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Engaging Southeast Asia through Public Diplomacy - Seventh Indo-ASEAN summit

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The seventh India-ASEAN summit was held in October, 2009, at Hua Hin in Thailand. At the summit Prime Minister Manmohan Singh reiterated India’s commitment to engage ASEAN nations and also outlined India’s vision of an Asian economic community based on an “open and inclusive” architecture.

Keeping with India’s “Look East policy,” public diplomacy initiatives are high on the agenda to connect India with Southeast Asia; rather emphasize the fact that India had always been connected closely with Southeast Asia through its people, culture and also geography and shared history (See me previous post on Northeast India in this blog). Prime Minister Singh suggested something interesting at the summit along the lines of the theme of ASEAN summit this year – “Enhancing Connectivity, Empowering Peoples."

The year 2012 will see the commemoration the 10th anniversary of India's participation as a summit level partner of ASEAN, and 20 years as a sectoral dialogue partner. These are significant milestones that need to be feted and also publicized. Prime Minister Singh suggested that India and ASEAN could jointly consider organizing a commemorative ship expedition in 2011-12 on the sea routes developed during the 10th to 12th centuries linking India with Southeast Asia and East Asia. He said that the sea route could cover modern and ancient ports in ASEAN countries, and other East Asian countries as well. This proposal was one of the five initiatives (economic and political) that the Prime Minister suggested to further strengthen links between India and ASEAN.

China too, as part of its public diplomacy efforts, had done something similar. It organized exhibitions in museums of Malaysia and Singapore to celebrate the anniversary of the voyages of Zheng He, a Chinese admiral who took his fleet across Asia and Africa, exploring cultures, establishing linkages between Chinese and Southeast Asia cultures in the 14th or 15th centuries. Zheng He's expeditions, the Chinese claim, were peaceful exploratory voyages not aimed at conquest.

While these attempts to establish a cultural and historical connect is significant by the Asian giants, what can tilt the balance in India's favor is its impeccable democratic credentials, respect for diversity and resilient political framework in an otherwise unstable region and also vis-à-vis China.

Suggestions/Critiques welcome.

-- Madhur

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