Over to East Asia

Print edition : June 29, 2007

That Greater East Asia is expected to be the next theatre of world politics is clear from the sixth Shangri-La Dialogue.

P. S. SURYANARAYANA in Singapore

US President George W. Bush and Chinese President Hu Jintao during Bush's Asia tour in 2005.-CHARLES DHARAPAK/AP

GREATER East Asia is teeming with major powers vying for influence: China, Japan and Russia, which are physically proximate; South Korea and Australia, which are increasingly disenchanted allies of the United States in the Pacific; India, which despite its distance from the Pacific has been welcomed on the East Asian scene; and of course, the US, which projects itself as a Pacific nation with enduring ties to this zone. Not surprisingly, Greater East Asia is widely expected to be the next big theatre of world politics.

Aspects of this emerging reality were in evidence during the sixth annual Shangri La Dialogue, so named after the hotel venue, in Singapore in early June. The Asia Security Conference was organised by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) and attended by China at a relatively high official level for the first time. As IISS Director-General John Chipman noted, this made lively engagement possible between delegations from China and the other major powers. The IISS also turned the spotlight on China and India as key players with critical roles in "building international stability". Four important points emerged from the conference, which was designed as a forum for debate and sought no resolutions.

Defence Minister A.K. Antony, IISS Director-General John Chipman and Lieutenant-General Zhang Qinsheng of the People's Liberation Army, at the sixth Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore on June 2.-ROMEO GACAD/AFP

First, Lieutenant-General Zhang Qinsheng, Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), announced that China was willing to set up a defence-level hotline with the US. This was welcomed by US Defence Secretary Robert Gates as a step that could help "avoid misunderstandings and miscalculations".

Second, Gates struck a scrupulously non-confrontational soft line towards China. In doing so he made a significant departure from the path of his predecessor Donald Rumsfeld. Gates praised the "greater transparency" of China's current "strategic intentions" and emphasised that there was "reason to be optimistic" about Washington's ties with Beijing in the immediate future. This new approach seems dictated largely by the present foreign policy troubles of the US.

Third, the possible emergence of a new US-led `concert of democracies', if not a military alliance, dominated the thoughts of a number of delegates and observers. Senior officials (but not Ministers) from the US, India, Japan and Australia met earlier on the sidelines of a different multilateral event in a different city, and fuelled speculation about the new nexus. Replying to questions from Chinese delegates, Gates said, "It is entirely appropriate for the militaries and navies from democratic countries to exercise together, to develop common capabilities."

However, the speculation was dampened because a four-way meeting involving the key players did not take place. Gates held a meeting with his counterparts from Japan and Australia, but it was not attended by India. Defence Minister A. K. Antony was busy with some other bilateral meetings at the same time. Officials said no four-way meeting was planned.

The prospects of a nexus based on democratic identity appear to be dimming. Japanese Defence Minister Fumio Kyuma told this correspondent that "no [military] alliance" was envisioned ab initio. Australian Defence Minister Brendan Nelson did not want to comment. Canberra has, in recent months, become increasingly wary of taking steps, alone or in association with the US, that might signal the "containment" of China, which "is not the objective" of Australian defence policy. South Korea, another important democratic ally of the US in the region, has been conspicuously absent from official talks involving the US, India, Japan and Australia. South Korean Minister of National Defence Kim Jang-soo, who arrived in Singapore after a visit to India, held only a bilateral round with Gates. In the US, specialists in international relations such as David Shambaugh are advocating that the US should desist from policies seeking the "semi containment of China".

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, who expressed optimism about relations between the US and China.-ROMEO GACAD/AFP

Fourth but not the least, concerns were voiced about the simultaneous rise of China and India and its impact on security and stability in Asia. Defence Ministers Antony and Zhang Qinsheng both reassured the international community that the independent rise of India and China would only help stabilise the global political order. Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who delivered the keynote address, saw growing US-India ties as a "new dynamic" in global affairs, but he portrayed India as a rising power outside of any US-oriented orbit.

The debate at the Shangri-La dialogue reflected the diplomatic crosscurrents in East Asia. On the one hand, the US is keen to limit the influence of China in the region by developing a nexus of democracies. On the other, China is building a grouping against the hegemony of the US that should sustain its rise into a superpower.

However, the overriding mantra is engagement across any divide. And not a few think that an eventual China-India rapprochement may determine the future of Greater East Asia for long.

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