Southeast Asia, Relations with

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SOUTHEAST ASIA, RELATIONS WITH India's relations with the countries of what is today known as "Southeast Asia" date back to antiquity. Early Indian texts referred to Southeast Asia as Suvarnabhumi (land of gold). Trade and the transmission of the Hindu and Buddhist religions were key elements of India's early interaction with Southeast Asian lands, including Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, the Indochina peninsula, Malaya, and Indonesia. This was not a one-way traffic; Southeast Asians, particularly traders of the Malay world, also sailed west across the Bay of Bengal. The flow of Indian priests, traders, and adventurers, along with intermarriages and cultural assimilation, left a deep and lasting impact on the cultural landscape of Southeast Asia, one of the most impressive examples of acculturation in history. By the eleventh century, a number of strongly "Indianized" kingdoms, such as Funan and Champa, emerged in the Indochina peninsula, as did Nakhon Sri Thammarat in the Malayan peninsula.


What historians describe as the "Indianization" of Southeast Asia was "the expansion of an organized culture, founded on the Indian conception of royalty, Hindu or Buddhist beliefs, the mythology of ancient Hindu Purāṇas, and the observance of the Hindu law codes, expressed in the Sanskrit language." Other features of Indianization included the use of alphabets of Indian origin, the pattern of Indian law and administration and monuments, and architecture and sculpture influenced by the arts of India. But the subject of "Indianization" or "Hinduization" of Southeast Asia has been controversial. The thesis of Indian colonization of Southeast Asia, or Indian views of Southeast Asia as "greater India" or "further India," popularized by nationalist groups, like the Greater India Society of Calcutta, and historians of ancient India, such as R. C. Majumdar, has found less favor among contemporary historians of Southeast Asia.

Archaeological and literary evidence suggests that India's impact on Southeast Asia was achieved largely through peaceful means, by commerce rather than conquest, and by cultural assimilation rather than out-right colonization. Nor were Southeast Asians mere passive recipients of Indian ideas, but actively engaged borrowers.

Ideas that suited indigenous traditions, or that could easily be adapted to local interests and practices, were more readily received than those that did not have such potential. The Indian caste system and the practice of according lower status to women were not popular in the Southeast Asia. The temple arts of the Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms of Pagan, Angkor, and Java differ from those of India. The influence of Indian ideas was heavily mediated by indigenous Southeast Asian beliefs and practices; Southeast Asians adapted or localized them to suit their own interests, needs, and values.

The decline of Buddhism in India by the end of the twelfth century and the erosion of Hindu political power with the advent of Muslim rule in India contributed to the decline of Indian influence in Southeast Asia. The conversion of Malacca to Islam in the early fifteenth century saw Islam supplant Hinduism and Buddhism there, although it was Indian Muslim merchants who, ironically, played a key role in the spread of Islam by bringing with them mullahs, Sufi mystics, and Arab preachers. Indians, especially Muslim traders from the Tamil and Gujurati areas of India, played a major role in the rise of Malacca as the premier port city of Southeast Asia. Through intermarriage and commercial power, they became a major force at Malacca's royal court.

The advent of European rule in Asia and the restrictive trade policies of the Dutch and the British severely undermined India's commercial links with Southeast Asia. The Europeans took control of the trade in spices and textiles, the staples of India-Southeast Asia trade. Under the British Raj, the Indian economy was transformed from being an exporter of manufactured goods to a supplier of raw materials for Britain. The British also actively curbed Indian shipbuilding and shipping. But British rule started a new type of migration from India to Southeast Asia, especially to Malaya, dating from the foundation of Penang in 1786. In contrast to earlier Indian migrants, who tended to be traders and financiers or priests and pandits, the new migration was more regulated and of a larger scale, consisting chiefly of indentured, illiterate laborers. Annual levels of migration from India to Malaya jumped from less than 7,000 in 1880 to over 18,000 in 1889, while migrations to Burma increased from less than 7,000 to over 38,000. In 1910 an estimated 331,100 Indians migrated to Burma, while the figure for Malaya was 91,723. In 1935 the respective figures were 296,600 for Burma and 81,350 for Malaya.

The Post-colonial Period

The Japanese conquest of Southeast Asia and the advance of the Japanese army to the border region between Burma and British India underscored the strategic vulnerability of India to attacks through Southeast Asia. During the Japanese occupation of the region from 1942 to 1945, Southeast Asia also became the launching point of the military campaign led by Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose and his Indian National army, drawn mainly from Indians in Southeast Asia, to oust the British from India.

In the early postwar period, Indian interests in Southeast Asia comprised political, economic, and strategic dimensions. Politically, Indian nationalist leaders viewed the anticolonial struggles in Southeast Asia as being indivisible from their own struggle. India's struggle for independence from British rule was viewed in Southeast Asia with great interest. The second Asian country, after the Philippines, to achieve independence, India after 1947 played an important role in the campaign for self-determination in Southeast Asia. Economically, Southeast Asia was a market for Indian textiles (Burma was an almost exclusive Indian market); and India was heavily dependent on Burma, Indonesia, Malaya, Thailand, and Indochina for oil, rubber, tin, rice, and timber. An estimated 1.3 million to 1.8 million Indian immigrants in Southeast Asia during the immediate postwar period provided another crucial link between India and Southeast Asia; the treatment of Indian migrants in Burma would become an issue in Indian relations with that country. Strategically, Indian diplomat K. M. Panikkar (who is credited with being among the first to use the term "Southeast Asia") suggested the creation of an "Indian security sphere" extending from the Persian Gulf to Burma, Siam (Thailand), the Indochina peninsula, Malaya, and Singapore. Indian leaders like Deputy Prime Minister Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel expressed concern about instability and Communist insurgency in Southeast Asia as potential threats to Indian security. This concern was fueled by the meetings of Asian Communist leaders under the banner of the South Asian Youth Congress in Calcutta (the so-called Calcutta Conference) in February 1948, which was followed by the outbreak of Communist rebellions in both India and Southeast Asia. At the same time, the emergence of China as a major Asian power introduced an important new dimension to India's interest in Southeast Asia.

Despite professing a strong commitment to decolonization in Southeast Asia, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was prepared only to extend diplomatic support to Southeast Asian struggles. Nehru refused Ho Chi Minh's request for material support against the French, though he took a more active role in supporting Indonesia's struggle against the Dutch. India took the lead in convening the 1949 conference on Indonesia to show support for Indonesian nationalists, though again Indian support was mainly moral rather than material. This affected Nehru's bid to organize a regional grouping of newly independent Asian nations. The unofficial Asian Relations Conference held in New Delhi in 1947 under Nehru's chairmanship attracted delegations from all Southeast Asian countries, but the resulting Asian Relations Organization was moribund and short-lived.

Nehru joined Indonesia's efforts to convene a conference of African and Asian countries, which led to the famous Bandung Conference of 1955. At this time, the regional identity of Southeast Asia remained closely tied to that of India. The Bandung Conference was convened by the Conference of Southeast Asian Prime Ministers (also known as the Colombo Powers), a regional grouping that included the leaders of Pakistan, India, and Sri Lanka, as well as Indonesia and Burma. That conference, though successful in articulating a sense of solidarity among the newly independent countries, revealed serious differences, however, between India and the pro–United States Southeast Asian nations, Thailand and the Philippines. Nehru bitterly condemned military alliances between Asian nations and the superpowers, targeting specifically the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, antagonizing the leaders of Pakistan, Thailand, and the Philippines.

A highlight of India's involvement in Southeast Asia in the 1950s was its efforts to mediate in the conflict between the French and the North Vietnamese following the Geneva Accords in 1954. Indian diplomacy in the Indochina conflict included Nehru's call for an immediate cease-fire in February 1954. Nehru sought to prevent both Chinese military intervention in support of Ho Chi Minh and large-scale U.S. intervention that might have included nuclear weapons. India's role led to its appointment as chairman of the International Control Commission (ICC) on Indochina, whose role was to control the flow of armaments into Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. But the ICC suffered from a weak mandate and shortage of manpower, and was consumed by the escalation of great power rivalry. China made diplomatic and commercial gains in Southeast Asia at India's expense, while Nehru seemed more preoccupied with domestic issues.

The 1962 war between India and China dashed any remaining hopes of Indian interaction with Southeast Asia within a pan-Asian framework. This was accompanied by a growing divergence of their national economic policies and development strategies: India remained preoccupied with its domestic problems and the conflict with Pakistan over Kashmir, while the Southeast Asian nations remained concerned with the threat of Communist insurgency and potential Chinese and Vietnamese expansionism. Economically, while Southeast Asian countries were experiencing robust economic growth through openness to foreign investment and multinational enterprise, India could muster only what was derisively called the "Hindu" rate of growth of around 5 percent, which was seen in Southeast Asia as the result of its socialist, centrally planned economy. Later, in the 1990s, India's democratic system invited unflattering comments from the likes of Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew, who favored "discipline over democracy." The divergence in strategic outlook was equally pronounced, especially after the formation of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1967. While India remained somewhat uninterested in joining ASEAN, its leaders also ruled out Indian membership on the ground that it was not "geographically included in Southeast Asia." More importantly, India's nonaligned outlook, albeit with a tilt to Moscow over cold war issues, conflicted with ASEAN's pro–U.S. stance, camouflaged in its doctrine of a "Zone of Peace, Freedom, and Neutrality" in Southeast Asia. The signing of the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship, and Cooperation in August 1971, intended to deter any Chinese or American intervention in support of Pakistan, was seen in Southeast Asia as compromising India's nonalignment. The Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in December 1978 led India to recognize the Vietnamese-installed Heng Samarin regime in Cambodia. This was at serious odds with ASEAN's effort to condemn and isolate Hanoi. Moreover, in the 1980s, India's naval modernization program caused some apprehension in Southeast Asia.

India "Looks East"

The coolness and mutual neglect in India-ASEAN relations persisted until the early 1990s. But a major shift occurred in 1994, when Indian prime minister Narashimha Rao outlined India's "look east" policy, whose main thrust was "to draw, as much as possible, investment and cooperation from the Asia-Pacific countries, in consonance with our common concept and solidarity and . . . our common destiny." The "look east" policy was a logical and necessary extension of India's domestic economic liberalization drive, which was dictated by harsh domestic economic and political realities. ASEAN is a key part of the look east policy.

The focus of India's look east policy and India-ASEAN ties has been in the economic arena. According to official Indian figures, India's exports to ASEAN jumped from U.S.$2.9 billion in 1996–1997 to U.S.$4.6 billion in 2002–2003, while imports from ASEAN during the same period rose from U.S.$2.9 billion to U.S.$5.2 billion. Although Southeast Asia accounts for only 8.77 percent of India's total exports and 8.44 percent of India's total imports, and foreign direct investment (FDI) by ASEAN states in India accounted for only 3.4 percent of total FDI flows to India (January 1991–May 2002), India's impressive economic growth portends rising trade with ASEAN. India's leadership position in information technology provides ASEAN with an opportunity to forge stronger economic links with India through greater economic integration.

India's relations with ASEAN have been facilitated by New Delhi's participation in a number of common regional forums. In 1992 India became a sectoral dialogue partner of ASEAN. Although restricted to areas concerning trade, investment, tourism, science, and technology, this represented India's first formal involvement with ASEAN. In 1995 India was made a full dialogue partner by ASEAN, becoming eligible to participate in a much wider range of sectors, including infrastructure, civil aviation, and computer software, as well as in ASEAN Post Ministerial Meetings. India was invited for the first time to summit level talks with ASEAN in Cambodia in November 2002, and at the second ASEAN-India Summit in Bali in October 2003, India signed a Framework Agreement for creating an ASEAN-India free trade agreement (FTA) in a decade. The same year, India also signed a Framework Agreement for creating an FTA with Thailand, and started negotiations for a Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement with Singapore.

In 1996, India joined the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the first multilateral security organization in the Asia-Pacific region under ASEAN leadership. Until then, ASEAN members had opposed Indian membership. India, as with the rest of the South Asian countries, was considered to be outside the geographic scope of the Asia-Pacific region. A more important, if not publicly stated, factor was ASEAN's fear that South Asian membership would saddle the ARF with the seemingly intractable India-Pakistan rivalry, including the Kashmir problem. ASEAN's motives in inviting India into the ARF was partly determined by ASEAN's perception of the importance of India as a counterweight to China. India's growing links with ASEAN and sub-ASEAN groupings is indicated in its participation in the launching of a new subregional group involving Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Thailand for Economic Cooperation, whose objectives include regional cooperation in transport and infrastructure. India also engages the newer ASEAN members through the Mekong Ganga Cooperation initiative, which involves building transportation links between India and the newer ASEAN members.

India has no border or land disputes in Southeast Asia and has already marked out its maritime boundary with Indonesia and Thailand. Currently, no Southeast Asian nation considers India to be a threat; nor does India expect any threats to security from any Southeast Asian country. While the situation in Myanmar, especially the growing military ties between Myanmar and China, has been a source of concern to Indian strategists, successive Indian governments have favored a policy of "engaging" China. Like ASEAN, India opposes the isolation of Myanmar. While Indian strategic planners recognize the importance of global trade routes through Southeast Asia, and share a concern over the rise of Chinese military power, India does not appear to have any grand plans for assuming a major security role in the Asia Pacific region, despite its powerful navy.

Nonetheless, the changing strategic climate in Asia appears to favor the development of closer political and security ties between India and the Southeast Asian countries. The 1990s saw increased defense contacts between India and ASEAN countries. The Indian navy has conducted a number of "friendship exercises" with ASEAN navies, including the navies of Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, and Malaysia. India and Malaysia have cooperated in a program to provide familiarization and maintenance training for Russian-supplied MiG aircraft to Malaysian air force personnel. Since the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, Indian has joined the U.S. Navy in providing escort vessels in the Straits of Malacca.

Amitav Acharya

See alsoBurma


Acharya, Amitav. Engagement or Estrangement? India and theAsia Pacific Region. Toronto: University of Toronto–York University Joint Centre for Asia Pacific Studies, 1999. Focus on "look east" policy and institutional links between India and ASEAN.

Ayoob, Mohammed. India and Southeast Asia: Indian Perceptions and Policies. London: Routledge, 1990. A short, insightful study of India-ASEAN relations during the period of the Cambodia conflict.

Coedes, G. The Indianized States of Southeast Asia, edited by Walter F. Villa and translated by Sue Brown Cowing. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1968. A classic study of Indianization by an Indologist.

Majumdar, R. C. Greater India. 2nd ed. Mumbai: National Information and Publications, 1948. An Indian nationalist historian's perspective on Indian influence.

Ministry of Commerce and Industry, Government of India. "Export Import Data Bank." Available at <>

Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India. "ASEAN-India Relations." Available at <>

Sandhu, K. S. Indians in Malay: Some Aspects of Their Immigration and Settlement (17861957). Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1969. Pathbreaking and still the most authoritative work.

SarDesai, D. R. "India and Southeast Asia during the Nehru Era." In The Legacy of Nehru: A Centennial Assessment, edited by D. R. SarDesai and Anand Mohan. New Delhi: Promilla, 1992.

Sridharan, Kripa. The ASEAN Region in India's Foreign Policy. Aldershot, U.K.: Dartmouth, 1996.

Ton-That, Thien. India and Southeast Asia, 19471960: AStudy of India's Policy towards the South East Asian Countries in the Period 19471960. Geneva: Librairie Droz, 1963. Comprehensive Southeast Asian perspective.

Van Leur, J. C. Indonesian Trade and Society: Essays in AsianSocial and Economic History. The Hague: W. van Hoeve, 1955.

Wheatley, Paul. "Presidential Address: India beyond the Ganges; Desultory Reflections on the Origins of Civilization in Southeast Asia." Journal of Asian Studies 42, no. 1 (1982): 13–28.

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