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Thursday, January 12, 2006

Locating India

This was written in December after the East Asia Summit in Kuala Lumpur


The Bigger Picture: An east asian community on the lines of the EU is a chimera


T RADITIONALLY, THE American academic view of Asia stopped at South-east Asia. Since West Asia was the other area of focus, India and the rest of South Asia occupied a sort of a black hole. The rise of China, and some hard thinking in some Asean capitals, has rescued India from that limbo. Manmohan Singh's presence at the East Asia Summit (EAS) in Kuala Lumpur was expression of that change. Indeed, what was once a crack through which India fell, now provides South Asia a swing position from where it can comfortably play the great game, be it in west, east or central Asia.

While the future of West Asia is being sought to be settled by raw American and Israeli military power, a more subtle process seems to be at work in East Asia. This was manifested at the EAS where ten Asean nations seek to work out the future of Asia with China, South Korea, Japan, India, Australia and New Zealand. Through the Cold War, the Asean was seen as part of the Western alliance, evidenced by its role in checking Vietnam and Cambodia. Subsequently too, the Asean, through institutions like the Asean Regional Forum (ARF), served as a platform to explicate US policies in Asia. What we are witnessing now is a shift, motivated as much by the Asean's need to be more `non-aligned' as to the rise of China, aided greatly by the US mis-steps in West Asia.

The original idea for the summit came from former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed in the early Nineties. His vision, strongly imbued with anti-colonialism, sought to exclude the US and what he saw as its surrogates, Australia and New Zealand, from Asian deliberations. The US, in turn, pushed for the creation of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) grouping as its major platform in the region. India did not figure in this list, but more because of the black hole effect. In Mahathir's scheme of things, the dominant role was to be played by Japan. His vision materialised in the form of an Asean+3 summit in 1989, the `plus three' being China, Japan and South Korea.

An East Asian community to check the US is as much of a chimera as the non-aligned movement was, or for that matter, the Moscow-Beijing axis in the Fifties and Sixties. The 21st century seems to be different, as indicated by the huge trade between China, the putative leader of this new bloc, and the US. Globalisation has ensured that in today's world, difficult political relationships neither help nor hinder commerce. So while the emergence of an East Asian Free Trade Area need not be too far-fetched a development, an East Asian community on the lines of the EU lies in a somewhat more remote future.

For one thing, the countries meeting in Kuala Lumpur represent several political and cultural streams. They represent a bewildering diversity, with India alone being host to a dozen well-developed languages with their own script and ethnicities. Of the 16 members of EAS, four -- Japan, Thailand, the Philippines, Australia and South Korea -- are military allies of the US.

The US may not be a formal invitee to the summit, but its presence is certainly registered, and not just through its surrogate, Australia, or military ally, Japan. The US is there by virtue of its long history in Asia, as well as its economic and military strength and location. Physically distant from East or West Asia, the US remains the ally of choice to balance a regional hegemon. Notwithstanding the Vietnam war and Iraq, many Asian countries see America as a good bet for the simple reason that as of today, it has the real power to in fluence events. Another reason why the EAS idea is likely to remain that of a free trade area, rather than a political community, is that only eight of its 16 constituent nations are democracies. Others are dictatorships, either of the military, or of the proletariat, and the others lie in between.

India, with its billion-strong population and a strong economic presence, makes for a significant entity, capable of exerting a formidable gravitational pull of its own. China comes in with little but a hugely growing economy on the credit side of the ledger. It has unresolved disputes -- the Spratly Islands with several Asean countries and the border with India. Its relations with Japan, the world's second-largest economy, are in awful shape. Indeed, with Tokyo moving to amend its pacifist constitution and deepen its military relations with the US, the future of the relations between the two Asian giants doesn't look all that good. But neither does it bode well for a putative East Asian community where these two countries are supposed to play a lead role.

Since the early Nineties, India has articulated a `look East' policy and there is an underlying shift powering this policy. As of 2004, nearly 20 per cent of Indian merchandise trade is with the Asean +3, as compared to 19 per cent with the EU and 12.9 with the US. But direction of trade statistics can tell you little about the nature of political relations. Notwithstanding pious declarations, Beijing has prob lems with the US, Japan as well as India. Public declarations notwithstanding, Beijing does not miss any opportunity to politically weaken India's position vis-à-vis its neighbours. It works along the realpolitik principle of using them to check India's pre-eminence in the South Asian region. This is not very different from the way the US uses China's neighbours -- India, Japan, countries of the Asean -- to check China's efforts to establish its pre-eminence in the Asian region. In the process, the US is willing to make greater overtures to India -- such as coordinating its Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka policy with India, and, in the words of its own officials, taking a number of other measures to give India a leg-up to become a world power.

Many people tend to see this as a Manichean contest between India and China. Some insist that China is a sinister force seeking to use its growing economic might to architect new regional political and security structures. Others would argue that it is simply a natural outgrowth of China's economic dynamism and an effort to secure cheaper access to South-east Asian resources and markets. China can be seen both as a threat and an opportunity. The moves to an EAS, or a wider Asian community, can also be used as a means of knitting it in a web of relationships that moderate its behaviour.

A lot has been said about the shadow boxing that preceded the summit and the power games being played out in the EAS. But Manmohan Singh's remarks on the need to promote economic linkages with the region bring out the limited Indian agenda. New Delhi sees its main challenge as one of fostering commercial links and free trade agreements with the region and not that of a rival political grouping of the EU and the US. On the other hand, as long as the original Asean + 3 idea was there, China probably saw the EAS as a means of providing a political and security framework to rival that of the US. But with India and Australia in the picture, the chances are that the Chinese ardour for the EAS will cool rapidly. In all likelihood, the meeting will become another body like the APEC or the ARF where leaders meet, declarations are made, but little is done.

1 comment:

editindia said...

Great blog. I wonder why no one told me about this earlier.