Wednesday, 8 February 2012

In The Eyes of the Tiger

As an avid China observer, it’s always interesting to read assessments of the Middle Kingdom by researchers other than those residing in the United States. Indeed, much of the research on China these days are carried out by American think tanks and academic institutions. This shouldn’t come as a surprise as the Americans are probably some of the ones most concerned by China’s rise to power, and its impact on the US’ present super power status.

I’ve read numerous novels by Indian writers; this also includes books written by members of the Indian diaspora across the world, like Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, and my all time favourite, Jhumpa Lahiri. I love them all. Sometimes even my dreams have Indian settings (more Mississippi Masala-like, and less Bollywood) or feature people speaking language that sounds Hindi, or Tamil, or an Indian sub-continent dialect of some sort.

But when it comes to academic analyses by Indian scholars, I have admittedly been ignorant of developments on “that side” of the Indian Ocean. It’s embarrassing, but the closest I’d probably get to an Indian perspective would be that of Amitav Acharya, a Canadian scholar born in India. And even then, it is most likely that I’d learn more about Southeast Asian perspectives on international affairs (or even Canadian) rather than views from the sub-continent.

Therefore, it was with much anticipation that I read Brahma Chellaney’s “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India, and Japan”. Using the backdrop of the rise of an Asian Century, Chellaney elaborates on the roles that China, India, and Japan will have in shaping international politics in the years to come.

Over the years, these three Asian juggernauts have evolved to become economic powerhouses. China is the world’s manufacturing capital; India is the largest democracy in the world; and Japan remains as a technological mover in spite of its recent economic woes. At a glance, there is much hope for cooperation towards developing peace and stability in a globalized and more interconnected Asia. However, in spite of the network of bilateral cooperation existing among them, the potential for conflicts (particularly involving China) will be the determinant factor in these countries’ role in the Asia Pacific region.

Much of Chellaney’s attention is devoted to an analysis of China’s rise, particularly in reference to India’s effort (or lack thereof) to deal with this phenomenon. Chellaney is critical of the way in which Indian leaders have appeared weak in the face of China’s challenge. He calls iconic Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru “an unabashed panda-hugger” and argues that the present inferiority complex is a direct result of previous leaders’ “credulity and negligence” vis-à-vis China.

Therefore, in order to balance the rise of an undemocratic and irredentist China, Chellaney proposes greater cooperation between India and Japan, both in economic and politico-security terms. In overcoming the political and security problems that vis-à-vis Red China, India and Japan are a perfect match. In economic terms, they are complementary, thus allowing for mutual support in each other’s continued development and industrialization. They are both democracies, sharing ideals which are inherently peaceful. And most importantly, they have a common enemy in the form of China.

Not only that, Chellaney even suggests the possibility of a Washington-Tokyo-New Delhi axis to “forestall the preeminence that China covets in Asia”. Basically, in his view, an Asia-Pacific dominated by China would spell disaster for every single country in the region, and most importantly, India. This is not the first time that I’m hearing such an argument. However, it is interesting that this is the type of argument that I am getting from my first experience in Indian views on China.

Indeed, while it may have not been Chellaney’s original intention, his book would fit as nice addition to the “China threat” discourse that has been running around in the western academic circles. And while Chellaney tries his best to give off an optimist outlook on regional cooperation in the coming years, the emphasis on China’s accumulation of power assumes otherwise.

If we are to regard Chellaney’s argument as representative of India’s mindset, then we would see a country that is under the threat of China’s siege efforts. Chellaney paints India as a country that is reaching out for partnerships in order to counter the rising power of China, and its negative implications on Indian statehood and survival. A country which needs to “develop a comprehensive national power while steering clear of China’s negative nationalistic elements and its mix of crony capitalism and widespread, state dispensed patronage”. A country that needs to pull its boot-straps up in facing the challenges of today’s globalized world.

For me, another glaring point about Chellaney’s argument is that while he talks about the future shaping of the Asia-Pacific region, there is very little (almost none) reference to ASEAN, let alone Indonesia. I do wonder. Is it because of Chellaney’s preference to highlight India’s role in the new make-up of the region? Or is it because our part of the region just doesn’t register in the mind of an Indian scholar like him (a well-known scholar, for that matter)?

This then brings me back to the beginning of this article. Much has been said with regards to the lack of cooperation between ASEAN and India, and more so between Indonesia and India. During the East Asian Summit in Bali last Novermber, it was almost obvious to whom the stage belonged: Indonesia, the USA, and China.

I’m maybe part of this problem, as a result of my continued ignorance on the India’s potential to shape the Asia-Pacific regional architecture. I’m also guilty for believing that India’s geographical position is just too far to matter, and too distant to influence the hustle and bustle of East Asian politics.

But if this is so, then wouldn’t Chellaney also be guilty for under-estimating Southeast Asia’s role (and more importantly, Indonesia’s role) in a world dominated by the rise of the Asian Juggernauts? I guess, there’s much that we can learn from each other in our search for a more comprehensive view of the region.

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