Analysis & Opinions - Jakarta Globe

Global Village: Finding a Way to Live Between Two Giants

June 27, 2011

For the first time since Asia's colonial period, China and India are rising simultaneously. This historical moment weighs closely on the destiny of Southeast Asia, the region defined by its position south of China and east of India. If the two Asian giants cooperate, they will help to consolidate Southeast Asia's own rise. If they contend, they might tear the region apart. Those grave stakes impinge on the choices made by Indonesia, the region's pivotal country.

In this context, it is interesting to note that the economic rise of China and India is bringing them closer, but the growth of their military power is not. China is India's largest trading partner. Bilateral trade went from barely $2 billion at the beginning of this century to $60 billion in 2010, and the two countries have agreed to increase it to $100 billion by 2015. The astonishing growth of economic links has led to the coining of the term "Chindia." The word signifies the emergence of two Asian powers which, acting together, could reshape the region and even global affairs. Chindia is, indeed, a noble aspiration in a world looking for new economic choices.

However, there is no strategic Chindia. Instead, the strategic reach of nuclear India is seen prominently in its Look East policy, particularly in the cutting-edge naval aspects of that policy. That reach extends from the Bay of Bengal through the Malacca Strait to the South China Sea and all the way to the Indian Ocean's eastward shores, Australia. The westward naval interests of nuclear China cover the South China Sea, the Malacca Strait, the Bay of Bengal and across the Indian Ocean to East Africa.

India's Look East policy could turn South Asia and Southeast Asia ― the Suvarnabhumi (Golden Land) of classical Indic lore ― into a single strategic region. China would do the same for Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia, historically the Sinic Nanyang, or lands that lie just beyond the South China Sea. But which way will the region go?

The answer is still unknown, but what is significant today is that the overlapping naval interests of India and China are intersecting closely in Southeast Asian waters. If those interests overlap but do not come into conflict, they will enhance the maritime security of this region. However, if the two powers compete and contend for supremacy here, they might force difficult choices on a region that both New Delhi and Beijing regard as an intrinsic and immediate part of their natural spheres of influence. Put bluntly, Southeast Asia is a buffer zone between China and India that can remain a buffer only so long as neither country insists on the region being an exclusive part of its sphere of influence.

Given all this, what can Southeast Asia do to preserve its strategic unity and autonomy? The answer lies at the door of the organization that embodies the region: Asean. If Asean continues to preserve its internal coherence, members of the grouping will be able to depend on one another's support to balance the gravitational pulls of China and India. If Asean becomes weak, those forces could well splinter it.

Beyond its own unity, the key to Asean playing a balancing role between the two powers depends on it being scrupulously fair to both. This is to say that Asean cannot be so pro-China as to antagonize India, and vice versa. If Asean remains fair, both powers should be able to engage it in an atmosphere of trust to protect and advance their legitimate strategic interests. That way, even if the interests diverge one day, Asean can continue to negotiate its autonomy vis-a-vis both.

In fact, Asean can act as an honest broker between China and India because it is a regional organization that is credible enough to make a difference to diplomatic outcomes, but is incapable of threatening either power militarily. Asean's relative military weakness vis-a-vis both China and India is paradoxically a source of strength in its political and economic dealings with them. They can be comfortable with it.

Indonesia's chairmanship of Asean this year is an opportunity for the grouping to strengthen its external partnerships. China and India, along with the United States and Japan, are critical international partners. But even beyond Indonesia's chairmanship, it has the ability to help stabilize Southeast Asia's relations with the two rising powers.

This is so because Indonesia combines several attributes that make it uniquely suited for a leadership role in Southeast Asia. It is, of course, the region's largest nation and largest economy. It is also a member of the Group of 20 nations, which together enjoy a truly global economic footprint. Indonesia is a possible entrant to the BRICS grouping of countries - Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa - where economic dawn is just breaking. Indonesia is a nation of the future.

Politically, Indonesia's stance in the Non-Aligned Movement underscored its quest for an independent foreign policy in a world divided ideologically by the Cold War. Today, the ideological gulf is gone, but new challenges are appearing. The simultaneous rise of China and India could become one of those challenges if the two countries fail to rise in peaceful tandem. Jakarta will need to display towards the two powers the same capacity for friendship without subservience with which it once handled its relations with the United States and the Soviet Union.

No doubt, Indonesia will respond to changes in the Asian economic and strategic landscape with a constancy based on its historical experience. This constancy will need to be leavened with pragmatism in a world where the rules of the game are being rewritten. Indonesia's economic record, its democratic development, and the resilience of the Pancasila state position it to lead Southeast Asia in coming to terms with the inexorable reality of a rising China and a rising India.

Chindia or not, Asean must not turn into just another acronym.

Anindya Novyan Bakrie is vice chairman of the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Kadin), CEO of Bakrie Telecom and chairman of Viva Media Group.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Bakrie, Anindya Novyan.“Global Village: Finding a Way to Live Between Two Giants.” Jakarta Globe, June 27, 2011.