Chinese influence over Southeast Asia first began with "boots of soldiers", while the impact of Indians on the region was due to monks and traders, senior BJP leader Ram Madhav said on Wednesday.
Speaking at a seminar in New Delhi on 'India and Southeast Asia: The Cultural Connect', Mr Madhav said the major aspect of relationship between India and Southeast Asia has been "cultural and religion" but India earlier suffered from the "problem of secularist agenda" on how to use these tools for diplomacy.
The BJP general secretary said former prime minister PV Narasimha Rao should be credited with formulating the 'Look East Policy' in the early 1990s and engaging with the region.
"A major difference existed between the two efforts (of India's and China's) migrations. In the case of the Chinese, it was the soldiers who travelled to those lands first, followed by the traders. It was the boots of the soldiers on the soil that took the Chinese influence to these lands," he said.
"That was followed by trade, commerce and other contact with those lands. The result was that the Chinese influence remained limited to the areas where their army could reach, for example North Vietnam. Whereas in our case, it was the priests and the monks who travelled first, followed by the traders, sailors, and others," he added.
The recent relationship with the region, he noted, has also evolved around migration of Indian labourers to some of these countries during the British regime as tree plantation workers or as mining workers.
He said countries like Myanmar and Malaysia have a good number of Indian origin population.
"Population has been an important link between ASEAN and India. Major aspect of this relationship has been cultural and religion. For some strange thought related problems, we never recognised importance of these things... whether culture and religion can become tools of our diplomacy has never been fully explored.
"We had this problem of secularist agenda. We do not know whether we should consider this relationship as something which state should invest, our state has to remain secular," Mr Madhav said.
The BJP leader said said the Bali government in Indonesia had sought Indian support for teachers in the areas of astrology and temple architecture some decades back but bureaucracy was in a state of confusion.
The idea was these were not "secular sciences", he said. Bali has considerable Hindu population. Mr Madhav said culture as an important tool in diplomacy, in building strong bilateral relations has to be appreciated first by India before embarking on strengthening cultural ties with countries.
He said after Prime Minister Narendra Modi took over, a decision was taken to make culture as one of the five pillars of diplomacy.