WITH Prime Minister Manmohan Singh having set a new tone for India's engagement with the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) by putting forward the vision of an "Asian Economic Community", Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's visit to New Delhi from December 19 to 21 acquired an importance that went beyond the usual display of bilateral bonhomie.
As New Delhi's biggest trading partner among ASEAN countries and a major participant in the Indian infrastructure industry, Malaysia has sought to enhance the economic linkages on the bilateral front. The initial signal from New Delhi, in the context of Abdullah Badawi's visit, is one of willingness to intensify the economic engagement, with India too beginning to carve out a niche in Malaysia's Information Technology and other sectors. Political and defence cooperation is also high on the bilateral agenda.
Malaysia is home to the largest single group of People of Indian Origin. While this aspect lends a certain uniqueness to the bilateral equation, central to any dialogue on this issue is India's perception that these people have integrated themselves into the larger Malaysian society. As for the conspicuous presence of Indian citizens as professionals and workers in Malaysia, it was Abdullah Badawi who, as the Deputy Prime Minister, played a crucial role in defusing a potential crisis over the "treatment" of some Indian Information Technology professionals nearly two years ago. The spirit displayed during Abdullah Badawi's visit to New Delhi should augur well for bilateral relations.
Multilateral issues, some of them of direct interest to India, are no less important in Malaysia's dialogue with India in the strategic and economic domains. Of particular interest to New Delhi will be the stand that Malaysia might take when India's bid to become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council comes up for discussion. As the current Chair of both the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC), Malaysia does have a say at a collective level. To this extent, its own current inclination is not the decisive factor. Closely related to this is the unfolding power play at the U.N.
India's initiative for an "Asian Economic Community" and ASEAN's own quest for an "East Asian Community" in partnership with China, Japan and South Korea are issues that Malaysia will have to make a judgment about. Both these being long-term objectives, the process of decision-making can be expected to come under new reality checks over time.
With India's proposal as now formulated subsuming but not matching ASEAN's firm initiative for an "East Asian Community" in terms of the identity of countries likely to be on board, the latter's gradual decision-making process will be of direct relevance to India. While the current ASEAN definition of an "East Asian Community" excludes India, Manmohan Singh's proposal is designed to place India at the high table. Including India might require a re-naming of the vision, if agreed upon by ASEAN and its North East Asian dialogue partners.
Relevant to these future developments is the fact that Malaysia will host the first-ever "East Asia summit" in 2005, the invitees being other ASEAN members, China, Japan and South Korea. India's exclusion is explained by the fact that the summit was decided upon by the existing ASEAN+3 forum.
With Malaysia likely to get the ASEAN Chair in 2005, the moves that Abdullah Badawi makes regarding how best to associate India with the unfolding "Asian Drama" in the economic domain will be interesting to watch.