Emerging Asian equations

Print edition : November 07, 2003

India and ASEAN adopt three documents designed to take the two sides towards a wide-spectrum relationship; however, the latter moves even closer to China by entering into a strategic partnership.

in Singapore

Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee and Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri exchange documents after the signing of the ASEAN-India Framework Agreement on Comprehensive Economic Cooperation at the conclusion of the 9th ASEAN summit of leaders in Nusa Dua, Bali, on October 8.-ROMEO GACAD/AFP

THE Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), known for its penchant for external linkages despite its own political diversity, has now drawn both India and China into a much more complex relationship, in different ways though. In one sense, the commonality is that both India and China have acceded to ASEAN's Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC), signalling their shared yet separate policies of underwriting the peace and stability of the entire South-East Asian region. However, the main difference between the ASEAN-China equation and the India-ASEAN connectivity concerns China's image as a world-class power that counts in South-East Asia and the perceived status of India as a potential global power.

The meeting that Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee held with ASEAN leaders at their summit in Bali (Indonesia) on October 8 was certainly a testimony to the evolving intensity of the interactions between the two sides. A number of bilateral meetings that Vajpayee held with the leaders of various ASEAN countries as also China and South Korea helped enhance India's profile in the East Asian region. India and the ASEAN signed or adopted three key documents on the occasion.

Of these, the Framework Agreement on Comprehensive Economic Cooperation between ASEAN on one side and India on the other is designed to take the two sides, in incremental steps, towards a wide-spectrum relationship in this sphere, which would include a free trade agreement as the centrepiece. India's accession to the TAC is as much an index of the association's recognition of New Delhi as a factor of peace and stability in South-East Asia as indeed a mutual acknowledgment of each other's peaceful intentions. The ASEAN-India Joint Declaration for Cooperation to Combat International Terrorism is actually modelled on a similar anti-terror pledge that the United States and the 10 South-East Asian states made in Brunei in July last year.

In contrast, traceable more to the association's geopolitical situation rather than any value judgment on the relative strengths and weaknesses of New Delhi and Beijing, the documents that ASEAN and China signed or adopted during the Bali conclave are more substantive in character than the ones that India entered into.

China's Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and the heads of state/government of the member-countries of ASEAN have signed a Joint Declaration on Strategic Partnership for Peace and Prosperity. ASEAN itself noted that the Declaration now marked the "beginning of a new stage" in the relationship with China. ASEAN expressed the hope that this new idea of a "strategic partnership" would help in the peaceful resolution of the "disputes" between China on one side and some member-states of ASEAN on the other over the political and constitutional status of the Spratlys Islands in the South China Sea.

With an eye on the "eventual establishment" of an ASEAN-China free trade area, the two sides signed a protocol to amend the existing Framework Agreement on Comprehensive Economic Cooperation. As for another ongoing project, Wen Jiabao and the ASEAN leaders agreed to "expedite" the implementation of their existing Joint Statement on Cooperation in the Field of Non-Traditional Security Issues. The statement is the equivalent of a joint anti-terror declaration but it also covers unconventional security threats other than terrorism of the kind now witnessed across the world on political and religious arguments.

In the context of China's latest accession to ASEAN's TAC, Wen Jiabao and the regional leaders agreed to consider confidence-building measures under an earlier Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. ASEAN leaders sounded a note of optimism that such follow-up measures "would lead to the eventual establishment of [an actual] code of conduct in the South China Sea". More closely related to the fight against non-traditional security threats rather than the proposed code of conduct was the latest consensus between Wen Jiabao and his ASEAN interlocutors that the two sides hold a security-related dialogue.

At one level of the geostrategic equations in East Asia, the enhanced accent on issues relating to the status of the Spratlys Islands and the China-ASEAN declaration on a strategic partnership underscore the importance of Beijing on the association's radar screen (not necessarily in a negative sense). This dynamic aspect of the ASEAN-China interaction distinguishes it from the relatively less intense, yet by no means less substantial, equation between India and South-East Asia.

On issues concerning trade and economic cooperation, the new ASEAN-China protocol is indicative of the shared desire of the two parties to place their relevant negotiations on a fast track. India's new agreement with ASEAN in this sphere is no less a device to speed up the process of their economic cooperation. At the first ASEAN-India summit, held in Phnom Penh last year, Vajpayee had offered to discuss a comprehensive economic cooperation pact, with particular reference to a free trade agreement, between the two parties. Considering that a framework agreement has now been signed, the sense of urgency that both India and ASEAN have shown cannot be lost sight of. Articulating ASEAN's perspective on India in the economic sphere, Singapore's Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong has often compared India on one side and China (as also Japan and South Korea) on the other to the two wings of the association as seen as a jumbo jet. India's importance to ASEAN was in ample evidence during Vajpayee's meetings in Bali.

During the run-up to the signing of the ASEAN-India framework agreement on economic issues, at least two member-states of the association, the Philippines and Vietnam, were slower than the other eight states to accept all the finer details. The reason had much to do with their own respective equations with other ASEAN members inside an unequally developed region. The calculus was all about a balance of commitments and advantages, in the specific context of how far ASEAN member-states could have their own bilateral preferences in dealing with the association's key partners such as China, India, Japan and South Korea in Asia, even if ASEAN collectively signs a cooperation agreement with these countries.

It was against this background that ASEAN's former Secretary-General Rodolfo Severino said in Singapore on October 14 that the apparent reservations among some member-countries towards New Delhi were "not India-specific" in political complexion. Such reservations were related to the intra-ASEAN dynamics and applied to other partners as well such as China, he explained. On October 13, ASEAN's present Secretary-General Ong Keng Yong underlined the relevance of India in a different perspective. Speaking at the East Asia Summit of the World Economic Forum, he noted that if a regional summit at the political level were to be held, instead of the present "ASEAN Plus Three" arrangement that links the association with China as also Japan and South Korea, then India too would perhaps be included under the label of East Asia Summit Plus One.

In this sense, ASEAN's current dealings with India and China in the economic arena do not differentiate one from the other as a partner on the basis of any geopolitical considerations. As for ASEAN's anti-terror cooperation with India and China, on two independent but not necessarily unrelated tracks, there is little or no definitive sign of the association wishing to treat either Beijing or New Delhi in a preferred fashion. At the moment, neither New Delhi nor ASEAN has gone into such specifics as whether or not the anti-India terrorists, with links to "Pakistan" in some form or other, have connections with the Jemaah Islamiyah, the suspected South-East Asian affiliate of Al Qaeda. However, India will watch closely how ASEAN might seek to enlarge its Regional Forum (ARF), an international group for security-related consultations, by inviting Pakistan to join this club. The ARF consists of the U.S. as also China, Japan, India, Russia, Australia and a few others, besides ASEAN itself as the nucleus.

The strategic ties of ASEAN with India and China are not of the same genre. Welcoming the independent accessions to the TAC by China and India, ASEAN leaders adduced the same reasoning that these steps would help enhance peace and stability in the region. Unlike in the case of India, though, ASEAN has now entered into a strategic partnership with China, as a logical corollary to the several similar agreements that Beijing had entered into with individual member-states during the past few years.

QUITE apart from the Spratlys issue being a specific irritant in the ASEAN-China nexus, the association is acutely conscious of the crucial relevance of China as a possible trouble-shooter in the current international efforts to disarm North Korea of its potential to make and possess nuclear weapons.

The ASEAN leaders "agreed to continue consultations on China's intention to accede to the Protocol to the Treaty on the South-East Asia Nuclear Weapons-Free Zone". In contrast, ASEAN has so far shown no comparable inclination to accept India's offer, first made in 1998, to accede to the same protocol and acknowledge the sanctity of South-East Asia as a nuclear-weapons-free zone. ASEAN's differential attitude towards Beijing and New Delhi in this context can be traced to the fact that India, unlike China, is not recognised as a state with nuclear arsenal under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), according to regional diplomats and analysts. While Indian leaders have ab initio rejected the NPT as a discriminatory arrangement that cannot be elevated to the status of international law, ASEAN's relevant protocol was framed in the light of the NPT norms.

In the ASEAN perspective, another factor to reckon with is the "the geography of the peace" - a concept popularised by Robert S. Ross and other China specialists who influence the thinking of the strategic community in East Asia. The argument is that China, a dominant regional power, and the U.S., a superpower with predominant presence across maritime East Asia, could ensure peace by a bipolar arrangement.

It is against this backdrop of ASEAN's own interactions with China and India that Wen Jiabao's meeting with Vajpayee was noted as a significant event, in spite of its essential complexion as a bilateral political conversation. On a different plane, no major new initiative was taken by either ASEAN on one side, or Japan or South Korea on the other. ASEAN decided to transform itself into a "community" rooted in cooperation among its member-states in the political security domain, the economic sphere and the socio-cultural field.

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