But India has already been there, for over two millenniums, leaving its widespread social and historical influence. There is an early classic treatise on the region written by a French historian, The Indianized States of South-East Asia, whose title says it all. And even in modern times, the Indian-ness is hard to miss. The Indian diaspora in S-E Asia touches almost three million and is demographically significant in both Malaysia and Singapore.
Sanskritised names abound, and in Jakarta, the most striking new monument is a huge statue of Arjuna on his chariot. Much of the earliest manufacturing in the region was set up by Indian businesses and not by the Japanese. A large portion of the old technical elite in many countries got their degrees in India. And last but not least, Hindi movies have grown exponentially as a staple diet, even in remote shanty towns and hamlets.
The Indian connection to the region is familiar and odd at the same time. Nowhere is this better reflected than in Bali which follows its own unique form of Hinduism, combining elements of Buddhism, islandic rituals and local versions that uncannily resemble our own tantra. In more ways than one Bali is both a charming mutation and a blast to the past. On a holiday there last week and thankfully leaving the day before the ASEAN fuss started we were constantly nudged by well-meaning Balinese to join impromptu renditions of the eponymous song from a somewhat dated movie, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, which is top of the charts there. And my kids may have never heard of him, but Mithun Chakraborty would be glad to know that he remains the leading heartthrob in an idyllic island situated almost two-thirds of the way to Australia.
But despite all the overt and quiet connections, India remains a grey zone for the bulk of south-east Asian political, cultural and intellectual elite when it comes to a sense of contemporary kinship or just plain admiration. By its very size, it cannot be ignored, but it is neither exotic enough nor successful enough nor threatening enough to warrant more than cordial remarks. They are further flummoxed by our constant and brilliant over-intellectualising on the one hand and our economic weakness on the other. The most successful of them all, Malaysia, which has transformed its urban landscape in a manner that could not have been imagined a generation ago, has been largely all but scornful towards India, a posture that may change with the impending retirement of Mahathir Mohammed.
Most of their security concerns and ancient rivalries, and increasingly economic hopes, are centred on China. India is now blipping louder on their maps, but only because of our recent economic performance and not because they believe they are part of the larger Indic world. The future is rosy through seminars and summits, but Indian goods and ideas have yet to enter their markets. On the reverse side, and with the exception of Thailand and Singapore, the rest of the ASEAN region may hardly hold much social fascination for India. In comparison to India, these are societies that are relatively starved of intellectual stimulation, press freedom, research base and individual creativity.
The pressures of globalisation, the war against terrorism and the memory of the Asian meltdown of 1997 are major factors in the expansive transformation being planned for ASEAN, and the reason why India, along with China, was invited to sign the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation with ASEAN. This is a clear step up from just routine invitations to, and membership in, the ASEAN Regional Forum. In parallel, India has been negotiating free trade agreements with both Thailand and Singapore. While India may be finally entering the larger S-E Asian orbit, the reality so far amounts to no more than a slight fluttering of hearts.
The author is an analyst of Indian political and business trends and the editor of India Focus, a political risk report for international investors