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.