These two countries are sophisticated enough to think that strategic interests can be best pursued through peaceful missions


By P Ramasamy

There is a sudden interest to establish goodwill ties with countries in Southeast Asia by China and India. The recent naval visits from these two countries underline the strategic importance of Southeast Asia in general and the waters of the Straits of Malacca.

Last week for Indian naval vessels based on India’s southern naval command in Cochin, Kerala paid a courtesy call at the Penang Port in Butterworth, Penang.

A few months back, three Chinese naval vessels called upon the Penang Port also on a goodwill visit.

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

While the visits by the naval vessels from these two countries are intended to promote goodwill ties between these two countries and Southeast Asian countries, the strategic and geopolitical interests cannot be discounted.

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

Cultivation of good and steady diplomatic relations is intended to enhance the strategic and long term interests of these countries in a world where there is increasing competition for scarce resources. It is not a one-way street, as countries can also benefit in the long run.

China and India are peaceful countries and their relationship with one another is cordial. However, their futuristic strategic role/geopolitical role means among other things that they have to carve their own respective spheres of influence.

The overwhelming presence of the US in the region might be more complicating to China. China, for a long time, sees the strange nexus between the US and India as something threatening to its long-term interest in the region.

China cannot forget the Sri Lankan experience. Even its trusted leaders cannot be counted simply because of the overwhelming role of the US and India to install or promote the regimes of their choice.

China had spent billions of ringgit in infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka, 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 Sri Vijayan kingdom that ruled parts of Southeast Asia had 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 King Rajendra Chola I that laid to waste a number of vassal states of Sri Vijaya along the coast of peninsular Malaysia, from the southern tip of Thailand to the area near the present day Singapore.

Following the defeat of the Sri Vijayan Empire, the Cholas established their strongholds in a number of places like Kedaram (present day Kedah), Gangai Negaram (present day Beruas) and other places for 66 years.

Unlike the later day British, the Cholas had no imperial ambition to conquer territories in the region, but merely were motivated by maritime rivalry.

There is no actual maritime rivalry between the countries in the region with India or China in the present time. But nonetheless, as regional powers, China and India are keen to establish good ties with the countries in the region for the future.

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.

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

P Ramasamy is Penang Deputy Chief Minister 2