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India and China naval visits more than courtesy

There seems to be growing interest from Southeast Asian countries in establishing goodwill ties with China and India. Recent naval visits from these two countries underline the strategic importance of Southeast Asia in general, and the waters of the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea in particular.

Last week, Indian naval vessels from the country’s southern naval command in Cochin paid a courtesy call at the Penang Port in Butterworth. A few months prior, three Chinese naval vessels docked at the Penang Port, also on an apparent goodwill visit.

The last visit by an Indian naval vessel to Penang was in 2008, but there have been similar visits to Port Klang and other places by the navies of the two regional powers over the years.

While the visits by the naval vessels of China and India are intended to promote goodwill ties with Southeast Asian countries, the strategic and geopolitical interests behind these visits cannot be discounted.

China and India are regional powers with long-term ambitions. Both want to establish cordial relations with Southeast Asian countries, particularly those that have ready access to the strategic Strait of Malacca.

For these regional powers, cultivation of good and steady diplomatic relations is intended to enhance their strategic interests, in a world characterised by increasing competition for scarce resources. It is not a one-way street, of course, as smaller countries in the region can also benefit in the long run.

China and India are peaceful countries, and save for the recent border standoff, their relationship with one another has been relatively cordial. However, the geopolitical roles they want to occupy in the future mean that they have to carve out their own respective spheres of influence in the region.

The overwhelming presence of the US in the region might be more complicated to China. For a long time, it saw the strange nexus between the US and India as something threatening to its long-term interests in the region.

China will not forget the Sri Lankan experience. It had spent billions of ringgit in infrastructure projects in the South Asian country, but there was no guarantee that it would be able to enjoy a “most favoured” nation status.

A thousand years ago, the presence of China and India were notable in the region.

The Srivijayan kingdom that ruled parts of Southeast Asia had a special relationship with China. Subsequently, due to the “most favoured” nation status given to China and not the Cholas of India, the latter led an expedition commanded by Rajendra Chola that laid to waste a number of vassal states of Srivijaya along the coast of Peninsular Malaysia, from the southern tip of Thailand to the area near present-day Singapore.

Following the defeat of the Srivijayan empire, the Cholas established their strongholds in a number of places like Kadaram (present-day Kedah), Gangga Negara (present day Beruas), and several other locations for about six decades. Unlike the latter-day British colonisers, the Cholas had no imperial ambition to outright conquer territories in the region, but were merely motivated by maritime rivalry.

Aside from claims over the South China Sea, there is no equivalent maritime rivalry between the countries in the region with India or China at present. However, it would be naive to assume that geopolitical or strategic interests are absent in these visits by these two regional powers.

China or India might not be flexing their “muscles” as in the past. But certainly, these two countries are sophisticated enough to think that strategic interests can be best pursued through peaceful missions.

Still, countries in the region cannot be naive. They should cultivate good ties with these regional powers to enhance their own developmental and strategic interests. There is no point on relying on one at the expense of the other.

Prof P Ramasamy
DAP Deputy Secretary-General and Deputy Chief Minister of Penang
Media statement by Prof P Ramasamy in Penang on Thursday, 12th October 2017