China’s growing heft and trading relationships with Asean nations has propelled it far ahead of India in Southeast Asia, veteran Singaporean diplomat and geostrategist Kishore Mahbubani said.
Mahbubani, who served as president of the United Nations Security Council, said that New Delhi has had a tendency to view the region as a backwater, which has caused this problem. However, he also argued that Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries would welcome an enhanced Indian presence as US-China competition heats up.
In an interview, Mahbubani also spoke of the reordering of global politics toward greater multipolarity with India expected to do well from this shift. Edited excerpts:
India is seen as a rising power. How do you see its position sitting here in Singapore?
I believe, on a broader scale, that the 21st century is not going to be the Chinese century. It will be the Asian century and you will see the return of China, India and in fact the rest of Asia. India will also do very well, China will do well and Asean will do well. I think from India’s point of view, the simultaneous return of China and India plus, of course, the continuation of other powers such as Europe, Russia and Japan means that we are entering a genuinely multipolar world, and a multipolar world is good for India. That’s because it creates more opportunities for everybody. A multipolar world means that, eventually, American global influence is going to shrink. It will constrain the US but enhance the role of rising powers like China, India and others. So, it is in that sense, from India’s point of view, a favourable geopolitical environment.
Are there any specific policy changes that you would like to see India make to play a bigger role?
Out of the 10 countries in Southeast Asia, nine have an Indic base. Only one has a Sinic base, which is Vietnam. So, historically, Southeast Asia has been closer to India than it has been to China. But today, if you look at the trade between India and Southeast Asia and China and Southeast Asia, I think India is so far behind, it’s frightening. Let me give you one statistic to illustrate why Southeast Asia is important. In the year 2000, US trade with Asean was $135 billion, which was more than three times China’s trade with Asean, which was only $40 billion. By last year, US trade grew to around $440 billion, which is a big increase. But China’s trade with Asean grew from $40 billion to $975 billion. So, by opening ourselves (Asean) up to trade, we are growing and benefiting. I think India should ask itself what more it can do with Southeast Asia. Europe represents the past, America represents the present and Asia represents the future, especially East Asia and Southeast Asia. But somehow in Delhi, people find it difficult to pay attention to Southeast Asia. They see it like a backyard. They don’t see it as a place where the future growth potential is.
You say India and China will benefit and have an interest in seeing a multipolar world. But India seems to have aligned more with the US against China. How do you see this development?
I’m acutely aware that relations between India and China are very difficult, especially after the clashes in June 2020 at the border. But I’m confident that they will be able to manage this relationship. And it’s very clear that even though India is moving closer to the United States, India will never become an ally of the United States, like the UK or Japan or Australia. I think India is big enough to emerge as an independent pole and it’d be good for India because many of the countries in the Global South actually would like independent poles to balance the big powers. So, there is a geopolitical opportunity for India. And there are also some global issues on which China and India see eye to eye. On climate change, for example, India and China face similar pressure from the West. So, it’s a much more complex picture and not simply black and white that India will go with the US against China.
The mood in India towards China has become substantially negative in recent years. Can the two sides resolve their differences?
I’ve been studying geopolitics for 52 years now, since I joined the (Singapore) foreign ministry in 1971. And one of the cardinal rules of geopolitics is that the party that becomes emotional is the party that loses. Because, in geopolitics, you’ve got to be cool, cold, calculating and cunning, and in India, the big danger is Indians like me get very emotional. And in geopolitics, if you get emotional, then you’re losing the battle. So, it’s important for Indians to sit back and do some cold calculations. Where do India’s better interests lie? The two choices are not to be either a lackey or an enemy. You have lots of positions in the middle which can be very friendly, and yet have some differences of view. I’m aware that what happened in June 2020 was very traumatic. I will also say it was more traumatic for India than for China. One fact that Indians find difficult to accept is that while China looms very large in the Indian imagination, if you go to China, they never talk about India. That’s not surprising, because, at the end of the day, the Chinese GNP (gross national product) is five-and-a-half times the size of Indian GNP. So, I think I can understand why India wants to be treated as an equal China and frankly, if China was wise, it should reach India as an equal. But you can’t deny the disparity in economies.
So, I think you have to allow the emotions to run for one or two years, but my sense is that I think there was a statement from China and India where they’ve committed to preserving peace and tranquility right at the border. And I think that should be doable because at the end of the day, as you know, even though China claims Arunachal Pradesh and India claims Aksai Chin, the Chinese leaders have twice proposed that let’s stay with the status quo. Zhou Enlai proposed this to prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Unfortunately, prime minister Nehru didn’t accept it and then Mr Deng Xiaoping proposed it to prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, who also didn’t accept it. But at the end of the day, that will be the solution. China will never get Arunachal Pradesh, India will never get Aksai China. Everyone knows what the obvious solution is. But you need strong leaders to bring it about right.
Download the Mint app and read premium stories
Log in to our website to save your bookmarks. It’ll just take a moment.
You are just one step away from creating your watchlist!
Oops! Looks like you have exceeded the limit to bookmark the image. Remove some to bookmark this image.
Your session has expired, please login again.
You are now subscribed to our newsletters. In case you can’t find any email from our side, please check the spam folder.
This is a subscriber only feature Subscribe Now to get daily updates on WhatsApp