“India is so far behind China in Southeast Asia, it’s scary”

China’s growing importance and trade ties with ASEAN countries have put it far ahead of India in Southeast Asia, said veteran Singaporean diplomat and geostrategist Kishore Mahbubani.

Mahbubani, who served as president of the United Nations Security Council, said New Delhi had a tendency to view the region as a backlog, which had caused this problem. However, he also argued that ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries would welcome an increased Indian presence as competition between the US and China intensifies.

In an interview, Mahbubani also spoke of the reorganization of world politics towards more multipolarity, with India expected to benefit from this change. Edited excerpts:

India is considered an emerging power. How do you see the position here in Singapore?

Overall, I believe that the 21st century will not be the Chinese century. It will be the Asian century and you will see the return of China, India and indeed the rest of Asia. Also India will do very well, China will do well and ASEAN will do well. I think from India’s perspective, the simultaneous return of China and India, and of course the persistence of other powers like Europe, Russia and Japan, means that we are entering a truly multipolar world, and a multipolar world is good for India. That’s because it creates more opportunities for everyone. A multipolar world means that U.S. global influence will eventually shrink. It will limit the US but strengthen the role of emerging powers like China, India and others. So in this sense, from India’s perspective, it is a favorable geopolitical environment.

Are there any specific policy changes you think India would make to play a bigger role?

Of the ten countries in Southeast Asia, nine have an Indian base. Only one has a Sinic base, namely Vietnam. So historically, Southeast Asia was closer to India than to China. But today, if you look at trade between India and Southeast Asia and between China and Southeast Asia, I think India is so far behind that it’s scary. Let me give you a statistic to illustrate why Southeast Asia is important. In 2000, U.S. 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, a large increase. But China’s trade with ASEAN grew from $40 billion to $975 billion. By opening up (ASEAN) to trade, we grow and benefit. I think India should ask itself what else it can do with Southeast Asia. Europe represents the past, America represents the present, and Asia represents the future, particularly East Asia and Southeast Asia. But somehow people in Delhi find it difficult to pay attention to Southeast Asia. They see it like a backyard. They don’t see it as a place where future growth potential lies.

They say India and China would benefit from this and have an interest in seeing a multipolar world. But India appears to have sided more with the US against China. How do you see this development?

I am very aware that relations between India and China are very difficult, especially after the June 2020 clashes at the border. But I am confident that they can manage this relationship. And it is very clear that even if India moves closer to the United States, it will never become an ally of the United States like the United Kingdom, Japan or Australia. I think India is big enough to establish itself as an independent pole and that would be good for India because many countries in the global south would actually want independent poles as a balance to the major powers. So there is a geopolitical opportunity for India. And there are also some global issues on which China and India agree. For example, when it comes to climate change, India and China face similar pressures from the West. So it is a much more complex picture and not just a black and white picture that India will compete alongside the US against China.

Sentiment in India towards China has become significantly negative in recent years. Can the two sides resolve their differences?

I have been involved in geopolitics for 52 years, since joining the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Singapore) in 1971. And one of the basic rules of geopolitics is that the party that gets emotional is the party that loses. Because in geopolitics you have to be cool, cold, calculating and cunning, and in India the big danger is that Indians like me become very emotional. And when you get emotional about geopolitics, you lose the battle. Therefore, it is important for Indians to sit back and do some cold calculations. Where do India’s better interests lie? The two options are to be neither a lackey nor an enemy. There are many positions in the middle that can be very friendly and still have some disagreements. I realize that what happened in June 2020 was very traumatic. I would also like to say that it was more traumatic for India than for China. One fact that Indians find difficult to accept is that although China looms large in the Indian imagination, when you travel to China, you never talk about India. This is not surprising because ultimately China’s GNP (Gross National Product) is five and a half times larger than India’s GNP. So I think I can understand why India would want to be treated as an equal to China, and frankly, if China were smart, it should reach out to India as an equal. But you can’t deny the inequality in economies.

I think you have to let emotions run wild for a year or two, but in my opinion there was a statement from China and India where they committed to maintaining peace and tranquility right on the border. And I think that should be doable because as you know, the Chinese leaders ultimately proposed twice to stay with the status quo even though China claims Arunachal Pradesh and India claims Aksai Chin. Zhou Enlai suggested this to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Unfortunately, Prime Minister Nehru did not accept it and then Mr. Deng Xiaoping suggested it to Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who also did not accept it. But at the end of the day this 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 get it right.

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Sybil Alvarez

"Incurable gamer. Infuriatingly humble coffee specialist. Professional music advocate."

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