Divide and rule

Print edition : June 30, 2006

At the annual Asia Security Summit, the U.S. outlines a "security architecture" for the continent, as seen and shaped by it.

P. S. SURYANARAYANA in Singapore

U.S. DEFENCE SECRETARY Donald Rumsfeld and Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee after a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the Asia Security Summit in Singapore on June 3.-HOW HWEE YOUNG/REUTERS

THE importance of being China or India is no longer a new story line on the Asian scene. What is new, however, is the modulation of the policy of the United States towards these two Asian neighbours on matters concerning its `globalised' security interests across the continent.

Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, a more consummate policy-articulator than President George W. Bush, put his intellectual and oratorical skills to good effect, at the annual Asia Security Summit in early June. He spoke about "Asia's emerging security architecture" as seen and shaped by the U.S, leaving no one in doubt about his country's preferences.

The summit, known as the Shangri-La Dialogue, was organised in Singapore by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). The periodical event has become a half-way house between track one diplomacy, involving inter-state talks at the political or official echelons, and track two exchanges at the level of non-official experts. Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee presented India as "a rising global player". China was represented by a middle-level official. Serving military officers, academic experts and other professionals were present from several major countries of eastern and southern Asia and the West.

In Rumsfeld's view, the international community is at a crossroads now. Drawing a parallel with Harry Truman's post-Second World War presidency, he said that the U.S. was faced with the opportunity and challenge of refashioning "the world system". In fact, the present Bush administration seems more interested in preserving the existing "world system", in which the U.S. remains the sole `hyper power'. Any re-ordering of this system will only be attempted by Washington if the new "architecture" can guarantee lasting U.S. primacy.

While Rumsfeld did not emphasise this salient aspect of U.S. defence policy, the totality of his address and answers to questions from the delegates left no room for any softer interpretation. Relevant to this conclusion was the fact hat he did not actually unveil, in a manner of speaking, "Asia's emerging security architecture" with any details about what it might look like, if and when fully evolved.

Within these parameters, Rumsfeld did indicate that a paradigm shift was currently taking place in U.S. attitudes towards major players in Asia. "Our relationship with India", he said, "has grown from an uneasy coexistence during the Cold War to a true partnership, based on our common values and common interests today."

His key comment about China was that it was "an important stakeholder in the [existing] world system." The Chinese, therefore, "have an obligation to see that the system is successful, because they benefit so enormously from its success." Not being a mind-teaser, the formulation, which emphasises Beijing's obligation, reflects the U.S.' desire to co-opt China's people and leaders into preserving the existing global "system". This system is based on American pre-eminence in not only the military domain but also the frontier areas of science and technology.

No less important was Rumsfeld's clear warning to Chinese leaders that they might face an unspecified "consequence" if they did not "demystify" their military investments. These, in his view, had already raised "concerns" around the world.

Significant, in this context, was the manner in which Rumsfeld clearly wooed India, without of course seeking to portray it as a potential regional counterweight to China under U.S. "tutelage". Mukerjee and Rumsfeld held separate talks on the sidelines of the summit on June 3. They discussed military relations between the two nations and briefly reviewed the implementation of last year's bilateral agreement on defence cooperation.

Growing U.S.-India military ties have brought a new dynamic to the Asian stage. Worth quoting, at some length, is the studied answer that Rumsfeld gave in response to a question from this correspondent on the new nuance.

Asked whether the U.S. military establishment now regarded India as just a dialogue partner or a potential ally or simply a friend, Rumsfeld said: "I don't know all the code words that diplomats use. But, over the past five or six years, the relationship between the U.S. and India, from a military-to-military standpoint, has been on a steady improvement. And, it is multi-faceted at this stage. It involves exercise. It involves working together on problems of common interest. And, we certainly expect to see that our areas of common interest will continue to bring us together, from a military-to-military standpoint, in the months and years to come."

AUSTRALIAN DEFENCE MINISTER Brendan Nelson.-TIM CHONG/REUTERS

At other points during his reply, Rumsfeld stated twice that the U.S. "greatly values" its growing military ties with India and that these mattered "a great deal" to Washington for the present and in "the years to come". As he is known to weigh words in praise or denunciation of other countries and players, the U.S. position on military ties with India cannot be more explicit, at least for the present.

What are the signals, if any, about India's response to the new U.S. embrace? Mukherjee said that "our cooperation in all sectors is going on smoothly" since the signing of a bilateral framework agreement on defence cooperation nearly a year ago.

Although India's civil nuclear energy deal with the U.S. did come up for serious mention and much speculation at the summit, Mukherjee took the line that the Pentagon was not actually seized of the issue at all. This left unanswered the questions about what the U.S. might want as a trade-off in the event the deal secures U.S. Congress approval. Fielding questions during the conference itself, Mukherjee cited New Delhi's "impeccable" record on the non-proliferation front and argued that both the U.S. Congress and the Nuclear Suppliers Group on the wider international stage should, therefore, lift the existing restrictions on the transfer of atomic-energy-related know-how and materials to India.

Director-General and Chief Executive of the IISS John Chipman, who explained the new focus on India, drew the attention of the conference delegates to a commonality between New Delhi and Washington. Seeing Rumsfeld's allusion to an ongoing American micro-loan project in India as an aspect of U.S. emphasis on prosperity and pluralism, Chipman pointed out how Mukherjee, too, had emphasised the Indian preference for democracy and economic development.

On the strategic undertones, if any, of the incremental U.S.-India engagement in the defence domain, Mukherjee explicitly denied any China factor. "Neither of them told me any such thing, " he said, referring to both the Americans and the Chinese leaders, with whom he had held talks in Beijing before the Singapore summit.

The crux of Mukherjee's address was that India's foreign and defence policies were and continue to be rooted in the same principle - no territorial ambitions and no export of ideologies including democracy. Portraying India as "a core state" in the emerging global order, he said New Delhi's "role is crucial for ensuring and maintaining long-term peace, stable balance of power, economic growth, and security in Asia". Despite his focus on balance of power, he disfavoured India's participation in the discriminatory U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative, which China does not support. Mukherjee recalled that China's late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping had told Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi that "there could be no Asia-Pacific century without India and China forming crucial elements of such an architecture".

As for the more immediate present, Mukherjee left no room for doubt that India was in no mood to try and constrain China either at present or in the future. The policy was spelt out as India's choice by free will and as an aspect of New Delhi's growing understanding with Beijing. He told the summit that he and top Chinese leaders had agreed a few days earlier in Beijing that "there is enough space for developing together, growing together, not at the expense of the other, but independently of each other".

There could not have been a more categorical assurance to the international community, during the course of a security-related summit, that India would not bite the bait of reining in China and growing under the "tutelage" of the U.S. or any other power.

It is in this context that some of the new nuances in Washington's own policy towards China, as being increasingly articulated by Western Sinologists, acquire importance.

SINGAPORE PRIME MINISTER Lee Hsien Loong.-WONG MAYE-E/AP

Some of these experts see no contradiction between Rumsfeld's hard-line view on China's "military modernisation minus transparency", at the Pentagon, and Bush's perceived policy of not wanting trouble with Beijing for now. This American perspective is shared by sections of the administration and U.S.-based Sinologists. However, Bush's current preoccupations with Iraq and Iran, not to mention his "consultative" approach towards China on the North Korean nuclear arms issue, clearly preclude any move by Washington to raise the stakes in its interactions with Beijing, at least for some time to come.

Interestingly, while the North Korean issue did figure at the Shangri-La Dialogue, the questions of Iraq and Iran or Russia-China rapprochement did not evoke noteworthy debate. In all, the Asia Security Summit remained focussed essentially on the dynamics of the ongoing engagement among the U.S., India and China.

Robert Sutter, an academic and former U.S. intelligence officer for East Asia and the Pacific told this correspondent in Singapore on June 9 that the Bush administration was at present engaged in "maximising American influence" across the world. This should also explain the growing U.S.-India engagement. Indeed, the name of the current American game was "not containment of China", Sutter noted. Yet Rumsfeld's views on China, reckoned to be quite moderate compared with recent times, were necessitated by the American perception that China was preparing to confront the U.S. if it were to intervene in Taiwan, he outlined.

On the possible emergence of "a loose network of major powers with common interests" in the Asia-Pacific region, Tim Huxley, a ranking IISS specialist, said "the idea of a formal military alliance" involving the U.S., Australia and also India and Japan, was "out of the question".

Closely linked to such pragmatic views are some significant political perceptions. Australian Defence Minister Brendan Nelson told Frontline on June 5 that "China and India are going to be significant determinants of our place in the region for the foreseeable future." Independently, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said, at the summit's opening dinner, that "the rapid emergence of China and India ... will shape the emerging framework for security cooperation in the region".

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