Why Southeast Asia needs new scholarship

Now that the hullabaloo of Republic Day has died down and the 10 guests have returned home, it is time to take stock of how relations between India and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) have fared. True, the creative move of calling the 10 heads of Asean states merits praise, it is important to look beyond mere diplomatic overtures. This is important so as to not overestimate the extent of relations of two blocks whose ties are still fledgling. So far, academics have taken stock of efforts to revitalise the relationship between these countries. 

India’s Look East to Act East Policy: Tracking the Opportunities and Challenges in the Indo-Pacific, edited by Manmohini Kaul and Anushree Chakraborty, is a laudable effort to map out India’s foreign policies towards countries in the region. The task of uniting scholarship on the region is indeed a formidable one. The book takes into cognisance the complexities of regional geopolitics and aims to bridge gaps in India’s foreign policy towards the region. 

The book covers India’s approaches bilaterally and multilaterally from the beginning of the look-east policy in the 1990s and most of the essays stop at 2014. Providing context and an Indian perspective of historical events is an important task, necessary for providing the base for further scholarship on the region.

By analysing India’s overtures to various countries and evolving changes in the region, the book attempts to discern factors that shape India’s desire to play an active role in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific. At the end of the book, one is left with questioning how to address current roadblocks and failings of the current relationship. The world has moved on since 2014, whether it is Philippines’ U-turn on the South China Sea issue, Donald Trump’s election, or China’s spearheading of the One Belt One Road Initiative. Questions about how countries in the region are tackling terrorism, migrants (particularly the Rohingya crisis), and domestic political changes in the Indo-Pacific dominate the current debate, but the book does not cover them. There is no denying that an overview of history is vital to contribute to current debates, but history must also be framed against the backdrop of potential changes that could take place; otherwise, the point of scholarship will be lost. 

Over the past two decades, scholars have called for upping the ante of relations between the two blocs and rightly so. More recently, as China has turned out to be a major partner of most countries on the block, (and India’s major economic partner) academic scholarship has focussed on making this the backdrop of analysis. However, it is easy to slip into clichés while analysing the potential of relations without looking at larger structural issues. This is particularly true for Indian academics analysing Southeast Asia, who seem to assume that having cultural and social similarities will translate into strong relations. As the anarchic state of international relations teaches us, power dynamics and the alignment of national interests matter over all else. Assuming that national affinities will naturally result in cooperation is an easy cognitive bias to which researchers can fall prey. 

Since the launch of the look-east policy in 1994, India has grappled with how to engage with countries in the Indo-Pacific. Since then, we have come a long way. With Japan, Australia, Singapore, and Indonesia, much progress has been achieved in economic, technical, and cultural cooperation. The pace of change has also increased over the last decade, with unstable domestic politics resulting in significant foreign policy shifts. Philippines, Thailand, and Myanmar have gone through considerable leadership changes over the last few years that has impacted their worldviews. China has also changed from its merely assertive state to being a more, confident rising power that is ready to take leadership of Asia. Groupings like the Quadrilateral (between India, Australia, Japan, and the United States) that were thought to be dead even five years ago have been revived as recently as last year. While the South China Sea dominated headlines in the first decade of the 21st century, some voices in India even question the necessity (or viability) for India to project power as far as the South China Sea. 

The larger problem with Indian scholarship on Southeast Asia can easily be identified in the tone of academic work that is conducted. Socio-political analysis cannot be discounted from any research. However, the methodology of the same cannot rely on historical anecdotes alone. There is a pressing need for framework-based analysis, to provide options and alternatives that go beyond increasing dialogue. Platitudes about the importance of sea trade, or the potential of the region have to be backed by empirical evidence, critical analysis, and methodologies to build upon. 

For years, we have been decrying the lack of an Indian theory to international relations but analyses can be valid even if they employ western concepts. Indian foreign policy needs to be enthused by new thought processes, and this is a gap that researchers across the country should look to fill.
India’s Look East to Act East Policy
Tracking the Opportunities and Challenges in the Indo-Pacific
Manmohini Kaul and Anushree Chakraborty
Pentagon Press 
327 pages; Rs 1,095