The Thai ministry of foreign affairs describe that the main activities of the project include, “informal discussion on issues of international affairs affecting the life such as trading and consular service as well as roving passport services.” People from the selected provinces also have the opportunity to participate through local radio stations via live broadcasts. Issues discussed include trading along the border, labor issues, tourism etc.
Apart from top echelons of the ministry, participants include Members of Parliament, businessmen, member of the local Chambers of Commerce, local media, local government officials, non-profits and civil society etc. In Southeast Asia, Thailand remains a dynamic state when it comes to foreign policy. It was one of the first states to accept the reality of a rising China and engage the Chinese aggressively despite US being the preeminent power in East Asian affairs. Historically too, Thailand was the only country in the whole of Asia to have never been colonized despite never being a great power. The “Roving Buakew Project” along with other such projects like “Young Ambassador of Virtue,” are wonderful initiatives to give ‘common people’ a direct say in formulating foreign policy. See this link for a presentation by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Thailand.
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.
Kurlantzick’s “Charm Offensive” describes Chinese public diplomacy in various regions of the world, examines it as a strategic foreign policy tool and also goes into the values and theories driving China’s ‘charm’ campaign. It has detailed chapters on China’s engagement of Southeast Asia and Africa and also compares China’s public diplomacy with other ‘sophisticated players’ in the arena like United States. It’s an informative read and with great foot notes, ‘Notes to Pages’ and ‘Indexes’ is invaluable for a research scholar. While Kurlantzick does a good job of chronicling Chinese public diplomacy, he failed to examine Southeast Asia as a competitive space for ‘influence’ between India and China.
In international relations, 21st century is touted to be an Asian century. This combined with other recent developments like, economic growth of India and China, debates around Climate change, the Af-Pak War, maritime security of trade traffic in Indian Ocean region, non-proliferation, Myanmar, Kashmir etc., dominating public discourses in diplomacy, India remains, and, will be a critical player in the years to come. India and China share borders with Southeast Asia and the region is important for both, economically as well as from a security perspective. Both the countries have been active in this region.(Though I must admit, Chinese are more aggressive). A rising Asia includes both India and China, and, so I thought Kurlantzick’s book would have been complete if it had also examined India as an important player in Southeast Asian diplomacy. It is indeed curious that most writings tend to ignore India’s relevance to Southeast Asia and the transformative potential of this relationship for the world.
Indian scholars, traditionally, are more focused on security and trade issues in international relations. Books on public diplomacy are rare (almost non-existent). While Datta-Ray’s book is not explicitly on India’s public diplomacy efforts, it does provide a context to India’s ‘Look East’ policy and the need for greater engagement with Southeast Asia. Focusing on Indo-Singapore relations since 1947 the book calls for a restoration of civilizational ties between Singapore and India. The book provides important insights into India’s importance and relevance to Singapore and Southeast Asia over different periods in history (also vis-à-vis the ‘China factor.’) and how Singapore under Lee Kuan Yew had often looked to India for leadership of Asia.
The seventh India-ASEAN summit was held in October, 2009, at Hua Hin in Thailand. At the summit Prime Minister Manmohan Singh reiterated India’s commitment to engage ASEAN nations and also outlined India’s vision of an Asian economic community based on an “open and inclusive” architecture.
Keeping with India’s “Look East policy,” public diplomacy initiatives are high on the agenda to connect India with Southeast Asia; rather emphasize the fact that India had always been connected closely with Southeast Asia through its people, culture and also geography and shared history (See me previous post on Northeast India in this blog). Prime Minister Singh suggested something interesting at the summit along the lines of the theme of ASEAN summit this year – “Enhancing Connectivity, Empowering Peoples."
The year 2012 will see the commemoration the 10th anniversary of India's participation as a summit level partner of ASEAN, and 20 years as a sectoral dialogue partner. These are significant milestones that need to be feted and also publicized. Prime Minister Singh suggested that India and ASEAN could jointly consider organizing a commemorative ship expedition in 2011-12 on the sea routes developed during the 10th to 12th centuries linking India with Southeast Asia and East Asia. He said that the sea route could cover modern and ancient ports in ASEAN countries, and other East Asian countries as well. This proposal was one of the five initiatives (economic and political) that the Prime Minister suggested to further strengthen links between India and ASEAN.
China too, as part of its public diplomacy efforts, had done something similar. It organized exhibitions in museums of Malaysia and Singapore to celebrate the anniversary of the voyages of Zheng He, a Chinese admiral who took his fleet across Asia and Africa, exploring cultures, establishing linkages between Chinese and Southeast Asia cultures in the 14th or 15th centuries. Zheng He's expeditions, the Chinese claim, were peaceful exploratory voyages not aimed at conquest.
While these attempts to establish a cultural and historical connect is significant by the Asian giants, what can tilt the balance in India's favor is its impeccable democratic credentials, respect for diversity and resilient political framework in an otherwise unstable region and also vis-à-vis China.