Emerging equations

Published : Feb 23, 2007 00:00 IST

India's current efforts in East Asia are directed at gaining recognition as a responsible power on the larger world scene.


INDIA'S increasing engagement with the major powers in East Asia, which broadly include the South Pacific rim, goes beyond the issues of soft power and economic cooperation.

New Delhi is not really engrossed in projecting its military power in this region, which is widely expected to emerge as the centre of gravity in global politics sooner rather than later. Its current effort is to gain recognition as a rising and responsible power on the larger international scene.

Unsurprisingly, in this context, Indian diplomacy of this kind has brought into bright focus an intricate undercurrent of big-power politics in East Asia. The countries in such focus are the United States, China, Japan, and increasingly South Korea and even Australia, besides India itself.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's participation in the second East Asia Summit (EAS) and the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN)-India summit in Cebu (the Philippines) in mid-January was preceded by his high-profile visit to Japan. The EAS was followed, in the same month, by talks in Tokyo and Seoul in which Manmohan Singh's special envoy, Shyam Saran, participated and the topic was India's sensitive bid to secure the support of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG).

More coincidentally than otherwise, Indian Air Force chief, Air Chief Marshal S.P. Tyagi, who is also Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, visited South Korea and Japan at about the same time as Saran.

Commerce Minister Kamal Nath engaged ASEAN on the tricky question of a trade pact, and they agreed upon a July deadline to firm up the proposed bilateral deal. Beyond these exchanges, and indeed because of them, India now has the best chance to decide whether to seek membership of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum. The APEC moratorium on new membership will expire in November, and Australia is to host the forum's next summit in September.

What is the qualitative impact of India's growing engagement with East Asia? While Manmohan Singh's visit underlined its determination to stay engaged with this diverse region, its moves relating to trade and economic cooperation, at one level, and political-strategic issues at another, will set the tone and substance.

During his talks with top officials in Japan and South Korea, two key members of the NSG, Saran sought their cooperation so that India could gain unhindered access to nuclear energy-related equipment and technologies for civilian uses. In a sense, one of the founding principles of the NSG, which includes other major players in the nuclear domain like the U.S. and China, has had much to do with the external perceptions of India's capabilities and intentions in this field. So, Saran is understood to have emphasised how India has stayed deeply "wedded to nuclear disarmament" even after conducting atomic weapon tests. New Delhi's "unblemished" track record of non-proliferation, since the dawn of the nuclear age, has also been cited in support of such credentials.

H.K. Singh and N. Parthasarathi, India's Ambassadors to Japan and South Korea, later indicated that nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation issues were of particular political resonance in these two countries. For his part, Saran, in a telephonic conversation with this correspondent after his talks in Tokyo and Seoul, said India was "very mindful" of the sensitivities in these and other NSG countries.

However, he did not portray any of the NSG members as a country of concern to India in its present quest. The U.S.-India civil nuclear energy cooperation moves formed the backdrop for Saran's discussions.

India's expectations about China on the NSG-related issues flow from the totality of their vibrant bilateral engagement. Chinese President Hu Jintao's recent visit to India remains very much in focus in East Asian diplomatic circles as a major event that might help shape the future of this region. India has also stayed engaged with Australia, another NSG member in this region.

Japan, with its official policy of pacifism, which has not yet been revised despite some moves in that direction, is not seen as a military power in the conventional sense of the term. Nonetheless, Tokyo's potential profile in this respect is well known. South Korea, however, is regarded as a military power with a robust deployment, in association with the U.S., on the Korean peninsula.

In this context, India's current interactions with these two countries in the defence domain are noticed across the region as yet another signal of New Delhi's rising relevance to the Asia-Pacific theatre as a military power as well.

On balance, though, India's profile in East Asia will, in the short term, depend very much on how the trade talks with ASEAN go and how New Delhi and Beijing can take their economic ties, now on the upswing, to new highs. ASEAN Secretary-General Ong Keng Yong has now reaffirmed the continuing relevance of both China and India as the engines that could power the association, viewed as a jetliner, for its economic thrust.

Significantly, in Ong's portrayal of ASEAN as a flying vehicle, the U.S.' continued military presence and overall involvement in East Asia provide the security environment for this association of 10 countries. And, despite the fact that none of the association's member-countries is in the league of major emerging powers like China or India, it is ASEAN that has so far provided all the political space needed for the evolution of an East Asian order.

Now, an East Asian order is still a distant dream. But, for some time now, major and emerging powers, including the U.S. with its "historical" presence in this region, have been seeking to carve out niche roles for themselves. The conventional wisdom, in this context, is that ASEAN has been creating the field for this purpose. Opinions, however, vary about some of the related issues. The questions in this regard are: whether ASEAN is actually creating a level playing field for all these bigger powers and whether the unstated game is to play off these powers against one another so that the smaller countries can breathe freely.

A unique Chinese perspective is provided by Sheng Lijun, a Singapore-based specialist with intimate China links. According to Sheng, "ASEAN is not bandwagoning with but [is only] `hedging' against China". So, "instead of being China-centric", ASEAN is not only engaging Beijing but also developing ties with other extra-regional powers, such as the U.S. or India or Australia in relation to South-East Asia, in order to bring about what the association regards as a "constructive regional balance". As a result, he says, "while China has gained influence in South-East Asia in recent years, the ASEAN's relations with other extra-regional powers [also] remain robust". To this extent, ASEAN has not opted for any special relationship with China.

If this is a China-centric view, ASEAN itself sees these other powers like the U.S., India and Australia as being essential to the association's growth. In the aircraft analogy, Ong has portrayed China and India as the engines, Japan as the fuselage with the wings, Australia as the provider of special fuel, the ASEAN as the pilot and the U.S. as the security provider.

Regardless of the varied perspectives, with or without the aircraft analogy, the fact is that major and emerging powers are already in the East Asian field. Looking to the future, China has, therefore, floated the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which could evolve into a builder of new Asia without having to undermine ASEAN or the networks created by it. Another key aspect of power-play in regard to East Asia is the first sign of what some specialists in the region see as a potential "space race".

The U.S., China, India and Japan are seen to be in the "race" for stakes in outer space. Whether or not the East Asian scene acquires a "space dimension", the political theory being invoked is that power over outer space might determine the lead-players in a future political order on the earth just as maritime power had done in the past.

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