East is watching

Published : Jun 19, 2009 00:00 IST

in Singapore

NOT long ago, the outcome of Indian general elections was of academic rather than practical interest to the politically diverse East Asian states. In contrast, today, governments and think tanks across the region tend to assess the political direction that India might take after each round of general elections. So, Indias Verdict 2009 has acquired not just a political resonance but also practical meanings across East Asia.

Three aspects, of varied interest to East Asian states, have come into focus beyond the congratulations to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Of primary importance is the perceived post-poll potential of India to remain politically stable as it seeks to play its international role as a rising power. A view in some East Asian quarters is that Manmohan Singh may now have got the mandate to project India as a regional and global player as never before. Such an assessment is shared by some regional leaders as well.

Another pan-regional view, not of secondary importance, is the perceived potential of India to stay the economic course as a rising power. The expectation is that Manmohan Singh will now seek to position India as a key player in the ongoing international efforts to tide over the global economic crisis. His new mandate is seen to have opened up sufficient domestic economic space for this, with or without more reforms. This view, too, is shared by some East Asian leaders.

The third but not the least aspect relates to Indias long-standing credentials as a democracy. A subtle new point of interest is whether India will now want to capitalise, as never before, on its democratic credentials for power play in East Asia. For the obvious reason of inter-state political diversity in this region, East Asian leaders do not, as yet, see New Delhi under this political prism.

However, Indias increasing political visibility in East Asia, in the company of the United States and Japan, has already given grist to the thought mills. At the height of the latest poll campaign, the U.S. and India held a high-profile naval exercise with Japan along the waters close to China. Despite the official line that the U.S.-India-Japan exercise was not a move against China, Manmohan Singhs mandate is seen as opening new geopolitical options too. Crystal-gazing in this domain is still confined largely to the parlours of non-official experts in strategic affairs. However, East Asian governments are expected to monitor closely Manmohan Singhs foreign policy in the new innings.

It is, of course, not fashionable across East Asia to speculate publicly, at the official levels, on Manmohan Singhs potential or his likely successor at the helm. Yet, Indias latest poll results are generally interpreted, especially in non-official circles, as a verdict affording a youthful view on world affairs. This implies an opportunity for India to think in 21st century terms in the East Asian and global theatres. This aspect is of direct relevance to the perceived potential of India to seek its rightful place as a rising power and to do so with political stability.

As East Asian political leaders scan the scene, India should now try to integrate itself into the regional networks of inter-state relations. India is a founding member of the East Asia Summit (EAS), a forum comprising 16 countries. However, it is an empirical reality that India lags behind China and Japan in almost all spheres of pan-East Asian cooperation. Yet, the view of a top EAS insider, Ong Keng Yong, is relevant to the new context of Manmohan Singhs fresh mandate. As former Secretary General of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), Ong does not think that India is losing its way in the wider region.

As of now, the U.S. remains outside the EAS, although the Barack Obama administration recently indicated its readiness to enter this forum. A critical pre-requisite is to accede to the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC). After several years of a general aversion to it, Washington is now willing to begin its domestic process of acceding to the TAC. China and Japan as also South Korea tend to play lead roles within the EAS. Doubtless, India is an equal member of the EAS, alongside these three countries besides the 10 ASEAN members, Australia and New Zealand.

The EAS is also a leaders-driven forum. Manmohan Singh has attended all the summit-level meetings of the forum except the recent one that was called off after the countdown. In regional circles, there is an awareness of Manmohan Singhs contributions to the EAS brain-storming on issues such as climate change and energy security.

On balance, though, East Asian observers reckon that India has so far appeared less proactive than China on some critical issues. Often cited in this regard is the manner in which China has outpaced India in its efforts at reaching exclusive trade pacts with ASEAN. Finally, the India-ASEAN free trade pact was ready for the recent regional summits that Thailand, however, failed to host owing to its political crisis.

Beyond this fact, the general point, which was clouded by some procedural issues, is that India does not still make its presence felt deeply in East Asia. This applies to Indias participation in the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) as well. The ARF, unlike the EAS, brings the U.S. and Russia, as also the European Union, on to the East Asian scene. However, the ARF, which convenes at the level of Foreign Ministers, is not in the same higher league as the EAS.

Within this overall framework, East Asian diplomats think that New Delhi has yet to take a major initiative towards the regional security dialogue. In some contrast, it is noted that Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has proposed a new Asia Pacific Community. The idea of a pan-Asia economic group, outlined by Manmohan Singh a few years ago, is seen in East Asia as just that: an idea and not a political initiative.

In this broad context of expectations about India, regional leaders tend to think that its Look-East policy may receive a boost now. For several years after P.V. Narasimha Rao enunciated this policy, India remained in no more than a Look-East gaze, as it were. A.B. Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh himself, in his earlier innings as Prime Minister, sought to add substance to the Look-East policy. In this phase, India did unveil a few economic projects of interest to the less developed ASEAN countries. However, the expectation in East Asia now is that Manmohan Singh, with a renewed and stable mandate, should be able to breathe new life into this policy. A related assumption is that the younger-leaders-in-waiting in Indian politics might only encourage him in this domain.

Closely linked to these views in East Asia are the other expectations about Indias potential to stay the economic course as a rising power. Of direct relevance to this region is the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum. Singapore will host an APEC summit later this year. For a variety of reasons, India still remains outside the APEC forum and no move is expected in Singapore to let India in as a new member.

Of greater interest to East Asia, though, is Indias inclusion ab initio in the Group of Twenty (G20) economies. The G20 is now being seen across the world as a potential governing council on global economic affairs. It is in this context that Manmohan Singhs new mandate is being evaluated in East Asia as a potential factor in favour of India. Although Narasimha Rao decided on conventional economic reforms for India in the early 1990s, East Asian leaders have invariably seen Manmohan Singh as the architect. This aspect and the signs of a possible transition to a youthful order in New Delhi have led to a positive view of Indias potential economic rise.

Within the wide East Asian political spectrum, Indias potential as Chinas possible competitor is a familiar theme in governmental and expert circles. A talking point is whether India is a wild card or an even ace for the U.S. to play against China in East Asia.

Tim Huxley, Singapore-based strategic affairs expert, has an interesting answer: There are some in the United States who would like to see India as a part of a balance against China [But] there are two question marks, really, about Indias role in this. The first is whether India actually has the coherent political will to assert itself as a major player and whether India has a long-term vision of what its strategic role in the broad Asia-Pacific region would be. Many observers doubt that India doesnt seem to have that same coherent intent that China seems to have. If India did become a more determined player, it could be that regional perceptions would begin to change and that India might not be seen in such positive light as now within this [East Asian] region. Then, there is the [second] question: if India did have a more coherent intent generated by a long-term political will to be a major strategic player, would it, then, want to be aligned with the U.S., anyway? Or, would it want, some might say, naturally, to play a more independent role.

Seeing India in this light, against a backdrop of Chinas confidence now on the world stage, Huxley draws attention to the old Nehruvian vision. Power projection was not an intrinsic part of Nehrus view of Indias place in the global order.

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