The decision to invite the leaders of all the ten ASEAN countries for India’s Republic Day in January 2018 is surely a new template. (Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam are the members of ASEAN). Showcasing India’s cultural diversity and military prowess would help to rekindle India’s age old ties with ASEAN countries and instil confidence about India’s position as a friend and potential ally.
It is not that leaders of ASEAN countries have not been invited for India’s Republic Day celebrations in recent years. The Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhyono was the chief guest in 2011. In 2012, the then Thai Prime Minister Ms. Yingluck Shinawatra was the chief guest.
ASEAN countries have indicated through various India-ASEAN Summits, meetings and deliberations that they would like India to play a greater role in Asian affairs and enhance its engagement with the ASEAN countries. These and similar ideas were echoed by several academics at the 9th Delhi Dialogue meeting held in New Delhi in the first week of July 2017. India’s External Affairs Minister( EAM), Ms. Sushma Swaraj while inaugurating the Delhi Dialogue also spoke of the centrality of ASEAN when she affirmed,” India places ASEAN at heart of its ‘Act East Policy’ and center of its dream of an Asian century. Future focus areas of cooperation between ASEAN member states and India have been described by the EAM in terms of 3Cs- ‘Commerce, Connectivity and Culture’.
According to the External Affairs Ministry, 2017 marks 25 years of dialogue partnership, 15 years of summit-level interaction, and five years of strategic partnership between India and ASEAN. Several activities, both in India and through Indian missions in ASEAN member-states, are proposed to be organised over the coming months to celebrate this partnership.
EAM in her address also highlighted the close cultural links India had with the South East Asian countries. She articulated,” The ancient Hindu epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata are embedded in the cultural matrix of South East Asia. Our contacts are also evident in the spread of other religions, notably Buddhism, Islam and Christianity, which came to the region from India. Ancient trade routes have linked India with Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia. The close ethnic and cultural links between the North-Eastern states of India with South East Asia are still alive.”
However, India also has cultural links with other ASEAN countries. One such country which has so far remained distant from India’s vision of both Looking and Acting East, is the Philippines. It is not well known that the two countries have a shared cultural heritage that stretches from India to the Philippines. Indologist Juan Francisco has traced the journey of the Ramayana from India to the Philippines and other parts of Southeast Asia. In his book titled, From Ayodhya to Pulu Agamaniog: Rama’s Journey to the Philippines, which has a foreword by the then Indian Ambassador Shyamala B. Cowsik, Francisco brings out the story, as also the characterisation of Lord Rama and the Ramayana in the Philippines, one that is distinct from that in other South East Asian countries (Francisco, 1994). He also highlights that many words of the Sanskrit language find themselves in the many dialects of the Philippines. Archaeological evidence discovered in different parts of the country, which inspired Francisco, suggest that there was an exchange of religious ideas from India to the Philippines. A golden statue of goddess Agusan could be a representation of goddess Shakti. Other golden artefacts discovered in the Tabon caves also suggest that trade between the two countries was active and the historical links are traced to the 9th and 10th centuries. However, these linkages remain confined in pages of history books and in the minds of a few. The EAM in her address also missed out this country, when she alluded to India’s historical ties with ASEAN countries.
It is estimated that there are about 60,000 to 70,000 Indians in the Philippines. The diaspora is comprised of both early settlers (Sindhi and Punjabi traders who moved to the Philippines after the British Annexation of Sindh and Punjab in 1843 and 1849) as well as young professionals associated mainly with the business process outsourcing industry. The presence of Indian pharmaceutical companies in the Philippines as well as the establishment of joint ventures has also helped to bring in business representatives, especially since the 1990s. In addition, there is a large number of educated civil servants working in the UN agencies and international organisations including the ADB, IRRI and others. Indian diaspora can also make a major contribution to boosting India’s ties with the Philippines.
India joins Philippines fight against terror
The Philippines, given that there are terror networks in its Southern areas, with some links to the Al Qaeda, has also been a close ally of the US in its war against terror, especially after the 9/11 attacks. Despite President Duterte’s confusing foreign policy articulations regarding both USA and China, the U.S. Embassy in Manila has been quoted in the Diplomat (http://thediplomat.com/2017/06/us-terror-aid-to-philippines-signals-enduring-defense-ties-under-duterte/) that over the past decade alone, Joint United States Military Assistance Group (JUSMAG) has delivered and programmed 7.3 billion Philippine pesos ($147 million) of military equipment to the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to enhance counterterrorism capabilities.
On May 24, 2017 armed fighters, believed to be associated with the Abu Sayyaf group belonging to the IS, laid siege to the city of Marawi in southern Philippines. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law on the province a day after the deadly siege of Marawi, a mainly Muslim city of about 200,000 people. Fighting has been going on for the past seven weeks, leaving dead several dozens of civilians and soldiers.
India, acting Eastwards, has recently rushed aid of USD 500,000 or 25 million pesos which is about Rs. 3.2 crores to the Philippines for relief and rehabilitation of the people in it’s South. This aid by India though small in comparison to the relief of USD 1 billion pledged exactly two years ago in June 2015 for Nepal’s rehabilitation, post the devastating earthquake, is a step in the right direction. Moreover, for this present man-made crisis, this aid by India to the Philippines is the largest, surpassing even the aid of 15 million pesos provided by China. Undoubtedly, Philippines and other ASEAN countries must be active partners in India’s fight against terrorism. By acting on its own statement, India has demonstrated that it has the political will to Act East. After all, it was at the 13th India ASEAN Summit in Kuala Lumpur in November 2015, when Prime Minister Modi stated, “Terrorism has emerged as a major global challenge that affects us all here. We have excellent bilateral cooperation with ASEAN members. And, we should see how we can enhance our cooperation at the regional and international level, including through support for adoption of Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism”.
The recent announcement of inviting the leaders of ten ASEAN countries and the special aid to the Philippines indicate a significant spin in India’s foreign policy. In January 2018, when ASEAN leaders come to India, to join our Republic Day celebrations, India must not only showcase its wealth of historical and cultural linkages with them, including far-off Philippines, but also include them as partners in our fight against all manifestations of terror. In a region in which India’s footprint is still evolving, will India’s ‘Act East policy’ be impacted positively by these small, yet paradigmatic shifts?
*Dr. Reena Marwah, Senior Fellow, Indian Council of Social Science Research, currently based at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, India