Asian rivals’ battle for supremacy in South-east Asia

President Ram Nath Kovind, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other dignitaries during Republic Day celebrations. Image credit:

–Sarim Ahmed

A little known fact about the visits of leaders of ten ASEAN countries on the occasion of Republic Day is that four of these ten leaders are Muslims though it is generally considered that Muslims are concentrated in West Asia, North Africa and Central Asia. But one of the largest concentrations of the community is in South-east Asia. The world’s largest Muslim populated country, Indonesia, is situated in this region. The Muslim countries in South-east Asian region are somewhat different from the West and Central Asian, and North African countries. They have their own language, their own culture and there are countries like Malaysia which are much advanced and developed. Incidentally Singapore has a woman Muslim President, Halimah Yacob. Philippines too has a history of long Muslim presence, though there is a struggle going on between Muslim minorities and the government for the last many decades. It needs to be mentioned that Philippines was a colony of the United States till 1946 and, therefore, the American influence there is considerably large. It is another matter that Philippines, under President Rodrigo Duterte, has started leaning towards China in recent years.

The ASEAN Muslim nations are racially similar to that of other ASEAN countries. Incidentally, the Muslim-majority countries do not have common border with China, which has already considerable influence in the region. What is strange is that India still has not as good relationship with the countries of the region in comparison to countries of other regions. It was only after the Narasimha Rao government introduced the ‘Look East’ policy in 1992 that we started concentrating on this region. In this context, it would be pertinent to state that the present Narendra Modi-led government adopted the ‘Act East’ policy to further engage with the region.

Today, the United States and China both have much at stake in South-east Asia, especially in the South China Sea and adjoining areas. There are two important groups of disputed islands in this sea—the Spratly Islands and the Paracel Islands. They are occupied (or claimed) by China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines.

India has a good relationship with Vietnam and the latter has welcomed India to play a bigger role in South-east Asia. India is trying to improve the relationship with Myanmar, which incidentally has very good ties with China too. The problem in Myanmar is the tussle between the Buddhist-dominated regime and the Rohingya Muslims.  Yet apart from Myanmar and parts of Thailand, there is no such conflict between the two communities. Myanmar is the only ASEAN country which shares a border with India, whereas China shares its land border with multiple ASEAN countries.

India has a cultural link with ASEAN countries as there is an impact of Buddhist culture and religion in many countries of the region. In fact the ASEAN countries lie at the tri-junction of the Chinese, Indian and Islamic Civilisations.

Malacca strait, which is situated between Malaysia and the Indonesian island of Sumatra, is one of the most important shipping lanes in the world. No wonder, a bulk of the overall trade of China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan etc. passes through the Malacca Strait. The Malacca Strait is important for Asian rivals China and India both because of its commercial and strategic importance.

By inviting the leaders of the ASEAN countries to the Republic Day celebrations in New Delhi, the NDA government has sent a message to China that India is not going to become complacent as far as the South China Sea, the Malacca Strait and the ASEAN countries are concerned. Only time will tell whether this yields result or not.

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