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Eastern enterprise

Print edition : Dec 21, 2007

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The leaders who attended the annual summit organised by ASEAN represented the entire Greater East Asia.

in Singapore

AS political meetings at the highest international level go, the latest series of annual summits organised by the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Singapore from November 19 to 22 should rank as a success. Though no dramatic or binding problem-solving declarations emerged, ASEAN Chairman and Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong deserves high praise for warding off a full-blown crisis over the Myanmar issue and for steering the several summits in meaningful directions.

The calendar of events was long and diverse in scope, and the participating leaders represented the entire Greater East Asia a new and rapidly emerging geopolitical theatre. Australia was represented by its Foreign Minister because of the electoral preoccupations of its Prime Minister. North Korea, to many a problematic state of utmost relevance to the long-term future of this region, is not a member of the forum of the East Asia Summit (EAS). On balance, though, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun and the leaders of the 10-nation ASEAN raised the level of political discourse on long-term strategic issues of importance to the future of the planet climate change and energy security.

Still unrecognised by United States-oriented diplomats and political pundits in the region, the two-year-old EAS, if it stabilises itself as a forum, may well determine the future course of Greater East Asia. The EAS is the only pan-regional forum where both India and China sit at the same table. The other members of the EAS are Japan, the Republic of Korea (South Korea), Australia, New Zealand and all 10 members of ASEAN. Of great significance is the continued wariness of the EAS to admit the U.S. as a member.

For a variety of reasons, India is not a member of the interregional Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, where China is a major participant. China, India and Russia engage each another in a trilateral format, but this is seen to be akin to the institutionalised China-Japan-Republic of Korea dialogue at the sub-regional level. Moreover, two other interregional organisations, which include both China as a full member and India in some capacity or another, are not of direct relevance to Greater East Asia. These are the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, where India is an observer, and the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM), where India is a recent entrant.

In a sense, the relevance, if not the centrality, of India as a player in Greater East Asia was symbolised by the dedication of an exhibition in Singapore, called the Nalanda Trail, as an EAS project. The exhibition, organised by Singapore to shine the spotlight on old Buddhist links between India and East Asian countries, is designed to promote the establishment of a modern, international university at the old Nalanda site in India. The EAS hopes that the proposed university will be an icon of Asian renaissance.

It is in this overall context that the bilateral meeting on November 21 between Wen and Manmohan Singh, on the margins of the EAS session, attracted unusual attention. It was the first India-China meeting at the highest levels after New Delhi was rocked by a political crisis over the Indian civil nuclear deal with the U.S. In the event, the Indian side was very appreciative of the Chinese leaders forthcoming attitude of being supportive of international civil nuclear cooperation with India.

Critics first saw this as a diplomatic formulation in which China might consider backing India only if and when its civil nuclear deal with the U.S. came up before the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). China, like the U.S. and Japan, is a formidable member of the NSG. However, it is learnt, on good authority, that Wen did indicate to Manmohan Singh that China would consider cooperating with India in the domain of peaceful uses of atomic energy. For China, which today is on the same side as the U.S. on the broad global issue of nuclear counter-proliferation as an overarching principle, the strategic bottom line is that any such cooperation must be consistent with non-proliferation.

With the Wen-Manmohan Singh meeting having proved a harmonious encounter of the diplomatic kind, China and India found themselves on the same wavelength in the debate on climate change when it came up at the EAS meeting. Japan, widely seen to be an eco-guru with the technological know-how to arrest the upsurge in global emissions of greenhouse gases, was the key player on the other side of the divide in the EAS forum.

And, as a gentle clash of wills on the green issues emerged within the EAS forum, the battle lines remained firm. The genial atmospherics of Fukudas trilateral meeting with Wen and Roh, besides Manmohan Singhs bilateral talks with the Japanese leader, both on the margins of the main summit, did not help breach the green battle lines within the EAS. It was, of course, no acrimonious exchange between Fukuda on one side and Wen and Manmohan Singh on the other over climate change issues.

Later, Lee disclosed that both Wen and Manmohan Singh made eloquent presentations on why economic growth would be an overriding priority for China and India and why they would not be able to accept the reduction of greenhouse gases because of the economic costs for countries developing on the fast track.

Lee even quoted Manmohan Singh as having put a counter-proposal across to the global green lobby. India, Manmohan Singh said, would be prepared to accept a cap on the per-person emission of greenhouse gases at a level equivalent only to the cap that the developed bloc might be willing to agree upon and apply to itself.

In a sense, the Indian move to set terms for the global reduction of greenhouse gas emissions tended to obscure the progress made on this issue at the APEC summit in Sydney in September. Also obscured was the new Japanese initiative for a sustainable East Asia, which Fukuda presented at the EAS meeting.

APEC includes Japan, the U.S., China and Australia. These countries have consistently taken a dim view of the existing Kyoto Protocol. The APEC Sydney summit set aspirational goals for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions across the world. As non-negotiated benchmarks, these goals are not binding commitments for any of the APEC economies. However, the global green lobby saw the Sydney summit as a step forward towards an eventual eco-friendly economic environment across the world.

It was this aspirational consensus that the EAS could not reaffirm now. Japan saw this as an opportunity lost in the humanitarian game plan of bringing India, too, on board for a step-by-step voyage to attain the goal of eco-friendly economic development across the world. Although Japan, China and Australia, all parties to the recent APEC goals on this issue, were present at the EAS meeting, Manmohan Singh and Wen made common cause about the practical primacy of economic growth in relation to the challenges raised by global warming. As a result, Japan could only advocate but not activate its initiative for a sustainable East Asia.

The new Japanese initiative is designed as a step towards the realisation of Tokyos own Cool Earth 50 proposal the goal of reducing global-scale greenhouse gas emissions by half by the year 2050. Under the East Asia-related initiative, Japan has offered to extend technological and financial assistance to developing economies so that they can aim for eco-friendly growth. Conspicuous above the technical details of this new initiative is the commitment by Japan to launch a Greenhouse gases Observing Satellite (GOSAT) in 2008 and share the data with East Asian countries. China and India may benefit from Japanese know-how in the domain of eco-friendly growth, but both these countries also have the capability to launch satellites dedicated to the green cause.

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If Japan was disappointed over its failure to turn this EAS meeting into a green summit, Lees diplomatic skills did help prevent any damage to the forum itself. For Fukuda this was his first major multilateral summit as Prime Minister and he met both Wen and Manmohan Singh before the EAS conclave for a strategic brainstorming session. Obviously, such personal diplomacy was useful in sustaining the slowly emerging EAS spirit.

Energy security, in some ways linked to eco-friendly economic growth, was another major issue that the EAS discussed. No breakthrough was expected and none achieved. On the sensitive issue of civil nuclear energy, the EAS consensus was that interested parties could take this path by ensuring the safety of operations of the power-producing plants and by adhering to non-proliferation safeguards as set out by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Indias position, of course, was unique, with negotiations having just begun with the IAEA for an India-specific safeguards agreement. However, there was no discussion within the EAS on the India-U.S. civil nuclear energy deal.

In a sense, Chinas views on Indias quest for civil nuclear energy should be seen in the generic context of the EAS discussions on atomic power for peaceful purposes. These views were expressed during Wens talks with Manmohan Singh shortly before the EAS meeting.

For ASEAN, the EAS was not the only diplomatic highlight this time. This summit was followed by an ASEAN-European Union event, marking 30 years of their ever-closer relations. ASEAN has moved away from its old starry-eyed wonderment about the E.U., and Europe, a key market, is keen not to lose links with South-east Asia, which is increasingly coming under the influence of China, India and Japan.

The EAS was preceded by ASEANs collective summit with China, Japan and South Korea. This forum of ASEAN Plus Three, or APT, celebrated 10 years of cooperation. Exclusive summits between ASEAN on one side and each of the Plus Three countries and India on the other were also held. Various functional cooperation projects were discussed and agreed upon.

Celebrating 40 years of its own existence, ASEAN adopted a charter for the first time after Myanmar, a problematic member-state, agreed to the generic principles of democracy, political freedoms and human rights as the basic norms of governance in each country. Under the new charter, ASEAN will set up a human rights body over time with the concurrence of all member-states including Myanmar.

On the eve of the charter adoption, Myanmar Prime Minister General Thein Sein insisted that his countrys current crisis over democracy and human rights challenges was entirely an internal matter. Unable to persuade Thein Sein to let fellow ASEAN states lend substance to the United Nations good offices role, the collective forum decided to stay clear of the Myanmar crisis. After winning the concession for Myanmar to deal directly with the U.N. and after successfully vetoing the proposal that U.N. Special Envoy Ibrahim Gambari brief both the collective ASEAN and the EAS forum on his plans to bring about democracy in Myanmar, Thein Sein agreed to sign on the dotted line of the ASEAN charter. He successfully resisted a Myanmar-specific democracy prescription and agreed instead to the generic principle as applicable to all ASEAN states.

Following these intra-ASEAN developments, the leaders of the forum know that it is idle to imagine that their collective house is in order when Myanmar has so dramatically broken ranks on democracy as specifically applicable to it.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a one-time military chief who wants to be an Eisenhower-like democratic leader in his country, suggested to Thein Sein that the Myanmar junta would do well to study how the military in Indonesia had divested itself of its praetorian role in politics.

In a fundamental sense, the success of ASEANs efforts to create an architecture of cooperation across Greater East Asia, with the APT and the EAS serving as building blocks, will depend on how the Myanmar issue is resolved, perhaps under U.N. auspices. And, the question is how long will the U.S., Russia and the E.U. remain content to let China, India, Japan, South Korea and ASEAN play lead roles, with support from Australia and New Zealand, in shaping Greater East Asias political future.

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