Chinese influence over Southeast Asia began with 'boots of soldiers', while India's initial connect with the region was through its monks, senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader Ram Madhav said on Wednesday.
Speaking at a seminar in New Delhi, Madhav stressed that culture and religion have been the major aspect of ties between India and Southeast Asia, but due to the 'problem of secularist agenda', India could not decide on how to use these tools effectively for diplomacy.
The BJP general secretary said former prime minister P V Narasimha Rao should be credited with formulating the 'Look East Policy' in the early 1990s and engaging with the region.
"A major difference existed between the two efforts (of India's and China's), migrations. In the case of the Chinese, it was the soldiers who travelled to those lands first, followed by the traders.
"It was the boots of the soldiers on the soil that took the Chinese influence to these lands," he said at the seminar on 'India and Southeast Asia: The Cultural Connect'.
"That was followed by trade, commerce and other contact with those lands. The result was that the Chinese influence remained limited to the areas where their army could reach, for example north Vietnam.
"Whereas in our case, it was the priests and the monks who travelled first, followed by the traders, sailors, and others," he added.
Recalling the historical links with the region, Madhav said there was major trade activity between the Guptas and Cholas, whose reign spanned between the 3rd C and 5th C AD and 8th C and 12 C AD respectively, and the present day ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) region.
With seats of learning at Sanchi and Nalanda, ancient India attracted many students from the ASEAN region.
He said today the trade between ASEAN countries and India stands at around USD 90 billion.
The recent relationship with the region, he noted, has also evolved around migration of Indian labourers to some of these countries during the British regime as tree plantation workers or as mining workers.
He said countries like Myanmar and Malaysia have a good number of Indian origin population.
"Major aspect of this relationship has been cultural and religion... we never recognised importance of these things... whether culture and religion can become tools of our diplomacy has never been fully explored.
"We had this problem of secularist agenda. We do not know whether we should consider this relationship as something which state should invest, our state has to remain secular," Madhav said.
The BJP leader said said the Bali government in Indonesia had sought Indian support for teachers in the areas of astrology and temple architecture some decades back but bureaucracy was in a state of confusion.
The idea was that these were not 'secular sciences', he said. Bali has considerable Hindu population.
Madhav said culture as an important tool in diplomacy, in building strong bilateral relations has to be appreciated first by India before embarking on strengthening cultural ties with countries.
He said after Prime Minister Narendra Modi took over, a decision was taken to make culture as one of the five pillars of diplomacy.
Listing out the steps taken by India to increase cultural ties with the region, Vikram Doraiswami, Joint Secretary (Bangladesh, Myanmar and Indo-Pacific divisions), Ministry of External Affairs, said in October, a civilisational connect conference is being organised in Hanoi.
The two sides are also working on traditional medicines, he added.