A vision for Asia

Published : Jan 14, 2005 00:00 IST

The ASEAN idea of a broad "East Asian Community" including China, Japan and South Korea adds significance to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's proposal for an "Asian Economic Community".

in Singapore

A "REVOLUTION of rising expectations" or, simply, the idea of win-win inter-state cooperation is sweeping across much of East Asia as the region looks for a new architecture of "shared prosperity" for the countries concerned.

The vision is based on the recognition by the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), at its summit with China, Japan and South Korea in Vientiane on November 29, that "the establishment of an East Asian Community is a long-term objective". The leaders of these countries "reaffirmed the role of [the] ASEAN+3 process as the main vehicle for the eventual establishment of an East Asian Community". The ASEAN+3 forum consists of all 10 member-states of the ASEAN, and China, Japan and South Korea.

India's new initiative for the formation of a wider "Asian Economic Community", in the fullness of time for obvious reasons, acquires importance against such a background. Surprisingly, the ASEAN Chairman's statement, issued at the conclusion of its third summit with India in Vientiane on November 30, was silent on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's proposal for an "Asian Economic Community".

While Manmohan Singh briefed his counterparts from South East Asia about the new Indian economic initiative, ASEAN's statement centred mainly on issues relating to the "deepening ASEAN-India partnership" of the present times. This should, in some measure, explain ASEAN's initial silence, not to be misconstrued as reservations, about the Indian proposal.

However, on December 20, Lee Kuan Yew, elder statesman of ASEAN and former Singapore Prime Minister, said categorically, in response to a question from this correspondent, that "it is to the advantage of the ASEAN countries that any such East Asian Community should include India". He was speaking at a dinner meeting organised by the Foreign Correspondents Association (Singapore). Lee Kuan Yew's endorsement of India's place in a prospective "East Asian Community" was based on the assumption that Manmohan Singh had indeed suggested the formation of an "East Asian Economic Community". Evidently, Manmohan Singh's proposal did not receive enough publicity in ASEAN circles.

But Lee Kuan Yew's comments underlined India's relevance to East Asia. In the former Prime Minister's perspective, India's association with a possible "East Asian Community" would help "expand the market" and lead to "more specialisation and division of labour". India's potential contributions towards the well-being of East Asia in the political and security spheres were cited by him as factors that should weigh in with ASEAN leaders.

If Lee Kuan Yew's remarks seem to indicate a certain dilution of Manomhan Singh's proposal, the fact is that the Indian proposal for an "Asian Economic Community" is also confined to a cooperative relationship with the ASEAN, China, Japan and South Korea, at least in the initial stages. Interestingly, Lee Kuan Yew has envisioned the possibility of bringing in Sri Lanka and Pakistan too under the umbrella of an "East Asian Community" some time in the future.

The Indian proposal is derived from Manmohan Singh's vision of "an arc of stability" across parts of South Asia and almost the entire East Asian region. Significantly, he contrasted this vision with the instability prevalent in regions to the west of India. In political terms, this could imply the exclusion of Pakistan (in South Asia) and North Korea (in East Asia) from the wide spectrum of the proposed link-up between India and the ASEAN+3 forum.

Viewed from the wider East Asian perspective, both Pakistan and North Korea are already members of the ASEAN Regional Forum, an entity created to discuss regional security issues, without being ASEAN's full-fledged dialogue partners on economic cooperation. This leaves the door open for the ASEAN to engage both Pakistan and North Korea, not necessarily at the same time, to explore the possibilities of their association with an "East Asian Community".

Closely related to these possibilities is the issue of a prime mover. So far, ASEAN has taken the lead in propagating the idea of an "East Asia Community", with active support from China, Japan and South Korea. On the other hand, India has already informed the ASEAN members of its intention to host a workshop to evolve a "concept paper" on the proposal of an "Asian Economic Community".

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, who received External Affairs Minister Natwar Singh in Seoul on December 16, agreed to send a representative to India for the workshop. Equally significant is the indication by Manmohan Singh that Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi was appreciative of the Indian initiative and the parallel idea of "an arc of stability". The two met on the sidelines of the recent ASEAN-organised summits involving the forum's key dialogue partners from Asia.

Manmohan Singh's meeting with Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao on the margins of the ASEAN meetings was singularly noteworthy for its focus on political rapprochement between the two Asian giants. Given the present state of momentum in China-India political engagement, the question of an "East Asian Community" (with India too on board) could be factored into this most potent bilateral equation on the Asian continent.

South East Asian strategic experts such as Jusuf Wanandi have projected that the ASEAN+3 mechanism "could evolve - with significant Chinese participation - into an East Asian Community over the longer term".

OUTLINING a putative road map for the establishment of such a community, Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has identified its building blocks. Speaking in Kuala Lumpur on December 6, he said negotiations would be needed to put in place a charter, a free-trade area, an accord on monetary and financial cooperation and an agreement on a regional transportation and communications network. He suggested that an East Asia declaration of human rights and obligations and, no less importantly, a consensus on creating an East Asia zone of amity and cooperation would also be required.

The idea of a treaty on carving out East Asia as a zone of amity and cooperation subsumed, in Abdullah Badawi's view, not only a "guarantee" for "good neighbourliness" and the avoidance of the use or threat of use of force, among other dos and don'ts, but also "ideally" the exclusion of weapons of mass destruction from East Asia. It is not clear at this stage how ASEAN, sailing under the colours of this "ideal", can trim its sails to the winds of realism. China possesses a nuclear arsenal. India, which could join the proposed "East Asian Community" or an enlarged version of it, too has atomic weapons.

On a long-term trajectory, "offensive realists" in the United States such as John Mearsheimer and others have delineated an extraordinary projection that Washington, in its bid to clip Beijing's military wings, might even seek to coopt New Delhi, now regarded as "a wild card", for a "division" of anti-China roles in the Indian Ocean area.

This kind of strategic "realism", whether or not inspired by the U.S. officialdom, is the stuff of "destabilisation" games, which Manmohan Singh's idea of "an arc of stability" and ASEAN's plans for an East Asian Community seem designed to counter.

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