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Rising status

Print edition : Aug 13, 2010 T+T-

As countries in East Asia begin courting India, the possible formation of an ASEAN+8 might give it a larger strategic space.

in Singapore

ARE China's neighbours wooing India over larger issues of global importance? Is China also keen on cooperating with India over a specific regional issue as different from the global development concerns?

Answers to such questions are not easy to foresee beyond the details of available political and diplomatic signals. The overall diplomatic and economic environment in the geopolitical region called East Asia may also change, producing new strategic consequences for the major players. Within such limitations of informed futurology, it is clear that India is being courted and also being given some benefit of the doubt on issues such as civil nuclear energy, to mention just one.

Four current developments are the real stuff of such an emerging scenario. First, the new Japanese Prime Minister, Naoto Kan, has initiated genuine talks with India for cooperation in the area of civil nuclear energy. Shorn of the diplomatic nicety of language as is evident in the term cooperation, it is obvious that India will be the greater beneficiary of any agreement that may be reached.

Secondly, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak has evinced interest in India's space-faring capabilities as a potential platform for his country's progress in this domain. More importantly, though, he is keen that South Korea must enter into a civil nuclear agreement with India, which in turn can buy hardware such as reactors from Korea.

The third but no less significant factor is evident as a non-official signal, distinct from an authoritative move, from China. The interesting development relates to a considered call for thinking the unthinkable. It has been suggested by Wu Jianmin, a senior adviser to the Chinese Foreign Ministry and a former career diplomat, that China and India could think of a concerted initiative to ensure the stability of Pakistan. While this informal proposal requires much dressing up, in a positive diplomatic sense such bold new thinking is the stuff of futuristic regionalism.

ASEAN+8 grouping

The fourth but not the least turn of uncoordinated events in East Asia, with immediate relevance to India, applies to several other countries as well. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations has initiated a new move for the possible formation of an ASEAN+8 grouping. As more than just a straw in the local wind, ASEAN's latest essay, if it fructifies, will suitably bring the United States and Russia onto the regional scene. They will then be new partners of the existing leaders-driven entity called the East Asia Summit (EAS). The ASEAN+8 grouping itself may either supplant or coexist with the EAS.

The EAS comprises all the 10 ASEAN member-states as also China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand. Given this fact, the idea of an ASEAN+8 is not a bonus for India for its East Asian diplomacy. However, any such new forum, if it takes shape as an institution with some potential longevity, will be particularly useful to Official India, given its current predilection for partnership with the U.S. In this sub-context, another factor favouring New Delhi is its continuing good engagement with Moscow. This aspect is not at all insignificant although the current India-Russia engagement is not the same as New Delhi's earlier equation with Soviet-era Kremlin.

On balance, in such a wide perspective, an ASEAN+8 grouping might give India a larger strategic space in East Asia, albeit in the company of the U.S. and Russia. To this extent, and if this group does take off, China may not overshadow India in an ASEAN+8 setting, unlike in the current EAS network.

For several years now, China has been engaged in transforming its extensive historical links with some South-East Asian countries in order to create suitable postmodern ties for mutual benefit. India does lag behind China in such an endeavour, and it is this aspect that accounts for the current balance of forces within the EAS forum.

Also relevant to this configuration, generally seen to be favourable to Beijing, is the predilection of Australia and a number of ASEAN countries to be mindful of the dynamics of China's relentless rise as a potential or possible global superpower.

In a broad sweep, the China-sensitive countries in the EAS forum include India and Japan as well. Yet, in a narrow sense of realpolitik considerations, Tokyo and New Delhi do not actually figure in the category of EAS players with a pro-China tilt. By contrast, several EAS members are generally seen to be wary of any potential or possible U.S. adventurism on matters of vital interest to China.

Such interplay of forces in a multilateral setting like that of the EAS or the potential ASEAN+8 grouping does make for romanticised parlour games of the political kind. However, major powers, both established players and rising nations, do not necessarily count on the multilateral process for resolving their key disputes.

A major power often prefers to settle its differences through a bilateral process. Any exception to this general practice is just that. Also self-evident is the ground reality that major powers tend to derive greater benefits from the bilateral process than the multilateral approach.

In this sense, New Delhi's new opportunities in its bilateral interactions with Japan or South Korea or China constitute the real stuff of India's own version of peaceful rise insofar as the East Asian scene is concerned. Interestingly, an oft-asked question across this region is: Why should China's rise cause concern to the rest of the world while India's ascent does not. The answers, of course, depend on the varied standpoints of individual countries. The commonly heard argument is that India's policies and practices are far more transparent than those of China. The mystique of Beijing's short but studied comments is often mistaken for a mystery.

It is with a transparent India that Japan has now decided to negotiate a civil nuclear pact. The first round of parleys was held in Tokyo on June 29 and 30. Japan saw those talks as a constructive beginning and left the door open for an incremental engagement over this issue. These formal talks were preceded by what Japan described as pre-negotiation consultations.

Sensitive domain

A top Japanese official, Kazuo Kodama, privy to the meeting that Kan held with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Toronto before the June-end Tokyo talks, later told this correspondent that the two leaders evinced interest in moving forward in this sensitive domain. Kodama quoted Kan as telling Manmohan Singh that there exists a large potential for Japan to cooperate in the area of India's peaceful use of nuclear energy.

Japan's latest act of smiling at India for the peaceful use of atomic energy does reflect a new nuance in Japan's thinking on the related issues of non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament.

However, it is learnt on good authority that Japan has not at all softened its position on the continuing importance of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as the global norm.

Tokyo does recognise that New Delhi has also not softened its line that the NPT is a discriminatory piece of international law. However, several Japanese officials have said that Tokyo has begun negotiations with New Delhi for a bilateral civil nuclear pact on the explicit understanding that India will stay committed to its non-proliferation pledges. These pledges, inclusive of a voluntary moratorium on any further nuclear-arms testing, form the basis of India's current exceptional status in the global atomic energy market.

Prominently cited by officials in the Japanese circles are the 2008 safeguards agreement between India and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), at one level, and the 2008 exemption that India obtained from the guidelines of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG).

In this laser-like focus on New Delhi's commitments, Japanese officials have also drawn a clear distinction between India and Iran for purposes of civil nuclear cooperation. On an altogether different but related plane, it is understood that Tokyo is keen to engage Beijing to ascertain its reasons for considering how best it can help Pakistan expand its existing China-aided nuclear power plant at Chashma.

The original project was started before China became a member of the NSG. Several NSG members want to decide whether this could empower China to help Pakistan expand the Chashma facility. The alternative being suggested is that China could now try and pilot a pro-Pakistan move in the NSG the way the U.S. did for India in 2008.

In raising such alternatives, several NSG members, including Japan as the world's premier non-proliferation-and-nuclear-disarmament guru, want to tread carefully. An unstated but evident objective is to ensure that the NSG is not rocked and that China is not ruffled.

This leads to a poser, partly arising out of the current spate of civil nuclear pacts and parleys involving India and some key NSG members: Will this India-friendly activism on the part of some NSG members create a climate of opinion in which China can help Pakistan this time round as well?

Unrelated to Islamabad's nuclear ambitions, topical indeed is a non-official Chinese view on the desirability of a China-India initiative for stabilising a volatile Pakistan. Wu Jianmin's conversation with this journalist in Singapore in early July was reflective of some new thinking about the national interests of all three countries.

He said: The rise of Asia requires peace and stability in this region. So, you can see that China's interest and the Indian interest coincide. We [in China] do not regard Pakistan as a counterweight to India. It is not propaganda: you have to put yourself in China's shoes. For the first time since 1840, we have a chance to modernise China. To achieve our goal, what we need is peace abroad and stability at home. Trust-building is now going on between China and India. Despite some obstacles, China and India, at the leadership level, are very clear that they need each other.

On whether Islamabad would not see any China-India initiative as a ploy to fix Pakistan and not its problems of volatility, Wu Jianmin said: We [China] can tell our Pakistani friends [about the good intent]. At the same time, India and Pakistan have their own channels of communication.