The problem

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INDIA has finally woken up to its neighbourhood. As Asia becomes the subject of political slogans and intellectual debate, the arc lights are focused but perhaps too narrowly. Industry and commerce have become central to our relationships and our concerns are dominated by the need to increase collaborations and investments. In part this is driven by the phenomenal rise of China as a manufacturing hub and the economic pull this has exerted on neighbouring economies. But it has also been made possible by the changing geopolitical landscape and the economic and political churning of the last two decades in India that have created new opportunities.

A geographically vast and politically varied region, Asia has a complex history that cannot be subsumed under simple categories – whether of values and family – or under the new rubric of neo-liberal capitalism. It was given a sort of homogeneity under western colonial rule – a backward and historyless place mired in religion and superstition – but today it is being knit anew through the circulation of people, ideas and goods. How are we to respond to this new environment and help to take it in directions that suit our intellectual and political concerns is the question of the day.

Different areas of the Asian region have their own complex dynamics, but India, our public memory notwithstanding, because of geography and history has enjoyed a long and sustained relationship with all the regions that constitute Asia. In that sense India turning towards East Asia is long overdue. Japan had in the sixties and seventies crafted an economic revival that should have been of immense interest to us, both in its institutional innovations and as a source of capital and investments, but we woke up to that only in the mid-eighties. The seventies also saw the emergence of the ‘tigers’ and the growth of Southeast Asia, and subsequently the democratic transformation of the Philippines, Taiwan and South Korea. Again, though the Chinese economic turnaround and accompanying social change started in the eighties, we began to look closely at it only from the late nineties. What the recent past teaches us is that we, the Indians, have been publicly slow to sense the potential of the deep transformations taking place in our neighbourhood.

It is just as well that we are waking up now because the neighbourhood is being knit together in complex ways and we need to engage with this at all levels. The centrality of China, historically and today, the strength of the Japanese economy and its massive investments in China as well as other parts of the region, place these two countries at the core of the East Asian region. It is, therefore, necessary to examine the inter-relationship, perceptions and shared history of these three countries which is critical to understanding the shaping of a new Asia.

The last three decades have witnessed a great churning in the region. China emerged from the turmoil and isolation of the Cultural Revolution to become an economically and politically dynamic power with global ambitions. The loosening of political control and the spread of economic growth from the enclaves around the coast has caused a deep social transformation, dislocating many but at the same time also empowering. Much as in Japan, a new nationalism is simultaneously gathering momentum among the Chinese. What shape it will take is still open to debate but that it will, and is playing an important role, cannot be doubted.

Similarly, India has woken up to the geopolitical and economic advantages of a changing world order in which the Asian region has become a major player. Here too we witness the rising sense of national power, the growing self-confidence of the middle classes and the widening social fissures that divide those left out or marginalised by the development process.

The Japanese, even though still the biggest economic power in the region, see themselves as, if not declining, at least facing a critical situation on all fronts – a declining population, a sluggish economy and a questioning of social values. Intense debates about the nature of this crisis reflect the seriousness with which they view their predicament. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe represents one way of redefining Japan and building what he calls a ‘beautiful society’. It is a policy strong on national assertion and one that also looks to the future to articulate a vision of how to reposition Japan in an environment where China, the historically dominant power, is once again asserting its position. The fusion of mistrust and guilt over the war combine with the loss of a sense of direction and political vision to create a highly unstable situation.

It would be short-sighted to think that Japan and China cannot work together. Japan is heavily invested in China and the value of its trade exceeds its exchange with the United States. Japanese cultural grants are helping to preserve Chinese heritage and strengthen cultural bonds. The Chinese also see the necessity of widening their engagement with Japan. Despite acrimonious debates over questions of history, some four million Chinese travel annually to Japan – many to settle and work. In China there are influential sections that favour resolving these differences, arguing that a less rancorous approach would be more productive.

It is here that public opinion will play an even greater role in determining the course and shape of an emerging Asia. Nationalism, far from disappearing from the global village has emerged stronger, and culture has become central to the contemporary discourse. This is so both in internal debates as well as in their relationship with their neighbours. China and Japan are caught up in an endless cycle of recrimination and apologies, their governments have even set-up official commissions to try and clear historical issues. India too has similar debates about its past, an unsettled border with China, issues that have the potential for igniting passions and spilling out into the street.

Around these core issues a host of other problems cohere – part of the intermeshing of the region. The environmental challenges posed by development policies have shown that these issues cannot be contained within regional boundaries. The increased pace of movement of people both within India and China, and within the region, has made migration and consequently notions of nationality and culture as crucial as hard geopolitical issues, such as nuclear policies or resolving tensions on the Korean peninsula.

All the countries in the region now have to deal with the fact that India, China, Japan as well as the ASEAN countries are active players in bilateral and multilateral fora indicating the increased importance of regional organisations. This means that negotiation of difference has to be premised on a new vision for shaping the region. This vision can emerge only from a wider engagement at all levels. It is not just a question of increasing trade and investment, important and necessary as they are, but bringing the skills, experiences and advantages that the three countries have to address issues of bilateral and regional concerns. This must be done at both levels – increasing government interaction as is going on but also in bridging the gap in civil society and establishing institutional arrangements to bring our people closer.

It is here that an understanding of the workings of these societies and the way mutual perceptions are being shaped becomes of central importance. Bias and prejudice are hard to eliminate but it is possible to be far more sensitive to the limited nature of our perception. As part of such a project, it is necessary to not only recover the forgotten histories of this region that point to other ways in which interaction could have developed, as also those that might lead us to question our often unexamined assumptions. The regional relationship is not external to our nationhood; rather in shaping our relationship with the region we are simultaneously re-crafting the shape of our society and nation. This issue of Seminar explores the inter-relationships between and perceptions about the ‘other’ in India, China and Japan.



* The essays in this issue were presented at the workshop, Lines of Convergence: India, China, Japan and the Future of Asia, supported by the Sasakawa Peace Foundation.