehension that China’s rising economic importance to the region, both as a provider of aid and investment and market for exports, necessarily equates to strong political and strategic influence.

It doesn’t always add up that way. In January, China fractionally overtook America as the largest importer of Vietnamese goods, according to the General Department of Vietnam Customs. Nonetheless, Hanoi remains decidedly pro-US in regional affairs and that position isn’t expected to change, even if its exports to China continue to outpace those to America.

More fundamentally, China’s rising economic presence in the region is in many instances destabilizing relations. Rapid growth in Chinese investment to Malaysia in recent years prompted a public backlash, a phenomena seized on by the victorious Harapan coalition. There are incipient signs the same type of backlash is now percolating in Cambodia and Laos.

Chinese investment is likely to play a role in Indonesia’s presidential and legislative elections next year, perhaps negatively for incumbent President Joko Widodo, under whose tenure China has become the country’s third largest investor.

“The relationship with China could turn toxic for [Widodo],” Keith Loveard, senior analyst with Jakarta-based business risk firm Concord Consulting, recently told the South China Morning Post.

To be sure, China has translated some of its economic largesse to strategic advantage. Philippine President Durterte, for example, said in October 2016 that his country’s one-way security ties with the US would come to an end, though America’s provision of “technical assistance” during the Marawi City siege last year cast the extent of that into doubt.

China has also developed closer ties to the militaries of Thailand and Cambodia, so much so that the latter cancelled joint military exercises with the US last year. It has also resumed its past position of shielding Myanmar’s generals from Western condemnation during the recent Rohingya refugee crisis.

But America still remains the predominant security ally of most Southeast Asian nations, something that will only become more important as concerns about the spread of Islamic terrorism heighten. This month, Washington provided an additional US$300m in security funding to the region.

Only Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar buy more arms from China than America, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. The rest of Southeast Asia’s military procurements, sometimes exclusively, come from the US.

Still, some of China’s recent regional successes have been the result of America’s missteps. China has been greatly helped by Trump’s withdrawal of America from its long-standing leadership role in certain multilateral institutions, as well as his ad hoc policy towards Southeast Asia that favors more bilateralism.

Had Trump not withdrawn the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multilateral trade deal championed by Obama that excludes China, regional trade flows would be geared more towards America, providing an important counterbalance to many regional countries’ rising dependence on Chinese markets.

By doing so, Trump allowed Beijing’s multilateral economic institutions, like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the New Development Bank, to gain an upper hand.

Yet most reporting on China’s influence in Southeast Asia rests on the assumption that the trends of the past decade will continue into the future. But it’s not clear that Chinese investment will keep growing at the same rate – or even faster – while America continues to fumble over how best to engage with Southeast Asia.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (C) poses with Thailand's Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai (L), Vietnam's Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh (2nd L), Malaysia's Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah (2nd R) and Laos Foreign Minister Saleumxay Kommasith (R) for a group photo at the 51st Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) - US Ministerial Meeting in Singapore on August 3, 2018. Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman

China cannot rule out that in 2021 America could have a new president able to articulate and implement a more coherent policy towards Southeast Asia, nor that upcoming elections in Indonesia and possibly even Myanmar see the rise of anti-China candidates.

Neither can Beijing rule out that India won’t become a major player in the region, despite it so far failing to live up to expectations. A recent report by the Council on Foreign Relations, a US-based think tank, asserted that it can be “a more forceful counterweight to China and hedge against a declining United States.”

Moreover, there is great uncertainty over whether the South China Sea disputes pitting China versus the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam, among others, might at some point turn hot, which would significantly alter the region’s security approach in place since the 1990s.

China’s growing trade war with the US could also impact on its relations with the region. Some believe China could soon devalue its currency in response to the US-China trade war, though Beijing says it won’t.

Not only would a devalued renminbi make Chinese-made products cheaper, negatively affecting competing Southeast Asian exporters, it would also affect the region’s supply chains as Chinese buyers would be expected to demand cheaper prices. Few, if any, in the region would win from rounds of competitive currency devaluations.

But viewing China’s power in the region vis-a-vis America’s is only part of the picture. Japan, and to a lesser extent South Korea, are also major players and potential counterweights to China.

Since the 2000s, Japan’s infrastructure investment in the region has been worth US$230 billion, while China’s was about US$155 billion, according to recent BMI Research, an economic research outfit. The balance might tip in China’s favor with the US$1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative, but probably not for another decade or so, BMI projects.

Tokyo rarely boasts of its own soft power in Southeast Asia. Indeed, while Philippine leader Duterte’s overtures to China are among his major talking points, quietly it has been Japan, not China, that is funding his government’s ballyhooed major infrastructure programs.

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (R) and Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad shake hands during joint press remarks at Abe's official residence in Tokyo on June 12, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / Toshifumi KITAMURA

Japanese diplomacy towards the region falls somewhere between China and America’s. While Washington’s, at least past, insistence on human rights and democracy-building puts off to many regional countries, Beijing’s diplomacy is more laissez faire, as long as Chinese interests are protected by sitting governments.

Tokyo, by contrast, tends to practice quiet sustained diplomacy, decidedly in support of rule of law but without the threat of punitive measures if a partner government strays. That is likely one reason why there is little anti-Japan sentiment in the region and why its relations receive much less public attention.

Malaysia’s Mahathir, whose first trip abroad after May’s election win was to Tokyo, not Beijing or Washington, has recently spoken of Japan’s importance in regional affairs.

Mahathir shaped Southeast Asia’s approach to great powers during his previous tenure as Prime Minister from 1981-2003, and his belief that Japan can play an even larger role in regional affairs could soon be taken up by other regional governments.

“Specific Southeast Asian states are now seeking to diversify their strategic partnerships, beyond a binary choice between Beijing and Washington,” reads a recent report by the Council on Foreign Relations.

Mahathir’s apparent desire is for a more diversified regional network, similar to the hedging policies he promoted in the 1990s. Mahathir is certainly not pro-China, but neither is he pro-US.

What most Southeast Asian nations desire is not unipolarity but competition among many foreign partners that allows them to maximize benefits and negotiating leverage. When America and China, or Japan and India, compete to gain an economic and political footing, regional nations often win through the bidding.

 

 

Australia-US convergence on the “Indo-Pacific”: AUSMIN 2018


August 30, 2018

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Asia Pacific Bulletin No. 438

Australia-US convergence on the “Indo-Pacific”: AUSMIN 2018

by Dr. David Scott

Dr. David Scott explains that “The Joint Declaration represents the convergence between Australia’s espousal of Indo-Pacific frameworks first seen in its 2013 Defense White Paper, and American espousal of “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” frameworks in the Trump administration since autumn 2017.”

Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo and Secretary of Defense James Mattis hosted Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop and Minister for Defence Marise Payne on July 23-24 for the annual Australia-U.S. Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN) at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution in Palo Alto, California. Holding the meeting in the San Francisco Bay Area, on the U.S. Pacific coast and near the birthplace of the ANZUS Treaty

The AUSMIN meeting held last month brought together the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense James Mattis with the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop and Minister for Defense Marise Payne. Its Indo-Pacific focus was unmistakable. Whereas the 2017 AUSMIN Joint Declaration mentioned the “Indo-Pacific” but once and for the first time at AUSMIN, the 2018 Joint Declaration mentioned the “Indo-Pacific” 11 times; with the “Asia-Pacific,” the previously dominant term of strategic reference, unmentioned.

Certainly other issues were noted in the 2018 AUSMIN Joint Declaration; including Russia’s role in the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 in Eastern Ukraine in 2014, ensuring ISIS defeat in Syria and Iraq, and continuing anti-Taliban support of Afghanistan. However, the main focus of the Joint Declaration was the Indo-Pacific where it “emphasized both nations’ strong and deepening engagement in the Indo-Pacific” and “the significance of the Indo-Pacific to our shared future.” As such, the Joint Declaration represents the convergence between Australia’s espousal of Indo-Pacific frameworks first seen in its 2013 Defense White Paper, and American espousal of “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” frameworks in the Trump administration since autumn 2017. The Joint Declaration stressed a broad convergence, “our shared strategic interests in the Indo-Pacific, which has diplomatic, security, and economic dimensions.”

Some uncontroversial socio-economic objectives were highlighted in the Joint Declaration for application in the Indo-Pacific: “the United States and Australia decided to collaborate to reduce the threat of emerging infectious diseases in the Indo-Pacific region,” and to “reinforce objectives of Australia’s Health Security Initiative for the Indo-Pacific.”

Alongside such uncontroversial social initiatives were expressions of economic cooperation. With regard to the Pacific basin, the Joint Declaration highlighted that they “support closer cooperation to promote the security, stability, resilience, and development of Pacific Island countries”; and “highlighted the importance of strengthening regional information sharing, maritime security, and domain awareness.” This was a tacit response to China’s greater prominence in the Southern Pacific. Further economic cooperation was pinpointed:

“The Secretaries and Ministers committed to increased bilateral and multilateral cooperation on economic development in the Indo-Pacific, recognizing that security and prosperity are mutually reinforcing. Our two governments will work together, and with partners, to support principles-based and sustainable infrastructure development in the region, which will promote growth and stability.”

Though un-stated, this represented a response to China’s Maritime Silk Road (MSR) infrastructure initiative. Such responses had also been the focus of the “Trilateral Infrastructure Working Group” which brought together Japanese, Indian, and US officials in February 2018 to foster “increased connectivity in the Indo-Pacific.”

The AUSMIN meeting in July 2018 set out broad Indo-Pacific values. This echoed the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” concept and strategy unveiled by Shinzo Abe in 2016 and adopted by Donald Trump at the APEC summit in November 2017, which has become the mantra in US strategic formulations. Hence the 2018 AUSMIN Joint Declaration that:

“They made clear their commitment to work together – and with partners – to shape an Indo-Pacific that is open, inclusive, prosperous, and rules-based […] The United States and Australia highlighted the priority each places on supporting an international rules-based order, alongside allies and partners. In the Indo-Pacific, that order has underpinned decades of stability, democracy, and prosperity.”

This was an implicit critique of China, with AUSMIN mention of other “allies and partners” pointing to strategic geometry and potential constraint of China.

In the Joint Declaration, the “open” refers to concerns of a closed Maritime Silk Road push by China, and to the (SCS) being closed down by China achieving its “U-shaped line” claim and thereby making it a Chinese Lake. The focus on “free/democracy” refers to China’s non-democratic authoritarianism. The “rules-based order” refers to China’s rejection of the SCS rulings made by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in July 2016. The SCS was prominent elsewhere in the Joint Declaration; which stressed Australia-US concerns over Chinese “militarization of disputed features” and reiterated the importance of “freedom of navigation and overflight.” This point raised the question of joint freedom of navigation operations there by the two allies – to consolidate established US unilateral naval deployments, and Australian unilateral aerial deployments. Given that bilateral Australian-UK freedom of navigation operations in the SCS are being mooted for 2019, this would be an obvious development in US-Australian defense cooperation.

The Joint Declaration “highlighted the importance of US-Australia defense cooperation in the Indo-Pacific,” with the strategic value of the US Marine Rotational Force at Darwin and enhanced air cooperation both restressed and enhanced; together with further naval cooperation where “the principals also decided to integrate US force elements into Australia’s annual Indo-Pacific Endeavour exercise.” Darwin’s importance continues to grow as a convenient jump point for deployment and operation further westwards to the Indian Ocean, further northwards to the SCS and further eastwards to the Pacific Ocean.

Wider defense cooperation was pinpointed in the Joint Declaration; “strengthening bilateral security partnerships with like-minded Indo-Pacific nations through joint training and exercise opportunities.” As to who these like-minded Indo-Pacific nations were, “they welcomed the recent US-Australia-India-Japan consultations on the Indo-Pacific in Singapore and reaffirmed their commitment to strengthen trilateral dialogue with Japan.”

The “trilateral dialogue with Japan” refers to the Australia-Japan-US (AJUS) strategic dialogue mechanism in operation since 2002; which has moved to increasingly significant air force and naval cooperation in the West Pacific and SCS, to China’s unease. The eighth AJUS ministerial meeting, due later in 2018, is expected to mark a formal shift to “Indo-Pacific” terms of reference, echoing the “Indo-Pacific” anchoring already seen in the fourth Australia-India-Japan (AIJ) trilateral, held on 21 July 2018.

The “US-Australia-India-Japan consultations on the Indo-Pacific” refers to the Quad mechanism revived in November 2017. The Quad meeting in June 2018 stressed their common push “for a free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific region where all countries respect sovereignty, international law, including with respect to freedom of navigation and overflight;” based on “a common commitment, founded on shared democratic values and principles, to uphold and strengthen the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific” and to strengthen “maritime cooperation.”

The explicit message of the AUSMIN meeting was a strategic focus on the Indo-Pacific. The implicit message of much of the Joint Declaration was that, despite their stated hopes that “both nations continue to place a high priority on constructive and beneficial engagement with China,” in reality tacit counter-measures were on show.

India-Indonesia Relations and Indo-Pacific Security


August 17, 2018

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Foreign Policy: India-Indonesia Relations and Indo-Pacific Security

by Vinay Kaura

Asia Pacific Bulletin, No. 437

Publisher: Washington, DC: East-West Center
Available From: August 14, 2018
Publication Date: August 14, 2018
Binding: Electronic
PDF

Vinay Kaura, Assistant Professor at Sardar Patel University in Rajastan, explains that “Modi and President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo agreed to elevate the India-Indonesia relationship to a comprehensive strategic partnership.”

Though India and Indonesia do have long historical and cultural linkages, strategic partnership has been a recent development. The two share multiple common concerns, one of which pertains to China’s rapid rise and its intentions in the maritime theater. Since 2014, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been trying to boost India’s ties with many Southeast Asian countries as part of its ‘Act East Policy’ which was recently manifest in his visit to Indonesia in late May just ahead of his first-ever speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore.

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India, no longer content to look east, wants to be an active contributor to the regional balance of power by acting east. Although it is not India’s role to dictate the nature and scope of Indo-Pacific cooperation, through discussion and experimentation, India can find areas where increased cooperation will serve mutual security interests. In the words of Luhut Pandjaitan, Indonesia’s minister for maritime affairs, “India and Indonesia relations are important to the balance of power in Asia.” Clearly, Indonesia is equally keen to ensure that Beijing is effectively prevented from moving ahead on its current antagonistic trajectory.

The Modi government’s attempt to connect India to its traditional maritime neighborhood, particularly in the Indo-Pacific, is aimed at sustaining a rules-based liberal international order by ensuring free movement of people, goods, and services through the Strait of Malacca, one of the busiest shipping routes between the Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean. The freedom of navigation, availability of port infrastructure, and unhindered access to markets are mandatory for this purpose. Hence, the major focus of  Modi’s visit to Indonesia was to highlight that the two countries are close maritime neighbors. Modi and President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo agreed to elevate the India-Indonesia relationship to a comprehensive strategic partnership. Their joint statement emphasized the “importance of achieving a free, open, transparent, rules-based, peaceful, prosperous, and inclusive Indo-Pacific region,” which would uphold “sovereignty and territorial integrity, international law, in particular UNCLOS, freedom of navigation and overflight, sustainable development.”

Jokowi, meanwhile, seeks to transform Indonesia into a maritime power, and is passionate about maritime sovereignty for his country. Hence, repeated assertions about protecting freedom of navigation is unmistakably targeted at Beijing which is engaged in hotly contested territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas. Jakarta claims that it is not a party to any territorial disputes with Beijing in the South China Sea; however, Indonesia has not hesitated in clashing with China over fishing rights around the Natuna Islands. Jokowi’s dramatic gesture of holding a cabinet meeting aboard a warship off the Natuna just days after a Sino-Indonesian naval skirmish in 2016 was seen as a show of resolve to Beijing.

Not as bitterly opposed to the Beijing-led Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as India, Indonesia is also not as supportive as China expects. After their meeting, Modi sought to link India’s ‘Act East Policy’ and ‘SAGAR’ (Security and Growth for All in the Region) with Jokowi’s ambitious ‘Maritime Fulcrum Policy’.

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In the past, India-Indonesia maritime cooperation has remained largely confined to coordinated bilateral patrols, anti-piracy patrols, and search and rescue exercises. It is thus important for them to move to a more intensive engagement, as together they control the entry point from the Bay of Bengal to the Strait of Malacca. India’s interest in joining the Malacca Straits Patrol (MSP) – a four-nation arrangement between Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand – should be seen in this context. But Indian participation is easier said than done. A meeting among technical experts on May 10 in Bali explored the issue but soon revealed that the Indian side did not have full comprehension of the operational nuances of MSP. Since no forward movement seemed possible, the Modi-Jokowi joint statement merely noted that the May 10 meeting was “to explore ways in enhancing strategic technical cooperation on maritime security.”

Indonesia is the de-facto leader of ASEAN. As the security environment in the region is increasingly exacerbated by US–China rivalry, Jakarta wants ASEAN to be at the center of the conceptualization and evolution of the Indo-Pacific region. Jokowi has been outlining the Indonesian conception of the Indo-Pacific as “Open, transparent and inclusive, promoting a habit of dialogue, promoting cooperation and friendship, and upholding international law”. Modi’s Indo-Pacific vision sounds strikingly similar. He has indicated that India is keen to preserve a free and open regional security architecture in Asia with “ASEAN centrality”, and even without American leadership.

Although New Delhi has thrown its weight behind the Quadrilateral – the grouping of India,  United States, Japan, and Australia that is widely perceived as a counterbalance to rising Chinese geoeconomic and geopolitical assertiveness – in its quest to reshape the Indo-Pacific balance of power, India continues to pursue a hedging approach by both engaging directly with China and seeking to contain Chinese behaviour. Positive momentum generated by the ‘Wuhan consensus’ may have further exacerbated India’s skepticism on the quad.

Strategically, Indonesia is equally important to the United States and China as it straddles vital Indo-Pacific chokepoints.  Jakarta has secured Chinese investment without showing any evidence of a tilt towards Beijing. Being one of the very few countries in the region that has the capability and credibility in making significant contributions towards countering Chinese assertiveness, Jakarta now reckons New Delhi as a credible strategic partner. However, the possibility of Indonesia joining the quad seems remote.

Modi signed a deal with Jokowi allowing India access to northern Sumatra’s Sabang port, enhancing the Indian navy’s ability to maintain a forward presence in the Straits of Malacca. China is not oblivious to its implications. A day ahead of Modi’s trip to Indonesia, China’s state-run Global Times asserted that Beijing would not “turn a blind eye” if New Delhi sought “military access to the strategic island of Sabang,” advising India not to “wrongfully entrap itself into a strategic competition with China and eventually burn its own fingers.”

Given the irreversible geopolitical shifts, the Indo-Pacific has emerged as one of the major hotbeds of global power politics. India’s emerging consensus with Indonesia, as reflected in the elevation of their relationship to the level of a comprehensive strategic partnership, can provide a basis for a closer engagement between the two countries to further develop the Indo-Pacific concept. Delhi and Jakarta have agreed to take concrete steps to accelerate economic and security cooperation in the maritime domain. But the renewed awareness that they are close neighbors, sharing broadly common challenges regarding sustainable use of the oceans must make it imperative for them to contribute more to the maintenance of the regional security order in the Indo-Pacific. The challenge for both Modi and Jokowi will be to institutionalize the maritime cooperation so that the Indo-Pacific becomes truly free, open, and inclusive.

Foreign Affairs:The Modi-Erdoğan Parallel


August 15, 2018

Foreign Affairs:The Modi-Erdoğan Parallel

by 

http://www.project-syndicate.org

While Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not achieved the degree of “state capture” that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has, he is also 11 years behind. And the path the two leaders are on is similar enough to invite comparison – and provoke concern.

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NEW DELHI – Comparisons are generally invidious, especially when they involve political leaders from different countries. But, while Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan rose to power 11 years before Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, there is much about their personal and professional trajectories that makes comparison irresistible.

Both Erdoğan and Modi come from humble, small-town backgrounds: Erdoğan sold lemonade and pastries in the streets of Rize; Modi helped his father and brother run a tea stall on a railway platform in Vadnagar. They are self-made men, energetic and physically fit – Erdoğan was a professional soccer player before becoming a politician; Modi has bragged about his 56-inch (142-centimeter) chest – not to mention effective orators.

Both Erdoğan and Modi were raised with religious convictions that ultimately shaped their political careers. Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have both promoted a religiously infused, nationalist creed that they argue is more authentic than the Western-inspired secular ideologies that previously guided their countries’ development.

Yet, to win power, Erdoğan and Modi did not count exclusively on religious voters. Both campaigned on modernist platforms, arguing that by implementing business-friendly policies and reducing corruption, they could bring about greater economic prosperity than the establishment they sought to supplant.

Here, Erdoğan and Modi press both the past and the future into service. Erdoğan extols the Ottoman Empire’s legacy, while telling voters that they are not only “choosing a president and deputies,” but also “making a choice for our country’s upcoming century.” Likewise, Modi constantly evokes the achievements of ancient India, which he claims to be reviving in the name of creating a better future.

In short, Erdoğan and Modi have consolidated their power by glorifying the past, while portraying themselves as dynamic, future-oriented agents of change – heroes galloping in on white stallions, swords upraised, to cut the Gordian knots holding their countries’ down.

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“What Turkey has experienced – and India has not – are bouts of military rule. In fact, India’s democracy is deeply entrenched, making it less vulnerable to capture by a single ruler. That partly explains why it is so difficult for many Indians to imagine their country following in Turkey’s footsteps to become a majoritarian illiberal democracy with an autocrat in charge.”–Shashi Tharoor

At the same time, Erdoğan and Modi have painted themselves as political outsiders, who represent the “real” Turks or Indians long marginalized by cosmopolitan secularists. With popular discontent high when they rose to power, such political messaging fell on receptive ears. The narrative of resentment against the established secular elites, peppered with religious-chauvinist discourse and historical revisionism, facilitated their emergence as voices of the middle classes of the hinterlands and second-tier cities and towns.

When Erdoğan first became prime minister in 2003, his position was bolstered by booming global growth, emboldening him to start transforming the Turkish polity. His political formula – a potent compound of religious identity, triumphalist majoritarianism, hyper-nationalism, increasing authoritarianism (including institutional dominance), constraints on the media, strong economic growth, and a compelling personal brand – carried him to re-election as prime minister twice, and from there to the presidency in 2014.

Whether consciously or unconsciously, Modi has adapted Erdoğan’s formula to his own effort to reshape India. He has sought to marginalize Muslims and reinforce Hindu chauvinism. Minorities in general feel beleaguered, as Modi’s nationalism does not merely exclude them, but portrays them as traitors.

Moreover, in Modi’s India, political loyalties are often purchased, and institutions are subverted to serve a narrow sectarian agenda. Dissenters in the media and the universities have faced intimidation. The only area where Modi has been tripped up is GDP growth, owing to his government’s gross economic mismanagement.

On the international stage, too, there are notable parallels between how Erdoğan and Modi conduct themselves. Both pursue activist foreign policies aimed at boosting their domestic image, and have cultivated diaspora support. Erdoğan’s speeches in the Balkans might antagonize the United States and Europe, and even Serbs and Croats, but they raise his stock with Turks. When Modi addresses stadiums full of Indian expatriates on his visits abroad, his speeches are aimed squarely at audiences back home.

Soner Cagaptay, a Turkish analyst and author of a book on Erdoğan, recently remarked, “Half of the country hates him, and thinks he can do nothing right. But at the same time, the other half adores him, and thinks he can do nothing wrong.” The same is true of Modi in India.

Of course, there are important differences between Turkey and India. For starters, Turkey’s population, at 81 million, is less than half that of just one Indian state, Uttar Pradesh, with its population of 210 million. Turkey is 98% Muslim, while India is only 80% Hindu. Islamism, as Hindu chauvinists never tire of pointing out, is a global phenomenon; Hindutva is not. Turkey has no equivalent of Mahatma Gandhi, with his message of non-violence and co-existence drilled into the head of every Indian schoolchild.

Moreover, Turkey is more or less a developed country, while India still has a long way to go to reach that point. And, unlike India, Turkey was never colonized or partitioned on religious grounds, as India was to create Pakistan (though the exchange of populations that accompanied Turkey’s separation from Greece comes close).

What Turkey has experienced – and India has not – are bouts of military rule. In fact, India’s democracy is deeply entrenched, making it less vulnerable to capture by a single ruler. That partly explains why it is so difficult for many Indians to imagine their country following in Turkey’s footsteps to become a majoritarian illiberal democracy with an autocrat in charge.

But while it is true that Modi and the BJP have not achieved the degree of “state capture” that Erdoğan and the AKP have, they are also 11 years behind. And the path they are on is similar enough to invite comparison – and provoke concern. The warning bells are ringing: like the Turkish lira, the India rupee has lost over 5% of its value in the last month. With upcoming elections in both countries – Turkey this month, and India in Spring 2019 – will voters heed the alarm?