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China, India and the New Asia

December 23, 2013 14:20 IST

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh inspects a guard of honour with China's Premier Li Keqiang during a welcome ceremony outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing'It was China's rise that caused the New Cold War in Asia as it prompted the United States to rebalance its forces in Asia to experiment with engagement and containment at the same time,' says T P Sreenivasan.

Mani Shankar Aiyar's famous phrase, 'Uninterrupted, Uninterruptibl' in the context of the dialogue with Pakistan came to mind at the Manipal Dialogue, entitled 'Asia, Uninterrupted' organised by the Mumbai-based think-tank, Gateway House Indian Council on Global Relations ( and Manipal University.

It was a search for a formula for Asian integration, including political, economic and cultural interaction in the rapidly changing global scenario.

The question whether Asia would be left uninterrupted to accomplish this remained unanswered, but it was obvious that the situation was not uninterruptible.

In the end, there came the painful realisation that external forces were already at play and, even if Asia was left uninterrupted, Asian integration would be a distant dream.

Though it was an Asian dialogue, with participants from Bangladesh, China, Pakistan, Philippines, Kazakhstan, Turkey, Iran, Syria and Taiwan, those who paid the piper called the tune, which turned out to be the centrality of India in the unfolding Asian drama.

Gateway House displayed a map with India in the centre, showing the various corridors, past, present and future to show what geographic advantages India had in playing the central role in Asia.

The significant Indian participation with an array of strategic experts including Directors of Gateway House, Neelam Deo and Manjeet Kripalani, the focus remained on India and its problems.

Our geographical and historic disadvantages, our cultural diversity and aspirations came out loud and clear.

The world outside India came in bits and pieces when delegates from outside India spoke or when an Indian diplomat, passionate about Latin America, reminded us of experiments in Latin American integration.

The role of Pakistan was consequent by its absence in the discourse.

The European and African models came up initially for Asia to emulate, but they were soon dismissed as the European Union was more homogeneous and still took 400 years to unite and the African Union was a union only in name.

The main theme was the economic imperatives for Asian integration, articulated passionately in an impressive keynote address by Mohandas Pai. He said the changes were so dramatic that economic compulsions would integrate Asia.

He glossed over the deep political differences as though the logic of economic integration would even force China to seek economic cooperation with other Asian countries, without trying to dominate.

This was debated intensely and it was pointed out that it was China that had shattered Panditji's vision of Afro-Asian solidarity in 1962.

India had to seek partners outside Asia in the Non-Aligned Movement to articulate its aspirations to peace, disarmament and development.

The rise of China was a recurring thought in this context and views diverged widely. Some argued that the security situation in Asia had deteriorated on account of the rise of China, while others insisted that China was a benevolent force of integration in Asia.

China was, of course, befriending countries in Asia with economic and financial support, but without giving up its claims on the South China Sea or Indian territory.

By disowning colonial boundaries without placing acceptable alternatives in place, China had created potential areas of conflict through the possibility of incursions in places of its choice.

Indeed, it was China's rise that caused the New Cold War in Asia as it prompted the United States to rebalance its forces in Asia to experiment with engagement and containment at the same time.

There was talk of a G-2 (China and the US) ruling the world at one time, but now it was more a matter of both seeking spheres of influence in Asia and the world.

The two sides were courting even countries like India, not to speak of the weak and the vulnerable.

If the shifting of the centre of power from Europe to Asia meant an Asian Cold War theatre, neither Asian security, nor Asian integration would be advanced.

An amusing, but significant assertion that Samuel Huntington's 'Clash of Civilisations' was a contradiction in terms generated some optimism. 'If you are civilised, you do not clash,' the speaker said, like the equally wise observation that democracies never fought with each other.

But then the question arose as to whether the countries in Asia still had the civilisational strength to rise above clashes and to build bridges across civilisations. The answer was neither simple, nor straightforward.

The civilisational linkages -- whether religious, cultural or educational -- were cited, but the prime considerations for alliances and linkages, it was pointed out. were either military or economic.

Technology was the elephant in the room, particularly because of the backdrop of the Manipal University, with its use of technology and innovation. Opinions differed as to whether the impact of the Internet and its manifestations, the social networks was entirely positive for Asia and the world. Education figured as a cementing force in Asia.

The role of women in Asia received extensive treatment in the context of increasing violence against women, despite the fact that Asian social systems had accorded a high status to women. The status of women, even in the matriarchal order in Kerala, was considered unsatisfactory. Social scientists argued that even the Nair women in Kerala did not have a major role in decision making.

A reference to the secessionist tendency of Travancore at the time of Independence led to the clarification that the person, who prompted the Maharaja to stay out of the Indian Union was not a Keralite and he was exiled for the very reason. Keralites would prefer to become part of the ruling elite in Delhi rather than seek to break away!

The silver lining in the chaotic scene in Asia, it was observed, was the effort to begin the process of Asian integration through initiatives like the Asia Cooperation Dialogue, ACD, which aims to integrate the various existing Asian regional blocs like ASEAN, the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Central Asia.

ACD has sought to promote inter-dependence among Asian countries on issues of common importance -- the reduction of poverty and the improvement of overall quality of life on the continent, the expansion of economic integration to strengthen the Asian market -- all to create a more peaceful coexistence in Asia.

Several suggestions for future action were elicited from the participants, but none was dramatic enough to win a Nobel Prize for Peace. The last word came from a quote from a Mexican poet, who said the past must be forgotten in order to build the future.

Nobody had any doubt that Asia is still mired in the past and the glimpses of the future are still hazy.

T P Sreenivasan, (IFS 1967), former Ambassador of India and Governor for India of the IAEA, is now the Executive Vice-Chairman, Kerala State Higher Education Council, and Director General, Kerala International Centre.

You can read Ambassador Sreenivasan's earlier columns here.

Photograph: Dr Singh inspects a guard of honour with China's Premier Li Keqiang during a welcome ceremony outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in October. Photograph: Jason Lee/Reuters

T P Sreenivasan