Evolving Asia

Published : Jul 04, 2008 00:00 IST

The seventh Asia Security Summit focusses on Greater East Asia, a geopolitical zone that is yet to become a unified community.

in Singapore

ASIA, seen in some quarters as a rising geopolitical hemisphere in the current post-Cold War period, is an entity that does not easily lend itself to prescriptive politics of any kind. Even the geographical boundaries of a rising Asia are not easily agreed upon. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the seventh Asia Security Summit, also known as the Shangri-La Dialogue after the hotel venue in Singapore, has left unanswered the major issue of how this region will organise itself in the years to come. The annual summit brings together government leaders and strategic affairs experts from across the world.

The three-day summit, held under the auspices of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), reflected a certain degree of boldness of ideas, though. This was in line with IISS Director John Chipmans description of Asia as a vibrant security marketplace which is not quite yet a unified security community.

The geopolitical region in focus is Greater East Asia, which is often seen as the next big theatre in global politics. Smaller than continental Asia, the area is home to China and India, both seen as rising powers at different levels of overall economic and political dynamism, besides Japan, which is now seeking to bounce back on the global stage as a responsible power without its old imperialist baggage. The region includes Australia, essentially a Western outpost in Asia, with a distinctive local focus, though. Also spanning the space of the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), the geopolitical zone covers the territories of all the 16 members of the East Asia Summit (EAS).

While there is no dispute about the need for some form of security architecture for Greater East Asia, controversies remain over the issue of how long and how deep the United States should stay engaged in this region. The U.S. has remained a resident Asian power since the Second World War. Reasserting the continued relevance of such a presence, U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates told the Singapore summit that the U.S. would indeed stay on in Asia.

As of now, neither China nor India has suggested that the U.S. should leave the Greater East Asia region. Beijing and Washington are engaged in the delicate task of building and sustaining cooperative and constructive ties. The factor behind New Delhis evolving equation with Washington is free of any dynamic that would require a quick U.S. exit. In these circumstances, the future role of an increasingly resurgent post-Soviet Russia, as of now a reawakening giant on the periphery of the EAS region, has not yet been meaningfully addressed, insofar as its future security architecture is concerned.

These and other related aspects came into focus, in varying degrees, during the summit, which concluded on June 1. A proposal from Bangladesh, not an EAS member, took the conference by surprise. The idea, which would have the effect of excluding the U.S. from the region and curtailing Indias role, signified either some deep out-of-the-box thinking or more simply a casual application of the mind.

During a plenary session, Bangladeshs chief government delegate Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury said that China, Japan, the ASEAN and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) could constitute a flying geese formation to ensure security and stability in Asia.

Singapore Defence Minister Teo Chee Hean, one of the panellists at the time, shot down the proposal. In his view, the East Asian skyline offered no space for such a flying geese formation that would not include the U.S. and other relevant powers. Singapores view on this issue, shared by several other key players in Greater East Asia, is that the U.S. is as relevant to the security of the Asia-Pacific region as the Atlantic Alliance, with Washington as the prime mover, is for the stability of Europe.

The idea of a flying geese formation did not fly, but the summit did not quite take note of the fact that the Bangladesh proposal was also designed to diminish Indias role as a security guarantor in Greater East Asia. For several years now, New Delhi has been saying that it can be a factor of security and stability in this big region. However, not all delegates were acutely aware of the implications of allowing SAARC, instead of India, to play a prime role alongside China, Japan and ASEAN. Several delegates found nothing amiss in the juxtaposing of ASEAN and SAARC, both being multilateral groupings.

However, if SAARC, instead of India, is to sit alongside China, Japan and ASEAN, the high table of any such security forum will have place for New Delhi only when it occupies the chair of the South Asian group, and not at other times. This will mean that India gets its turn only every seventh year or so, depending on the consistency of the implementation of the chair rotation principle among the SAARC countries. It, therefore, requires no great insight to see that the Bangladesh proposal will have the effect of nullifying the generally acknowledged importance of India as a player in the same league as China and Japan for issues of vital concern to Greater East Asia.

And, in any case, Dhakas proposal is also aimed at enabling non-EAS members, such as Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh itself, to have a say in the affairs of the EAS. But for this interlude of a Bangladeshi proposal, there was no dimming of the overall focus during the dialogue on China and India as the rising Asian powers and on Japan, Australia and South Korea as the long-standing allies of the U.S. Significantly, it was only Bangladesh that openly or indirectly called for Washingtons exit from Greater East Asia.

Setting the tone for the dialogue, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said China and India were now thinking very carefully about steps to ensure their sustainable rise. The calculations of these two countries, in his view, were those relating to peace within and outside their boundaries. The agenda of either China or India was not hegemony.

Several pro-U.S. countries continued to see Washington as the legitimate leader in Greater East Asia as well. However, Singapore, a strong friend of the U.S., saw it as an important power alongside China and India and other such players. Lees ringing message to the summit was that none of the countries in the region [of Asia] wants to take sides between China and an adversary. So, a constructive relationship between the U.S. and China was the on wish list of not only Singapore but many others, he indicated.

Unlike China, though, India was not viewed, by Lee or any other leader, as being on a trajectory which the U.S. might see as a collision course. Such perceptions only helped intensify the focus on China-India ties themselves.

M.M. Pallam Raju, Indias Minister of State for Defence, assured the delegates that India would eschew proxy politics against any other rising power. He was asked whether China might not feel tempted to have misgivings about Indias increasingly positive ties with the U.S. Later, at a closed-door session of ministerial delegates, the Minister said the potential for conflict between the rising powers could be diminished by fora such as the Shangri-La Dialogue.

Robert Gates, on his part, availed himself of a question regarding Chinese concerns over certain market rumours and assured the summit that he was aware of no plans by the U.S. to sell its Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier to India. At the same time, Gates reaffirmed Washingtons commitment to the civil nuclear deal with New Delhi. He said it has been the position of the United States to be patient [while] the Indians work through this issue in the context of their domestic [political] challenges in the sensitive nuclear domain.

Reassuringly in these circumstances, Chinas chief delegate to the conference, Lieutenant General Ma Xiaotian, who is also Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the Peoples Liberation Army, turned his attention to the positive trends in Beijings equation with New Delhi in the military and political spheres. Ma told this correspondent on the sidelines of the conference that China appreciates very much the cooperative spirit demonstrated by the Indian government ... on the issue of Tibet. While he made this observation in an emphatic tone, he was no less candid about Chinas lingering concerns. Lt. Gen. Ma said: We hope that starting and proceeding from the overall interests of the bilateral relations between China and India, the Indian government could do more in restricting the violent activities of the Tibetan exiles or independent forces in India.

While there was no movement one way or another on the India-Japan front during the summit, Pallam Raju and Australian Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon held a number of conversations. Later, Fitzgibbon told Frontline that Canberra was looking for practical military ties with India in such areas as maritime security and counter-terrorism, in the first instance. Equally significant was his statement that the new Kevin Rudd government had not, as yet, turned its mind to the old Japanese proposal that the U.S., Australia, India and Japan could form a forum of Asia-Pacific democracies.

Closely linked to these cross-currents is the suggestion in the U.S. that the next administration there could explore the possibilities for U.S.-China-India trilateral security dialogue. IISS experts Adam Ward, Tim Huxley and Rahul Roy-Chaudhury, among others, evinced interest in the idea of a U.S.-China-India network. However, no one is sure whether it is time for such a system.

Such a trilateral framework will be of some consequence to the rise of Asia itself. While some international affairs experts such as Kishore Mahbubani of Singapore have begun to foresee a power-shift from the West to the East, Western experts such as John Ikenberry are convinced that the U.S. can remain the pre-eminent global power by managing the current West-oriented world order better, even as China is perceived to have chosen to rise within the confines of this order and without seeking to demolish it, at least as of now.

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