The expanding focus on China and India in Southeast Asia can be seen as a popular fashion or, more fundamentally, a matter of practical diplomacy. Either way, India and China were in such focus, in the alternate order of their names, as the week-long ‘Singapore Airshow 2010’ ended on Sunday (February 7).

Neither India nor China courted undue attention at the show, but they were seen, alongside the United States, as the architects of a future Asia-Pacific order. Such a nuanced view, which did not eclipse Japan’s potential role, was evident during the Airshow-related Asia Pacific Security Conference on February 1. The big idea was not the result of any extraordinary insights or, alternatively, crystal-gazing or even wishful thinking. For the pundits, just some conventional logic of futurology, based on the present-day trends in world politics, was sufficient.

Of greater interest was the novelty of India being celebrated at the popular cultural level in the ongoing countdown for the Chinese New Year Day. A mini musical show at Chinatown in Singapore on Sunday (February 7) had a Bollywood song on India as an interlude. A greater awareness of India and its potential as a multidimensional power is increasingly evident in Malaysia as well, especially at the official levels.

The India-centred sequence of a few unrelated events in Singapore in recent weeks has, therefore, came as no surprise. On a different track, China remains in constant view on the regional horizon, with some commentators even raising speculation about a futurist Pax Sinica.

The India-centred events in Singapore have presented many shades. A Bollywood-theme song-and-dance show by an Australian producer in mid-January was about one of India’s current passions: the cinema. Another passion, cricket, was not ignored. Sunil Gavaskar was the special guest for Singapore’s own Twenty-Twenty cricket tournament. India’s High Commissioner to Singapore, T.C.A. Raghavan, inaugurated the event on January 30. The City-State’s President, S.R. Nathan, presented the trophy on the following day. The tournament has been so designed as to launch Singapore’s bid to host major matches as a neutral venue for the current international cricket teams.

Of relevance to political diplomacy, a book on India’s place in the world-view of Singapore’s elder statesman Lee Kuan Yew was released on January 7. President Nathan released the book by Sunanda K. Datta Ray. It studies India’s Look East policy, first enunciated by P.V. Narasimha Rao, in a larger perspective than commonly understood. In a sweep of the global idiom, India is seen to have sought links with the political West by looking towards the East in the first place.

Signifying a thematic leap to the mediaeval era from such perspectives, a book on India’s historical links with Southeast Asia was launched on January 27. Published by the Singapore-based Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS), the book was released by Sugata Bose, a Harvard University Professor. The title of the volume edited by ISEAS Director K. Kesavapany and two others, is a tale in itself. An unusual historical phase is sought to be narrated in Nagapattinam to Suvarnadwipa: Reflections on the Chola naval expeditions to Southeast Asia.

The broad theme is best conveyed in the words of Hermann Kulke, a German scholar in Asian history and a co-editor of this book. Under the scanner is the “claim” of the Chola King, Rajendra I, about his naval expeditions to Southeast Asia nearly one millennium ago. His “claim” relates to the Cholan conquest of over a dozen harbour-cities of the Southeast Asian kingdom of Srivijaya in the early 11th Century A.D.

Kulke writes: “The first distinct South Indian influences [in Southeast Asia] are usually linked with the famous Buddhist art of Amaravati [in Andhra], and the Pallava Grantha of present-day Indonesia’s earliest inscriptions in the 5th A.D.” These ancient South Indian influences in Southeast Asia were “followed by the strong impact of Pallava and Chola art and architecture.” In this perspective, the maritime triumph “claimed” by Rajendra I in about 1025 A.D. “was a unique event in the otherwise peaceful and culturally exceedingly fruitful relation of India with its neighbours in Southeast Asia” in historical times.

The mystery of missing references to the Chola expeditions in the relevant Chinese texts is sought to be addressed in the book. And, Tansen Sen, Head of the Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre at the ISEAS in Singapore, has traced the “Chola-Srivijaya-China triangle.” On the mystery itself, Kulke writes that “it is one of the ironies of the history of Indo-China relations [India-China relations] that the extant Tamil inscriptions in China date only from 1281 [A.D.], two years after the final fall of the Cholas.” He emphasises that the Cholas were, historically, the Indian dynasty that was “most actively involved in maritime trade with China.”

Predating such links was the influence of Nagarjuna’s thoughts on the evolution of Buddhism in China, a subject expounded by a present-day Chinese diplomat Jiang Yili. Evocative, against such a newly researched historical trail, is the latest call by a Chinese security expert, Zhu Feng, for a “new rationale, new passion” in India-China ties.

In today’s global perspective, the India-China relationship, a matter of national interest to Southeast Asia, acquires a wider canvas. A key factor, as outlined by Dean Cheng at the Asia Pacific security conference in Singapore on February 1, is the current space race in the region. The major powers in such focus are the U.S., China, India, Japan, and Russia.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has a vital stake in the stability of the India-China equation. Also, the latest dissonance in the China-U.S. ties over the American arms sales to Taiwan and the status of Dalai Lama is viewed seriously in Southeast Asia. In a related sense, the proposal of a non-official China-India-U.S. dialogue is an idea whose time may have come.

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