In the aftermath of the G20 and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summits, it is becoming increasingly obvious that a new Asian order, complete with an economic architecture, has emerged. Whether this order is referred to as the “Pacific Age” or a New Silk Road or a pan-Eurasian system, all these terms refer to the same thing: a web of economic interdependence in Asia whose hub is the littoral around the East and South China seas, connecting China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia. This network of economic prosperity is increasingly being spread by Beijing westward to the rest of Eurasia in an initiative called the “New Silk Road.” Thus, it might not be inaccurate to write that the new Asian economic order can be described as described as the “Chinese Order” in which all roads lead to Zhongnanhai. This is because China’s economy and physical location constitute the hub that drives and connects the rest of Asia.
Yet as China invests more than $40 billion in overland routes through Central Asia and Russia into Europe and maritime routes from Southeast Asia to the Middle East and Africa, there is one vital region in Asia that is at risk of missing out on joining this new Asian economic and infrastructure network. This region is South Asia, the region that perhaps needs to become part of this hub the most. This would better integrate South Asian countries with each other as well as with their neighbors in Southeast and East Asia. Economic integration within the region and with countries outside of the region is very low. This is despite the fact that China is both India and Pakistan’s largest trade partner (India and Pakistan hardly trade with each other). Most of this trade is one-sided and has not led to massive Chinese investment in infrastructure in either of these countries. South Asian integration into the Asian economic order would benefit all of the region’s countries and would especially help some of the poorest, like Nepal and Afghanistan.
This is why South Asian countries should very seriously take up the cause of economic integration with the rest of Asia before they are left too far behind. They ought to put more emphasis on connectivity and trade with East Asia so that the New Silk Road won’t go around the region. The countries of South Asia will meet in Kathmandu next week for the annual South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit. They should seriously discuss greater economic integration and closer trade ties with the rest of Asia. South Asia cannot afford to be left behind as the Asia-Pacific and Central Asian regions integrate.
The future of South Asia is largely dependent on India, its largest and most economically advanced nation. India has increasingly begun to realize the benefits of foreign investment, trade, and integration, and under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, it has taken more steps to “Look East” and improve economic and strategic relations with Southeast Asia, Japan, and even China. However, India, as Asia’s second largest power, faces certain issues that smaller countries do not in deciding to what extent it should integrate into the rest of Asia. As a large country, it can theoretically hope to compete with China and possibly establish its own order but at the same time it is held back by its lack of power and vision. The discrepancy between India’s image of itself and the reality of today’s Asia is alternatively a cause of confusion, angst, and policy paralysis for many of India’s government officials. This is primarily because there is a sharp conflict as to whether India should strike out on its own in order to create its own system and become a great power or become part of what is essentially a Chinese-dominated Asian economic system.
In many ways, the choices have already been made for India. India’s early leaders envisioned a new Asia shaped and led by both India and China. Yet, since then, India has missed the boat and the new Asian economic and political architecture has been primarily been shaped by China and the United States. The countries of East, Southeast and Central Asia are now too vested in this system to not be a part of it, though Indian initiatives for its own order can be complementary to rather than alternatives to Chinese networks. Additionally, however much India is courted by countries like Vietnam and Japan in order to balance China militarily and economically, nothing will change the basic fact that a new Asian order has already been established. There is no alternative for India but to become a part of this order or remain unintegrated, since it is too late for India to set up its own Asian order.
This may be a very bitter pill for many Indian leaders and thinkers to swallow, as well as the country’s media. Indians are very proud and many would like to believe that one day their country will be a superpower. This might not be entirely true, but at the same time, it’s not entirely false. India’s integration into an Asian order is not some sort of surrender or strategic liability. In fact, it can be to India’s advantage to be more closely integrated with the rest of Asia, so that it can more easily influence the direction and shape of the new Asia from the inside rather than the outside while using the existing architecture to its own advantage without expending resources creating its own alternatives.
Nor does it mean that India has to give up on its strategic goals. India can remain a great power with nuclear weapons and a large army with an autonomous foreign policy even as it becomes part of a pan-Asian order. There was a European order before the First World War and many of its members were bitter rivals. Nonetheless, these countries traded and invested with each other and maintained courteous diplomatic relations. In today’s Asia, Russia retains strategic autonomy despite trading heavily with China. Australia retains its cultural distinctiveness despite trading heavily with Asia. Japan remains at odds with China over territory, like India, and is furthermore part of a military alliance with the United States. Nonetheless, Japan and China trade extensively and have both grown economically.
Therefore it is time for India and the rest of South Asia to take cognizance of the new Asian order and seriously consider their place in it. The choices they make might not only require policy shifts in the short-term, but shifts in long term strategy. However, integration into the new Asian order is something that the states of South Asia can no longer afford to put off, if they do not want to be left behind. A new Asian order is emerging and South Asia needs to be a part of it.