Sunday, February 14, 2010

Public Diplomacy: The potential for India in East Asia

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Beginning of 2010 saw India aggressively engaging major East Asian countries. Apart from state visits by leaders of South Korea, Japan and Malaysia; Indian navy led 13 navies from the region in the ’Milan 2010’ anti terror, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief exercise in the Indian Ocean. India seems to be gradually figuring in geopolitical East Asian scheme of things even though geographically it’s not a part of it.

In a symbolic gesture that signifies the importance India attaches to East Asia, the South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, was the chief guest at this year’s Republic Day celebrations in New Delhi on January 26th. While talks with Japan and South Korea centered around trade, economic and nuclear cooperation, talks with the Malaysian Prime Minister Sri Mohammad Najib Tun Abdul Razak also focused on reaching a bilateral agreement on culture and tourism apart from means to an early conclusion of CECA (Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement).

While bilateral ties seem to be strengthening with East Asia, people to people connect seems to be minimal between both regions. The Malaysian prime minister did in fact admit this when he said, “for ties to be binding and meaningful, it is imperative to have the strongest people-to-people relationship.” Mr Najib said that Malaysia intended to improve its visa regime to facilitate travel of business persons and tourist to his country. He also called for improving connectivity through additional flights to either country and to elsewhere around the world and to establish a bilateral CEO forum for business leaders from both countries to discuss common issues. During his stay, Chennai also signed a “sister city” pact with Kuala Lumpur. Unlike Japan and Korea, Malaysia also has a strong Indian diaspora.

While the Look East policy is bearing fruit for India, people to people contact/exchanges need to be strongly cultivated given the geographical proximity and factors like shared history and demographics. The potential of India’s North East, which is culturally & geographically closer to Southeast Asia than rest of India, should also be tapped for better ‘people to people connect’. India’s domestic politics, dominated by the northern states is also partly responsible, which for reasons historic and cultural is obsessed with India’s western border and people to people ties with Pakistan. Joseph Nye, in his British Council Parliamentary Lecture on 20 January 2010, “Soft Power and Public Diplomacy in the 21st Century,” argued that “in an information age when power is more broadly distributed and less hierarchical than in earlier ages” there is some merit in a two way communication between societies to complement state policy. It’s a good time for India to take stock of its soft power reserves in East Asia and leverage it for the preeminent role it is destined to play in Asia in the 21st century.

Suggestions/Critiques welcome.



  1. NavdeepMay 15, 2010 01:02 AM

    Dear Madhur

    PD div organised a major conference in Shillong in March on the theme - From Landlocked to Landlinked: The Northeast in Bimstec. As part of our lecture series, we took Amb. Rajiv Sikri to Sikkim and Amb. Rajiv Bhatia to Imphal. We took a high level team to Indonesia in early May. It included Amb. Shyam Saran, Prof Mushir ul Hasan, C. Rajamohan etc. Later this month, we will take a similar high level non official sort of team to Seoul for the India Korea dialogue. We have been doing a fair bit but not publicising it.

    Navdeep Suri

  2. Madhurjya KotokyMay 15, 2010 07:59 AM

    Dear Mr Suri:

    Thank you for your insights. I am aware of the lecture series. However,being from Assam myself would love to know more if the PD div is facilitating people to people connect across borders in India's North East and the impact so far.

    South Korea is interesting, especially because of the huge influence of the Korean culture and its broadcast network. WOuld love to know more and will definitely look forward to it.