Islands of tension

Print edition : December 03, 2010

The U.S. and Russia, new members in the expanded EAS, tread on Chinese and Japanese territorial sensitivities.

in Singapore

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev near Soviet-made defence turrets during his visit to Kunashiri island, one of four islands known as Southern Kurils in Russia and Northern Territories in Japan, on November 1.-RIA NOVOSTI/REUTERS

THE much-heralded expansion of the East Asia Summit (EAS) sparked tensions after the initial euphoria over this geopolitical forum's decision on October 30 to admit Russia and the United States as members. Such a truly unfashionable view of the regional reality was inescapable on a purely objective basis. Washington's articulation of a pro-Japan approach in its policy towards China during the process of this regional expansion and Moscow's actions that angered Tokyo in early November were the main ingredients of this new reality.

An alternative and decisively conservative view in the region was that the words and actions of the U.S. and Russia were, at worst, a sideshow.

In 2006, the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) nominated itself as the political nucleus of the EAS, which was being formed then. Simultaneously, it co-opted six countries Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and the Republic of Korea (South Korea) as members of this forum. The basic idea was that the native states of East Asia ASEAN members, China, Japan and South Korea would, for peace and stability, require long-term collaboration with India, Australia and New Zealand, each with a different power coefficient, though, in the region's extended neighbourhood.

With ASEAN deciding that Washington and the post-Soviet Kremlin could no longer be kept out of the East Asian calculus of power, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lost no time in signalling that her country would be a proactive and not passive member of the expanded EAS. Hillary Clinton was in Hanoi, the venue of the latest EAS summit. As the EAS Chair for 2010, Vietnam had invited both the U.S. Secretary of State and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to attend the summit to be informed of their countries' admission from 2011 onwards.

In the run-up to EAS 2010, Hillary Clinton affirmed a known U.S. position, which, however, had the obviously intended effect of taking sides between two major founding members of the forum. The sensitive point was that Washington's long-standing military alliance with Tokyo could be invoked to protect Japan's sovereign rights over its possessions in the East China Sea, namely, the Senkaku islands. China, had, at the height of recent tensions with Tokyo over the status of the Diaoyu islands, as it calls them, reaffirmed that they really belonged to China as its inherent territory from ancient times. From China's standpoint, America's reaffirmed stance on the islands was a matter of incendiary politics in the EAS context.

Those unfamiliar with America's discernible game plan took the line that Hillary Clinton strayed into an East Asian controversy. They missed the central point that the U.S. consciously identified Japan as a friend in the EAS context as well and not just in terms of contemporary history since the end of the Second World War.

On a parallel track, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev paid a highly publicised visit to an island, known to Japan as Kunashiri, on November 1. His action stirred a diplomatic row over the ownership of this and three other islands north of Japan all controlled by Moscow and claimed by Tokyo since the end of the Second World War. Known as Northern Territories in Japan and Southern Kurils in Russia, these islands were recaptured by the Soviet forces even as that war ended in imperial Japan's defeat.

Medvedev's visit, the first-ever to the disputed island by any Soviet or Russian leader, angered Tokyo. Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara ordered his country's envoy in Moscow, Masaharu Kono, to come back home for urgent consultations. According to a Japanese official, Hidenobu Sobashima, Maehara called the Russian envoy, Bely Mikhailovich, and lodged a strong protest. He was told that Medvedev's action is not compatible with the basic position of the Government of Japan. Medvedev had, in the process, hurt the national sentiments of the Japanese people.

The dispute over the islands has prevented a total normalisation of relations between the Soviet Union/Russia and Japan since the end of the Second World War. In undertaking the trip to the island, Medvedev is said to have acted under domestic political compulsions. It also pointed to Russia's new sense of activism in East Asia.

Medvedev flew to the island on his way to Moscow from Hanoi, where he presided over the signing of a pact for a Russian-aided civil nuclear plant in Vietnam. This would be Vietnam's first atomic energy plant. The pact reflected the continuity of bonhomie between Moscow and Hanoi, the beginnings of which can be traced to the Cold War era. A few weeks prior to this civil nuclear deal, though, Vietnam doused some of the expectations of the post-Soviet Kremlin by ruling out the leasing of the Cam Ranh Bay facilities to any foreign power, Russia included. A few years ago, Russia had vacated the military base there, the origin of which goes back to the Vietnam War of the 1960s and the 1970s.

If Japan now sees Russia as wanting to flex its muscle in the context of the EAS expansion, Moscow should be no less aware of Tokyo's hard-and-soft-power credentials in East Asia. America's nuclear umbrellas for both Japan and South Korea are invariably factored in by their East Asian neighbours. On the very same day that Medvedev presided over the signing of a civil nuclear pact with Vietnam, Japan was transacting similar business in Hanoi. The Vietnamese leaders announced their decision to partner with Japan for the establishment of the second nuclear power plant in Vietnam. Both sides also pledged a comprehensive strategic partnership.

Russia's new activism in relation to Japan and America's proactive assertions in relation to China acquire unusual importance because of the conspicuous omission of the U.S. from the EAS at its inception over four years ago. The omission was, until recently, a subject of much speculation and debate in East Asia for two reasons.

First, ASEAN had initially chosen to overlook Washington's credentials despite its frequent assertions about its intimate relevance to East Asia as a long-time resident power of the region. Flowing from that kind of bravado on the part of ASEAN was the second talking point. The U.S., it was widely believed, was kept out of the EAS at its formative stage because of the sensitivities of the rising China, a founding member of this forum. China was thought to believe that its all-round regional primacy should not be eclipsed by the U.S. in its capacity as a resident East Asian military superpower.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with his counterparts (from left) Naoto Kan of Japan, Julia Gillard of Australia, Nguyen Tin Dung of Vietnam, Wen Jiabao of China, John Key of New Zealand and Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia at the East Asia Summit in Hanoi on October 30.-VIJAY VERMA/PTI

Over time, however, as China's growing strengths as an emerging global power became more evident, some proactive ASEAN players began thinking of an old-style balance-of-power game. Unsurprisingly, this resulted in the decision to invite the U.S. to the EAS. In a parallel move, ASEAN decided to invite Russia as well for two reasons the post-Soviet Kremlin's rising aspirations as a potential global power and its incrementally substantive ties with China. In a sense, ASEAN had devised the entry of Russia into the EAS as a political concession to China, which would not have been hugely amused by the admission of the U.S. Such a line of thinking was also based on the principle of ASEAN's centrality to any future East Asian order of inter-state cooperation.

It was not as if ASEAN had to do all the wooing to get the U.S. and Russia into the EAS. Along the way, as the EAS expansion became a practical proposition, ASEAN made it abundantly clear that Washington and the post-Soviet Kremlin were themselves keen to enter East Asia's premier strategic forum. In fact, the EAS was founded on the explicit premise of being a leaders-led forum designed to create and sustain a new East Asian order of peaceful cooperation and to do so from the commanding heights of strategic thinking. For the U.S. and Russia, to a lesser degree, the EAS membership would mean much more than a mere geopolitical foothold in a region that might well be the next big theatre in global affairs.

At the EAS summit-level meeting in Hanoi on October 30, presided over by Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung of Vietnam, the leaders of the original 16 member-states decided to expand the forum by retaining the centrality of ASEAN as the inviolable organisational principle. Vietnam is an ASEAN member with a qualitatively positive and increasingly dynamic relationship with the U.S. The EAS expansion was also facilitated, in part, by Hanoi's links with Moscow that date back to the Soviet days.

Significant, too, was the EAS' decision to sustain itself as an open and inclusive forum. Outwardly, this would keep the door open for further expansion(s) of the EAS. However, several ASEAN countries indicated that the latest expansion might well bring about an optimal-sized forum at the highest political level in the region. This would obviate the need for any further EAS expansion.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's participation in EAS 2010 was a matter of quiet efficiency. No diplomatic breakthroughs were planned or achieved. His meeting with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on the sidelines in Hanoi and the India-Japan summit in Tokyo on October 25 were pointers to New Delhi's comfort level in the expanding East Asia. India's annual summitry with Russia and U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to India served to underscore New Delhi's links with the new EAS members.

In the larger East Asian and global context, U.S. commentators like Joseph Nye do not foresee the possibility of a post-American world for decades to come. At the same time, the Pentagon has publicly taken note of China's growing prowess in the exploration of outer space, potentially a new frontier for terrestrial politics itself.

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