The long haul

Print edition : August 18, 2001

The message from Hanoi: in order to make any enhanced engagement with ASEAN meaningful, beyond its `Look East' policy, India needs to have a focus on the East.

SLOWLY, but surely, India is moving closer to the goal of a separate summit with the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN).This diplomatic goal appears within reach after the recently concluded ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in Hanoi, which saw Foreign Ministers from the ASEAN-10 discussing the issue.

Foreign Ministers of the Association of South-East Asian Nations at the start of the 34th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in Hanoi on July 23.-RICHARD VOGEL/AP

Also, this time, Thailand joined a growing consensus within ASEAN for a separate summit meeting with India, leading Malaysia to refer the whole issue to its Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad. There was little doubt that the resumption of dialogue between India and Pakistan played a role in creating a better environment at the meeting, a point that was appreciated by Malaysia as well.

At the last ASEAN informal summit in Singapore, Malaysia had opposed such a summit meeting. During Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's visit to Kuala Lumpur in May this year, Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar said India's interaction with ASEAN was at a sufficiently high level. The present decision to refer this whole issue to Mahathir could mean that some kind of a decision on enhancing the level of interaction with India will be taken by the time the ASEAN Heads of Government meet in Brunei for their summit meeting in November. Although India was represented by the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, K.C. Pant, the absence of External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh was noted at the ASEAN Post-Ministerial Conference (PMC), the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the Mekong-Ganga Cooperation (MGC) sessions.

Clearly, at a time when India is pushing hard for a summit meeting with ASEAN, the External Affairs Minister, who had attended the last three meetings (1998-2000), should have been present. Indian officials had to explain that the Minister had good reason not to be in Hanoi, as his presence in New Delhi was necessary during the Parliament session.

Addressing a press conference after the Ministerial Meeting, Vietnamese Foreign Minister Nguyen Dy Nien hoped that a "clearer position" would soon emerge on the issue of holding an ASEAN-India summit.

Taking advantage of the multilateral setting, Pant went into some detail on India-Pakistan issues - explaining the recent Agra Summit and India's desire to build good relations with Pakistan. At the 23-nation ARF meeting, as part of a general review of the international situation, Pant said it was "appropriate" for him to make a reference to the Musharraf-Vajpayee meeting. "Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf visited India from July 14 to 16. The invitation extended to him by India was in keeping with our consistent desire to build a relationship of durable peace, friendship and cooperation with Pakistan, as indeed with all our neighbours. General Musharraf was received with full protocol honours and he met with a cross-section of Indian leadership and society," he said.

Pant continued: "India's approach during the discussions was that a narrow, segmented and unifocal approach would not work... we remain steadfast in our commitment to resume the composite dialogue and the Lahore process with Pakistan... we will continue our abiding quest for good-neighbourly relations with Pakistan. President Musharraf has extended an invitation to Prime Minister Vajpayee to visit Pakistan, which has been accepted. A similar invitation has also been extended to our External Affairs Minister which, too, has been accepted. We will thus start afresh while maintaining our basic approaches to Pakistan."

Pant was severe on terrorism and the Taliban. "The spread of the Taliban's ideology of medieval malevolence, obscurantism, fundamentalism and intolerance has the potential to unleash violence and divisiveness in other areas... it is necessary for all of us to join hands to fight the scourge of international terrorism. It is also time for the ARF to take up the issue as part of its discussions on transnational crime," he said.

WHILE referring to several other issues, Pant specifically spoke of the South China Sea, where China has disputes with several countries over the Spratly Islands. "India is happy to see that all countries who are parties to disputes in the South China Sea have maintained restraint and are attempting resolution through peaceful dialogues. The South China Sea is an important shipping route for all of us, and absence of conflict is necessary to ensure freedom of navigation. We are also happy to hear about the progress made on concluding the Regional Code of Conduct (for the South China Sea)," he said.

Since 1998, the meetings of the ARF had been preoccupied with the Indian (and Pakistani) nuclear tests. But the issue took a backseat at the present conference. India's engagement with the United States has given a different colour to its nuclear posture. Even activist nations such as Australia mentioned issues like Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) only in passing. They no longer raise a hue and cry on the tests. The ARF Chairman's statement (not a consensus document, it is open to changes) on this occasion said that the Indian side opposed the reference to expressions of "welcome" for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

In the end, the formulation in the ARF Chairman's statement read: "The Ministers discussed issues relating to proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery as well as the implications of missile defence systems. They noted expressions of support for the NPT as the cornerstone of the global non-proliferation regime. The Ministers also took note of the call for all states to sign and ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and to accede to the NPT..." In Manila in 1998, the ARF Chairman's statement on the issue, read: "The Ministers... expressed grave concern over and strongly deplored the recent nuclear tests in South Asia, which exacerbated tension in the region and raised the spectre of a nuclear arms race... they asked the countries concerned to refrain from undertaking weaponisation or deploying missiles to deliver nuclear weapons."

AT the ASEAN-India PMC, New Delhi proposed a meeting of Trade Ministers later this year. It made several proposals for the development of the Mekong region."There is much scope for expanding and deepening our cooperative agenda, for there is much that is common between India's goals for economic development and those of ASEAN. The possibilities for functional cooperation between us are limitless. India is hopeful that our enthusiasm and our efforts will result in tangible goals for all of us," Pant said at the ASEAN-India PMC.

While India made specific proposals for interaction with ASEAN, there was, as can be expected, some overlap between these and the suggestions for greater cooperation with the MGC grouping.

The Second Annual Ministerial Meeting of the MGC, which was set up in Vientiane, Laos, in November 2000 and comprises India, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, was held after the ASEAN PMCs concluded. While enthusiasm for the fledgling organisation remains, the grouping is short of funds. One of the suggestions that came up at the meeting on July 28 was that the grouping approach international aid organisations for help in developing its infrastructure. Before the meeting, India was asked by some member-countries to contribute funds. India suggested that all member-countries contribute "seed money" for cooperation in the areas of tourism, culture, education and transport and communication.

The Second Meeting of Foreign Ministers adopted the "Hanoi Programme of Action", effective from July 2001 to July 2007, to promote cooperation in certain identified areas. The Ministers decided to assess the present status of the transportation networks in the region; foster cooperation in cross-border facilitation, infrastructure development, maritime and inland water transport, civil aviation and human resource development; and enhance the implementation of ambitious road and rail projects.

There is little doubt that the MGC needs to focus on specific areas if it is to prove viable in the coming years. Member-countries need to quickly move to a visa-on-arrival arrangement if they are serious about promoting tourism among themselves. China is closely watching the MGC and India's involvement in the grouping, especially since it is a Mekong country that is part of other multilateral Mekong cooperation efforts but not the MGC. The Chinese have a significant presence in Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia and are involved in several projects in these countries.

It was also evident on the sidelines of the MGC meeting that China is interested in joining the MGC. A reference to the issue was made by the Chinese side to India informally, but the latter feels that it is time to build up the organisation before the issue of new members can be taken up, a point made by the Foreign Minister of Myanmar.

Some analysts have been questioning the motivations behind the MGC, which apparently came about after a visit by the then Thai Foreign Minister, Surin Pitsuwan, to India. Following Surin's talks with Jaswant Singh, the idea was discussed with other Ministers last July in Bangkok, before the organisation was finally launched. These analysts believe that the former Thai Minister is close to the Americans and therefore the proposal had the blessings of Washington.

While Washington may not be averse to the idea of India playing a greater role in South-East Asia, New Delhi, along with other MGC members, now has the responsibility to ensure that this grouping attains the goals it has set for itself. If India believes there is a strategic dimension to the MGC, then there is all the more reason for New Delhi to keep this grouping relevant and live.

If the MGC fails to take off, India's standing in South-East Asia will suffer a setback. "Looking East", clearly, is not enough. India needs to have a focus on the East. This "focus" is necessary not just for the MGC, but also on the rest of ASEAN if India wants to ensure that any enhancement of engagement with the regional organisation becomes meaningful.

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