ASEAN: Different, yet alike – Business Line

Feb 4, 2018Book Reviews

The authors feel India should make the most of its historical link to the region


In a major departure from the established practice of inviting the leader of any one country to our Republic Day ceremony, leaders of ten countries — Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Singapore, Myanmar, Thailand, Brunei, the Philippines and Malaysia — were invited as chief guests this year. This is perhaps a reflection of the manner in which the ten countries of Asean have forged themselves into a cohesive unit, despite their disparities, to emerge as one of the most exciting group of nations as far as future growth prospects go. It is probably for this reason that all the major powers including China, the US, the EU and Japan are vying with each other to improve ties with this group.

As India too moves Asean higher in the list of nations with whom ties need to be strengthened further, it might be a good idea to step back a little and understand the psyche of this group of countries. This is where the book, The ASEAN Miracle, written by Kishore Mahbubani and Jeffery SNG, will come in handy.

In a rather captivating read, the authors explain how Asean has helped bring together people from diverse religious and cultural backgrounds, thus helping transform the lives of the 600 million people living in that area and, more importantly, bringing lasting peace to the region.

A peek into history

The book does not restrict itself to the evolution of the region over the last 50 years, after the formation of Asean, but goes as far back as 2,000 years in history. It explains in graphic detail how the strategic location made it receive wave after wave of external influences that shaped the culture and ethos of this region.

Before the foreign intrusions began, the original inhabitants were “the pioneering sea-faring traders, explorers and settlers of Eastern Asia, the Indian Ocean and even the Pacific. Their exploits more than rival those of legendary Phoenicians of the Mediterranean Basin.”

The book traces the four waves — Indian, Chinese, Muslim and Western — in chronological order describing the changes they brought to the lives of those living in these regions. Describing the onset of the Indian wave, they write, “Hindu ideas of kingship and Sanskrit as the sacred language of court and religious rituals could soon be found across Southeast Asia…Societies in plains and deltas of mainland Southeast Asia became more and more organized, with rituals and great temples and palaces. And the symbolism and names and texts were Indian.”

China was always a looming presence. But the kings of the region got by in a peaceful manner with their strong neighbour by paying tributes. “We do not know exactly how and when the tributary system started but we know that Funan kingdom was sending tributes to China in AD500. This relation brought about peace in the region and enabled trade to take place freely within the kingdoms.”

What led to Asean

The chapter dealing with the factors that led to the formation of Asean has quite a few takeaways for political leaders trying to forge relations with other nations. The writers think that the foremost factor that made the South-East Asian nations come together was the fear of a common enemy — communism. “It was the critical glue that held the five countries together. This fear became more and more pronounced as ASEAN countries watched Communist forces steadily gain ground in Cambodia, Laos and South Vietnam.”

The second factor, according to the writers, is strong leadership from leaders such as President Suharto of Indonesia, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia and Foreign Minister Sidhi Savetsila of Thailand. “One of Rajaratinam’s favourite sayings was the famous remark attributed to Lenin, ‘Probe with a bayonet. If you meet steel, stop. If you meet mush, then push.’ The Vietnamese leaders had learned many lessons from Lenin. When they invaded Cambodia in December 1978, they expected to encounter ‘mush’ from the ASEAN leaders, they were truly surprised to find spines of steel.”

Geopolitical luck that made the Asean side the winning party in the cold war; the US also helped its progress. It also gained from the split between China and Russia. Taking the right decisions in taking the economies forward, in adopting a market-based model and working towards creating Asean-based regional networks that helped all the countries in the region are other factors, according to the authors, that worked in favour of the region.

Asean and India

As the writers point out, India is a relative late-comer to developing relations with the Asean countries. This is because it remained mentally colonised, looking towards Europe and the US for inspiration. Since India drifted towards Soviet Union, it led to sharp diplomatic clashes at multilateral forums between Indian and Asean leaders. When the cold war ended, India did not prioritise improving relations with Asean the way China did and instead allowed events to shape the relationship.

Unlike other commentators who write about ways to improve the economic relationship between India and Asean, the writers think that India should make the most of the historical link it has to the region. They recommend strengthening tourism cooperation, supporting Asean community building and implementing a masterplan on Asean connectivity.

The pen sketches of the various Asean countries, tracing the events that shaped their economy and their political identity is good for a quick take on these nations. The strengths and weakness section brings some balance to this narrative that at times tends to eulogise. Whether or not the Nobel Peace Prize will be awarded to Asean , only time will tell, but the authors make a convincing case in this book.


Source: ASEAN: Different, yet alike – Business Line