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India and the East: time for a reality check

Posted by Admin on December 16, 2010

P. S. Suryanarayana

December 16, 2010

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Chinese counterpart Wen Jiabo at the 4th East Asia Summit in Thailand in this October 25, 2009 file photo. — Photo: PTI

Resonant in the East Asian diplomatic circles is the now-famous perception that India is “half in, half out of Asean [Association of Southeast Asian Nations].” Such a “stupid” Indian policy or posture figured in a leaked United States’ diplomatic cable that was released by WikiLeaks and published in Australia on December 12.

Tommy Koh, one of Singapore’s brightest and best-known diplomats, was quoted in that cable as having said this about India’s Asean policy during his conversation with some U.S. officials in September 2009. As a key founding member of Asean, Singapore is often viewed as a thought-leader in the 10-member organisation. Also, the city-state often punches above its weight on the international stage. And, the Singapore-India Strategic Dialogue is co-chaired by Mr. Koh and veteran diplomat S.K. Lambah.

Now, Singapore has declined to confirm or discredit the accuracy of any of the observations which figured in a set of leaked American cables and were variously attributed to several officials, including Mr. Koh, from the city-state. On December 13, Singapore did, however, say that the Australian press reports in focus “are based on American interpretations of confidential conversations that did not provide the full context.” Singapore even disputed the veracity of those cables as supposedly released by WikiLeaks. The context, though, was Singapore-Malaysia relationship and not the comment on India.

On balance, it is obvious that the conscious or careless omission of these relevant U.S. cables from the official WikiLeaks website, as of mid-December, does not erase the friendly spirit behind the comment ascribed to Mr. Koh on India-Asean ties. In fact, the alleged comment may have caused no more than a storm in a teacup that will blow over. However, India does face the challenge of playing a significant role in Asean’s newly-expanded flagship organisation, the East Asia Summit (EAS), in 2011 and beyond. Indeed, the formal expansion of the EAS in 2011 is the time for a reality check about India’s relevance to and role in what may well turn out to be the next big theatre in global affairs.

Asean consists of just 10 Southeast Asian countries, most of them with no big-power aspirations. In significant contrast, the 16-member EAS, whose strength goes up to 18 in 2011, is being envisioned as “a leaders-led forum” for strategic thinking on all major issues of growing concern to East Asia.

The United States and Russia will, in 2011, join China, Japan, India, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and the 10-member Asean to form the expanded EAS. Within Asean, which acts as the prime-moving outfit for peace and economic progress across the wider geopolitical East Asia, there is a strong school of thought that the numerical strength of the EAS can be optimised at 18 for 2011 and beyond.

What should the reality check about India’s present and potential roles in East Asia focus on? The question acquires importance in the WikiLeaks context of another comment, also attributed to Mr. Koh, that China has displayed “intelligent diplomacy in the [East Asian] region.” On such a note of comparison, China and India can contribute to the stability of East Asia only by staying the course of their compatible diplomatic mantras. India and China have said that the international stage is wide enough for them to rise fully to their respective potential without having to compete with each other in a winner-takes-all gamesmanship.

There is nothing in the WikiLeaks disclosures, as available so far, focussing on a key point known behind the scenes in the East Asian diplomatic circles. Beijing is understood to have told Washington that Pakistan is to China what Israel is to the U.S. Going forward, it is arguable that New Delhi’s overall equation with Beijing will be determined considerably by China’s dynamic ties with Pakistan.

However, this aspect need not cloud India’s participation in the EAS activities. Pakistan is not a member of this organisation.

Of much interest to China is India’s changing political relationship with the U.S., especially as it enters the EAS in 2011. Relevant to this context are two of U.S. President Barack Obama‘s recent observations. He said that “India and America are indispensable partners in meeting the challenges of our time [across the world].” In addition, he exhorted India to not only look “East” but also engage “East” — a call for coordinated action by the U.S. and India in the new-look EAS in 2011 and beyond. In broad political terms, the changing equations among Japan, China, India, South Korea, and Australia will, in part, determine New Delhi’s place in the newly-expanded EAS.

The current perception in East Asia about India’s confused attitude towards the region, in contrast to China’s enlightened approach, flows from the style and substance of their respective engagement with Asean. As a far bigger and a faster-growing economy than India, China is of greater help to individual Asean countries and the collective organisation. Within this analytical framework about issues of “substance,” Asean countries tend to find India’s “style” less appealing than China’s.

The real issue is the basic difference between India and China in East Asia. India is seen to be far more protectionist than China in engaging the Asean countries and the collective forum on issues like trade pacts. This does not mean that China barters away its national interest in dealing with Asean.

Asean’s general perception is that India is less than wholehearted in fashioning future-oriented ties with East Asia for 2011 and beyond. India’s attitude may have something to do with China’s looming presence and also, until recently, New Delhi’s sluggish interactions with Japan and South Korea. However, there is a feeling in East Asia that India, as a country specially invited to the highest forum of this region, should evince genuine interest befitting such a guest.

In a subtle difference, China, Japan, and South Korea are native-states in East Asia, while the U.S. has long been a “resident power” in the region.

India’s East Asian partners will, therefore, watch closely for signs of its potential role in the region in such diverse fields as maritime security, climate change, energy security, nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, food security, outer-space exploration, besides the anti-terror agenda and cyberspace security.

Asean’s general perception is that India is less than wholehearted in fashioning ties with East Asia for 2011 and beyond.

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