Dialogue  July-September,  2011, Volume 13 No.1

India’s Rapprochement to Southeast Asia: an Indonesian Perspective

Baiq L.S.W. Wardhani*


This essay explores the relationship between India and Southeast Asia1 from an Indonesian perspective. As a continuation of PM Narashima Rao’s ‘Look East Policy’ launched in 1991, India committed to re-engage with Southeast Asian countries and ASEAN after Indian relative neglect of the region during the Cold War period. India’s raproachement with this region has been continuosly peaceful, hardly any military force. The peaceful way of India’s approach to the people of Southeast Asia has been fruitful with the acceptance of India’s culture. I argue that India need to continue the warm relationship in the millenia with nations of Southeast Asia by exercising her softpower.

Keywords: Southeast Asia, Look East Policy, rapproachement, softpower.

India and Southeast Asia

Dated back to ancient times, India and Southeast Asia, particularly Indonesia, have experienced cultural bonds. Indian influence ia apparent on many historical heritages in many places in Southeast Asia. Peaceful and facsinating interaction between India and Southeast Asia has become a vital factor in shaping the relationship among peoples and countries. India’s connection with Southeast Asia calibrated since the pre-colonial period. There are plenty of evidence of the dynamic and extensive relations between India and its eastern neighbours. In the 12th century the first Hindu Empire (now the Indo-China region) flourished based entirely on cultural and philosophical contacts with India without military missions (Muni 2011, 2).  Agus Aris Munandar of Indonesia confirms that Indian civilization in Indonesia flourished approximately  up to 5th century A.D. Many cultural aspects connected with religion was absorbed by Indonesians due to the acceptance of Hindu-Buddhist influences  and when Indian culture was absorbed, the old Javanese society easily accepted and replicated those cultures.

Indian immigration to many parts of Southeast Asia encougares intensive interaction between India and Southeast Asian people, which has been visible in many forms: language and literature, religion and philosophy, art and architecture, custom and manners (High Level Committee on Indian Diaspora 2000, 251), food and movies, and so on. Following the immigation of Indians to many parts of Indonesia, Kartakusuma adds, Hindu-Buddhist cultural elements invariably underwent further development, thus such diffusion of cultural elements was not a mechanical process (Ray 2005). Even, many Indonesians believe that the immigration process began  long before 1st century A.D, which is evident from some of the events of the Mahabharata and Ramayana which were located in Indonesia. For example, Pradibda observes that in the Valmiki Ramayana, a verse is found in chapter 40 that translates to: “Full of endeavor, you should go and scour Yuvadvipa (island of Java), graced with seven kingdoms, as also the gold and silver islands adorned with gold mines” (Ray 2005).

The relationship between India and Indonesia has been close, tracing back from ancient history to present. The two countries are linked by many factors, geographically, culturally, politically and economically. An Indonesian-based university of Udayana scholar, Dr. Somvir, reiterates,

The relationship between India and Indonesia is so integral that the two countries could not be completely separated, socially, culturally or even geographically. The recent tsunami is evidence of this, as it originated in Indonesia and went on to wreak havoc on the shores of south India. Indonesia absorbed the three main religions of India — Hinduism from ancient times, Buddhism in the medieval period and Islam from twelfth century onwards. It is to be noted that the transition and absorption was effected without any bloodshed through a peaceful and cohesive process (Ray 2005).

Other than Dr. Somvir, Indonesian scholars from different background like Dr. Budya Pradibta, Agus Aris Munandar, Dr. Suryanto, Dr. Peter Ferdinandus, Richadiana Kartakusuma, suggest that Indonesian culture was highly influenced by Indian culture. The Vedic Culture, the similarities in educational system of Gurukul and pondok pesantren (traditional Islamic boarding school), musical instruments and other Hindu-Buddhist cultural elements that are diffused and fit, are now important part of Indonesian local wisdom (Ray 2005). National language of Indonesia is called Bahasa Indonesia. Bhasha is Hindi word which is most spoken and used in India even today.  Indonesia’s currency is Rupiah just as the name of Indian currency Rupiah, or Rupee as now. In couple of centuries later almost entire Indonesia became predominantly Muslim. But Hindu and Buddhist influence continued. Accordingly no Hindu or Buddhist temple was destroyed (Singh 2011). Ambassador Biren Nanda confirms the fact and adds that Indonesian temples are the most unique in the world because the wall carving have complete Ramayana stories. Traditional Indian medicine, Ayurveda, used herbs and spices available in Indonesian islands. (Anonymous, http://www.nationalintegrationmovement.org)

In Politico-strategic terms, the Indonesia-India relationship is manifest since the earlier times. Indonesia sees India as a vital neighbour not only in terms of culture but also geopolitics. Indonesia shares sea boundary with India. Even, according to the former Indonesian Foreign Minister, Mochtar Kusumaatmadja,  the name of “Indonesia”, ethymologically means “island of India” (Tempo Online, 6/7/1974): indos (India) and nesos (island).

Although India has laid foundation of the relationship in many parts of Southeast Asia thousands years ago, India’s foreign policy did not accord due importnce to the region.  However, for Indonesia, the year 1991 was pivotal to both Indonesia’s and India’s foreign policy, particularly in relation to the region of Southeast Asia since India  turned to her traditional friends. Southeast, though, was not a priority in India’s foreign policy due to many factors. First, as a result of colonialism, Indian ruling elites were westernized, and Indian way of thinking become predominantly western. India tended to ignore Southeast Asia due to different way of thinking. Secondly on the global stage, India and Southeast Asia had a contradictory position during the Cold War period (Strachan 2009, 2; Pandya and Malone 2010, 2). Elsewhere, Kuppuswamy (2010) says, India’s outlook towards ASEAN during the Cold War was ambivalent yet not hostile.  Whereas Indian leaders viewed ASEAN as an American “imperialist surrogate”, ASEAN dubbed India as the “surrogate of the Soviet Union”.

India’s strange relations with Southeast Asia were manifest in many ways. Although it was not yet considered as a threat, India’s blue water navy build up, support to Afghanistan and Heng Samrin’s Cambodian government, India’s failure to participate in 1980 ASEAN Dialogue partner meeting, worried Southeast Asia that India will fall further in the Soviet Union’s trap.  However, the estrangement did not lead to further deterioration in India-Southeast Asian relations since there was a positive spurt in diplomatic terms during the five years (1985-89) of Rajiv Gandhi’s rule, which gave  importance to Southeast Asia. This diplomatic shift can be seen as the seeds of India’s Look East Policy later. The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) Annual Report for 1985-86 recorded,

There were hardly any high level contacts between India and ASEAN over the previous five years, but of late, a definite trend has emerged, which indicates that the ASEAN nations are interested in bringing bilateral relations back to the old level with the re-establishment of political dialogue (Muni 2011, 8).

India perceived ASEAN as a bulwark against the spread of communism in Southeast Asia. Thus in the early 1990s Indian foreign policy seemed ill-suited to cope with the changes in the global environment by distancing itself from the neighbourhoods of Southeast Asia. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and rapid changes in terms of economy and politics, India had the opportunity to turn to Southeast Asia. Preceded by China that had already plugged itself deeply in most of these countries over a period of time, India was almost left behind. India missed the opportunity to build a mutual, convergence, and beneficial relations with Southeast Asia. Realizing this, Ambassador Sikri reiterates,

We now realize that our perceptions about this region were flawed. In this way, we missed a great opportunity to foster ties within our Asian neighbours to the east during a crucial period when the foundation stones of India’s foreign policy architecture were being laid. We could not leverage our shared colonial experience, cultural affinities and a remarkable lack of historical baggage to build our relations with Southeast Asia.

Post Cold War rapid development was a stimuli for India to move to her strategic shift in foreign policy. The adoption of the “Look East Policy" marked a strategic shift in India’s perspective of the world. India aims to link itself by greater integration with Southeast Asia. India realized that Southeast Asia is both strategically and economically pivotal for India’s future. Haokip (2011, 7) inserts, “…Look East policy is an attempt to forge closer and deeper economic integration with its eastern neighbours as a part of the new realpolitik in evidence in India’s foreign policy…”.

Stressing the strategic shift, Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh proclaims,

India’s Look East Policy is not merely an external economic policy, it is also a strategic shift in India’s vision of the world and India’s place in the evolving global economy. Most of all it is about reaching out to our civilisational neighbours in South East Asia and East Asia

In addition, the shift in foreign policy had no opposition in Indian society. People  never questioned the desirability of closer engagement with Southeast Asia. This positive sign has been predictable since India and Southeast Asia have long traditional ties. The Look-East Policy was deliberately designated to bolster India’s historic ties with Southeast Asian countries. Temporary relative neglect of Southeast Asia in Indian foreign policy during the difficult time of the Cold War was the time for self-reflection. In fact both India and Southeast Asian countries relations are one of the quality, particularly for Indonesia.

Indonesia-India relationship over the time has never been truly ‘cold’, as both have complementary interests. Both were among the founding members of Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) wherein India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharal Nehru and Indonesia’s first President Sukarno made solid contributions. India and Indonesian leadership in NAM was significant. Although the approach in NAM was rather problematic during the Cold War both had different Cold War ideology orientation, yet both nations succeed to pave the way for a strong relationship.  In the post-Cold War period, the relationship continues to be important and both are forging the relationship through real, practical and meaningful actions. This is the essence of the visit of Indonesian President, Soesilo Bambang Yudhoyono to New Delhi early this year. The visit reflects a historical moment for both countries, since Yudhoyono’s visit to the Indian 62nd Republic Day celebrations evoked memories of Indonesia’s first President Sukarno’s appearance as chief guest at India’s inaugural Republic Day celebrations in 1950. According to journalist Rajeev Sharma (2011), the two countries started getting closer again with the dawn of the 21st century. “The India-Indonesia engagement has started all over again and this time the ties have become so deep and wide-ranging that they are unlikely to become a casualty of the vagaries of fast-mutating international politics”.

In terms of economic matters, in the past, India’s engagement with Southeast Asia was considerably low. Indonesia and India shared bitter colonial experience. The difference is that India was already a centre of the world economy since early times. It can be seen from many journeys and trade deals to Southeast Asia by Indian merchants and traders. During 14th to 15th century, beside East Africa, India and Southeast Asia were storming ports of Western colonial powers, particularly Portuguese, where eventually they established trading zones and set up empire of conquest (The Applied History Research Group 2000).  Subsequent invasions, occupations and colonization of both Indonesia and India led to exploitation of the countries’ wealth. Colonial period drifted India and Indonesia away and they hardly had any contact. Reconstruction of post-colonial states brought both countries into their own way.

Differences between India and Southeast Asia in terms of demography, market and natural resources also added to the distance. Additionally, aside from the nature of India’s protectionist and insular economic policy, Southeast Asia’s less advanced economy was not a prospective region for India. “The heterogeneities on either side provide considerable scope for meaningful economic exchanges. Different economic structures and resource endowments hardly locate appropriate complementarities” (Palit 2009, 1). But the new landscape of geo-economy and geo-culture of the post Cold War India propelled the significance of the region.

From soft power, back to soft power

India’s tool for projecting its power has been both using of hard and soft power. Although hard and soft power is a continuum, they are different in the character and in application. Hard power is dominated by economic and military force and has generally consisted of coercion rather than voluntary aspect. The use of hard power was popular as a means to gain state’s national interests during the Cold war period, especially by big powers. As a regional power, India unsuccessfully used hard power to gain interests in her neighbouring Pakistan for many years. On the other hand, although the term of ‘soft power’ has recently appeared in the study of international politics, India had exercised her soft power from early years. Soft power is the ability to obtain what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments. The source of soft power arises from factors such as the dominant values, internal practices and policies, and the manner of conducting international relations of a State (Nye, Jr. 1990, 188).

India’s rapprochement with Southeast Asia has never been violent. Spread of culture was a relevant, efficient way and intangible power that bring beneficial relationship among nations. In this interdependent world, power is becoming less transferable, less coercive, and less tangible, thus the use of soft power is becoming even more significant, if not necessity. The use of soft power will reduce the vulnerability of the relationship by avoiding military power as a source of a power game (Nye, Jr. 1990). Military power was more transferable in earlier times than today but as a great power, India was not interested in doing so to succeed in her policy to Southeast Asia, particularly to Indonesia. The soft power was the primary method for India to cultivate influence in Southeast Asia alongwith India’s transnational cultural investment. In this context, Joseph Nye, Jr. (1990, 167) was right that “Co-optive power – getting others to want what you want – and soft power resources – cultural attraction, ideology, and international institutions – are not new”.2 

South and Southeast Asia have always been part of a common cultural continuum, hence Southeast Asia is the India’s traditional bedfellow thanks to geographical proximity between two regions. Southeast Asia is one of India’s sphere of influences, which can be identified by strong social and cultural influence. Although the most intensive cultural contact between India and Southeast Asia came in later centuries, initial contact between the two regions dates back  to  prehistoric times. Interestingly, Indian cultural expansion to Southeast Asia has gone through a long process and peaceful means, in which ‘Indianization of Southeast Asia’ was successfully accepted in many parts. Indianization of Southeast Asia was, more than a large-scale of immigration phenomenon, a cultural process,3 although Southeast Asia had already reached a high level of civilization before the Indian contact. Beyond immigration process, Indianization was also reversely becoming ‘indigenization’ of Indian culture in many parts of Southeast Asia. As Mishra (2001, 106) avers, “…flow of Indian cultural elements is shown in the context of Southeast Asian initiative or ‘indigenization’. The consensus is that the process of Indian cultural expansion in Southeast Asia was accomplished by peaceful means and it was non-political in character.”

It should be noted that the relationship between India and Southeast Asia was disrupted during the Western colonization period in search of spice that became more popular for European cookery, which could only be obtained from India and Indonesia. As historian K.M Panikkar claims in his book “Asia and the Western Dominance” (reprint 1993),

The spice trade with the East, one of the great motivating factors of history and one which yielded the largest profits to merchants as commodities in universal demand, could only come from the Indian ports… this indispensable and naturally monopolist trade came to be the chief bone of contention in the politics of the Levant and was the most powerful single factor in stimulating European expansion in the fifteenth century (Panikkar, 1993, 22).

Back to early history, India’s civilizational spread in Southeast Asia can be likened as Greek and Hellenic cultural spread in Mediterranian and Western Asia, as Jawaharlal Nehru once stated. In the past, Southeast Asia was included in the ‘Greater India’ map. Although the term ‘Greater India’ has many different meanings4, once Nehru also referred Southeast Asia as ‘Greater India’ (Nehru 1994, in Pandya and Malone 2010, 2).   

In the spread of Indian culture, besides the Silk Road network, the sea played an important role. The Indian Ocean has been the corridor that linked the shores of South and Southeast Asia together. In modern times, Indian cultural influence continues to spark around Southeast Asia through a variety of means including immigration, business and trade, sport, education, and so forth, facilitated, not only by the important role of the sea, but also by modern technology. Ubiquitous use of communication technology complements the traditional means to enable both people to people and government to government contacts. India’s renaissance comes real with the advance of Indian IT industry, which makes distance no longer a barrier and the world is now in India’s reach. The rise of India has amazed many Indonesians. India has transformed itself from poor economy to one of the world players without losing her identity. To some extent, this level of achievement has not yet taken place in Indonesia. Many Indonesians admire how Indians, in the midst of globalization have sucessfully maintained her strong identity. 

Indian Cultural Diplomacy in Indonesia

India’s high economic growth after the Cold War has attracted Indonesia and contributed to a positive image about India globally. Both Indonesia and India are not interested in a defence system alliance from the beginning. During the Cold War, Indonesia and India laid diplomatic foundation based on “free and active foreign policy” and non-alignment to build stable relationship through multilateralism instead of close military pact. In the Southeast Asian perspective, during the Cold War, India’s international image was as one of  the most silent states. Indonesia’s relation with India is one of the most stable bilateral connections. Indonesia has observed that the India’s status of a global power has been achieved centuries ago. The status was gained by, beside the spread of religion and culture, due to its extensive and well-dispersed diaspora.

Indian diaspora in Indonesia is a unique phenomenon.5 For many Indonesians, Indian diaspora play pivotal role for the rise of India as an ‘awakening tiger’. Their ability to maintain relationship with mother country and emotional attachment is important and becomes an asset to achieve India’s national interests and international reputation. According to Engelbrekt (2011), “loyalty and emotional commitment [of diaspora] may be strongly geared toward non-political activities, an attachment toward ‘the old country’ that primarily is oriented toward culture, ethnicity and language”.

In Indonesia, Indian diaspora help the Indian government to conduct cultural diplomacy. Indonesians view, India’s cultural diplomacy as an effort to harmonize cultural linkages between the two countries. India’s cultural diplomacy in Indonesia takes many forms including cross-cultural programs, student exchange, cultural visits, seminars and workshops and scholarship program. Indian diasporic community in Indonesia celebrate their culture by establishing Indian Association of Indonesia that has many branches in big cities such as Jakarta, Surabaya, Medan, Denpasar, Yogyakarta etc. They regularly and occasionally perform cultural heritage programmes. During the year 2010, they conducted performances such as Laavani Darshan, Diwali Nite 2010, Young India’s Leading Jam Rock Band, Talent Nite 2010, dan Gubbare 2010 (Andina, 2011). In addition to many Indian Associations and Clubs organized by both NRIs and PIOs, Jawaharlal Nehru Indian Cultural Centre is one of Indian institutions to promote her culture in Indonesia. The role of Indian diaspora is a key to the success of Indian cultural diplomacy, especially when the diaspora are able to integrate with the local community. Instead of the brain drain phenomenon, the spread of Indian population indeed is a brain circulation. Brain circulation is a viable development strategy for the third wold countries (Patterson 2006, 1892)

The main purpose of cultural diplomacy is to influence, in a positive manner, public and high level opinion in a foreign state, which is undertaken through the process of communication and interaction with people in foreign countries. The communication is conducted by using numbers of tools, including intercultural exchange programs, educational exchanges and scholarships, cultivation of ties with foreign journalists, academics, key foreign leaders, etc. Besides that, there are also programmed cultural visits of artists, international broadcast of cultural events, international culture related conferences, symposiums and workshops, Language promotion, and publications (Diplo Foundation, n.d). Culture delivers tangible benefits in many ways that promotes positive image of a given country.

The popularity of Indian culture can be seen as the success of the home country to engage with her diaspora. Diaspora is also functional in shaping foreign policy, as Patterson (2006) puts it,

The first measure of strategic diaspora-homeland collaboration is the level of influence the diasporic community has with the host state on behalf of the homeland. Leaders of some diasporic communities or collaboratively with the homeland state in attempts to affectt the host state’s domestic public policy.

In this regard, India’s diasporic community and their supporting institutions such as the Jawaharlal Nehru India’s Cultural Centre are an important agent to spread Indian cultural diplomacy. Cultural diplomacy is stronger than public diplomacy because it does not only connect government to government, but people to people relations. 


Culture has become India’s most pivotal means of diplomacy. Spreading India’s civilization by the use of her softpower,  through foreign policy, culture and value has been the best and successful method of India’s diplomacy. 


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    1  Despite the vast area of Southeast Asia region, I use this term to describe the overall of India’s behaviour in terms of cultural and politico-strategy. Southeast Asia, together with part of South Asia, was widely known as the East Indies or simply the Indies until the 20th century.  Although there are particularities in India’s behaviour toward Southeast Asian countries, I this essay I tend to see the whole region as a single entity.

    2  According to Nye, Jr., co-optive power is the ability of a country to structure a situation so that other countries develop preferences or define their interests in ways consistent with its own (Nye, Jr. 1990, 168).

    3  According to Mishra (2001, 105),  “Historically, ‘Indianization’ was the term generally used for Indian cultural influence upon Southeast Asia. Earlier scholars had regarded the process of ‘Indianization’ as an Indian initiative with large-scale migrants establishing colonies in Southeast Asia. According to these scholars, the latter region was at the receiving end and played a passive role.”

    4  The term ‘Greater India’ has been widely used with various interpretations depending on many requisites, including literature, geography, history, geology, culture, politics. (http://internets-update.blogspot.com/2011/05/greater-india-read-about-great-india.html. Viewed 19/06/2011)

    5  The number of  Indian people live in Indonesia is approximately half–million people, including Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) and Persons of Indian Origins (PIOs). Most of them live in Sumatra, Java and Bali. (Source: primary data, taken by Jayanti Andina, 2011, in Peran Diaspora India dalam Mendukung Diplomasi Kebudayaan di Indonesia. Unpublished undegraduate thesis. Surabaya, 2011.



Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

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