New partnerships

Published : Feb 26, 2010 00:00 IST

in Singapore

IS India being absorbed into an increasingly networked East Asia? Alternatively, is East Asia beginning to take India as a serious partner for potential cooperation in a variety of fields? These questions, with answers in the yes-to-maybe bandwidth, have come to the fore because of the visits to India in quick succession by the leaders of Japan, Malaysia and South Korea.

Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama visited Mumbai and New Delhi in late December to keep up the continuity of annual summits on the bilateral front. His talks with Indias political leaders and his perceptions of its evolving economic profile set the stage for a seamless expansion of bilateral ties.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak travelled to New Delhi and Chennai from January 19 to 22 to enhance ties with India. Hyderabad, originally on his tour plan, was deleted from it because of the situation arising out of the Telangana issue. Najib could not stay on for an India-Malaysia partnership summit, a business event, in Chennai on January 23 as he had to rush home following the death of a former constitutional monarch of Malaysia. The sultans of different states in Malaysia take turns as the countrys King for specified periods.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak was invited to be the chief guest at this years Republic Day celebrations in New Delhi. His talks with the Indian leaders helped set new benchmarks in relations in a new setting characterised by the implementation of a bilateral economic pact with effect from January 1.

In such a broad sweep of regional diplomacy, it bears repetition that India, not located in geographical East Asia, is already a player in the geopolitical version of this region. New Delhi is a founding member of the East Asia Summit (EAS) forum. The major powers in geographical East Asia are increasingly coalescing into a network of integrating economies. It will be a mistake, however, to see such an emerging network as a real or potential entity of countries with a uniformity of domestic politics.

Indias growing engagement with Japan or Malaysia or South Korea, on three separate tracks, reflects some overlapping patterns, too. The overarching political ambience of this engagement is that of Chinas continuing rise in East Asia as a potential global power that might begin to rival the United States in some ways. This reality does not, however, negate the individualistic foreign policies of either India, on one side, or Japan as also South Korea and Malaysia, on the other.

Visible, indeed, within such a large picture are the specific nuances of Indias engagement with either Japan or Malaysia or South Korea. There is, at the same time, a common theme of practical diplomacy on the part of each of these three countries. Unsurprisingly, therefore, they have now sought to overcome the political reservations or even the political inertia evident in their independent interactions with India until recently.

Practical diplomacy in this context is simply the result of two inter-related factors: the potential rise of India as an economic powerhouse and the transparent decisions of Japan as also South Korea and Malaysia to be accommodative of New Delhi to the extent possible. Such a general East Asian sense of accommodativeness towards India is not the same as the qualitatively higher degree of pre-eminence that China has come to enjoy unchallenged in this region in recent years.

The largely uncontested rise of China is in fact the result of practical diplomacy by some major East Asian states, including the U.S. as a resident East Asian power. And if Beijing has evoked such practical diplomacy among the East Asian powers, the reason is not traceable to only reality: Chinas own efforts to grow up as a multidimensional power. The relative decline of the U.S., especially as an economic superpower, is surely a parallel factor at work.

Whatever the reasons, the general lack of resistance to Chinas rapid rise in East Asia is facilitating the emergence of a possible ecosystem of inter-state relations in the region. By definition, any such ecosystem can be more stable than a new political order as created by a conventional-style power struggle between a reigning superpower (either a singular country or a coalition and a rising state or an ascendant group of nations.

In such an overall theoretical and practical framework of a China-related ecosystem of inter-state order, a relevant poser is whether Indias new quotient of acceptability among the East Asian states signifies an alternative scenario. The answer falls in the no-to-maybe bandwidth. What then is the true substance of Indias new engagement with Japan, South Korea and Malaysia at this time?

Economic cooperation has so far formed the strategic core of dynamic potential in Indias ties with Japan. This aspect, now sought to be reinforced further, was emphasised by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh after his talks with Hatoyama on December 29. The Japanese leader, too, concurred. He did note that bilateral Japan-India trade still remains far below the level of Japan-China trade, only 1/20th of Japan-China trade. However, Japans direct investment in India, for the first time, surpassed Japans investment in China in a dramatic year [2008]. Hatoyama said it is important [therefore] that we further speed up or encourage such investment.

A conducive [step] would be the early realisation of a Bilateral Economic Partnership Agreement [EPA], he said, drawing attention to the concerns that still need to be negotiated. So, the officials on both sides would be instructed to expedite their talks so that an EPA could be concluded as soon as possible. Echoing this sentiment, Manmohan Singh expressed the hope that the ongoing negotiations on a high-quality and balanced agreement could be completed in time for the next annual India-Japan summit.

New possibilities of Japan-India cooperation over such economic projects as the Delhi Mumbai Industrial Corridor and the dedicated freight corridor were also spelt out as almost an article of political faith. Japanese collaboration for a new Indian Institute of Technology, this time in Hyderabad, was also outlined as a distinct possibility, despite the current uncertainties in that city as a result of the Telangana issue. Overall, the bilateral economic ambience is still infused with, if not also determined by, the fact that India is the largest recipient of Japans Official Development Assistance. Noteworthy, at the same time, are the new political tendencies in Japan to upscale its economic ties with India, by comparing and contrasting those with Tokyos equation with Beijing in comparable domains.

Hatoyama has now emphasised an equally important new factor in a relatively new domain of Japan-India cooperation. Commending the now-finalised Action Plan for security cooperation, he is raising visions of a meeting of minds on such issues as the safety of mercantile navigation. The Action Plan, too, provides for regular bilateral naval exercises. And the participation of both India and Japan in multilateral naval exercises is envisioned whenever possible. This is but diplomatic euphemism for associating themselves with the U.S. when deemed politically correct on both sides.

On the sensitive nuclear issues, Hatoyama said he discussed with Manmohan Singh how far Japan and India have common interests in advancing nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation around the world. A suggestion was made for bilateral cooperation for the total elimination of nuclear weapons. Manmohan Singhs response was that India would do its best for nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation.

Given Tokyos continuing official-level passion for the U.S.-inspired pacifist Constitution of post-imperial Japan, Hatoyama has sought to tread a fine line on the issue of transferring knowhow and materials for Indias civil nuclear energy programme. He said Manmohan Singh mentioned that Indian companies will not divert [any nuclear] imports from Japan for weapons purposes and they will not divert these imports someday to third-party countries. With that in mind, Tokyo would like to make efforts for a positive conclusion of the pending issue of whether Japanese firms could engage India in the civil nuclear energy domain.

The basic thrust of Hatoyamas latest moves in a complex India-related diplomacy is to deepen and expand cooperation across the spectrum. In the process, Tokyo has now given itself some pragmatic elbow room to explore the possibility of cooperation in the civil nuclear field by beginning to see India as a potential kindred soul in the cause of an eventual nuclear-weapons-free world.

On a parallel track, India and South Korea have now decided to enhance their bilateral relationship to a strategic partnership. In a joint statement issued after the talks between Lee and Manmohan Singh on January 25, the two sides emphasised the need to sustain the momentum created by their Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement that came into force on January 1.

The two leaders also shared the view that nuclear energy can play an important role as a safe, sustainable and non-polluting source of energy. They, therefore, agreed to facilitate the development of a framework for bilateral civil nuclear cooperation. This is a direct sequel to South Koreas recent success in bagging a key export order, not involving India, for nuclear reactors for civilian purposes.

In a sense, Seoul has never had a insurmountable ideological objection to trading with India in the civil nuclear domain. Unlike Japan, South Korea does not always invoke the first principles of a non-existent global order in the present-day atomic age. Also, New Delhis diplomatic persuasion and Washingtons realpolitik drive had convinced Seoul to allow the Nuclear Suppliers Group to do India a favour not long ago.

In these circumstances, the novelty of the latest South Korean move to seek a share of Indias civil nuclear energy market can be traced to Seouls larger international profile that goes beyond that of being an ally of the U.S. As a member of the so-called Coffee Club at the United Nations, South Korea had, in the past, seemed to have not been very sensitive to Indias aspirations on the global stage.

In some contrast, South Korea has now signed a memorandum of understanding with India on cooperation in the peaceful uses of outer space. It remains to be seen whether Seouls move is guided, at least in part, by the recent indications from Beijing that China, already a premier space-faring nation, might no longer be averse to using the outer-space domain for peaceful national security purposes as well in exceptional circumstances.

Malaysias enhanced engagement with India is not in the same category as either Tokyos or Seouls. Suffused with an economic agenda, inclusive of accelerated talks for a comprehensive pact, Malaysia and India are looking for suitable diversification of ties in the defence and knowledge-based sectors as also the educational field. The somewhat unique nature of their people-to-people ties are also begging to be addressed with some laser-like focus. Above all, Najib Tun Razak and Manmohan Singh have, in a joint communique issued on January 22, agreed to develop a framework for strategic cooperation and partnership. As a major player in the South-East Asia sub-region, Malaysia has now made a strategic choice based on pragmatism in dealing with India.

The flurry of East Asia-India diplomatic activity will be closely and independently assessed by both the U.S. and China, especially in the context of ensuring the long-term security of geopolitical East Asia. Strategic affairs experts such as Nick Bisley tend to believe that either China or India or both, as rising powers, could spark a change in attitude among the major powers in ways to help refashion the regions existing order which is marked by a clutter of security-related institutions.

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