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Updated: December 28, 2009 13:24 IST

India looks east amidst changing Asian equations

Siddharth Varadarajan
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A Thai military police officer stands between the flags while guarding a hotel where the ASEAN Summit is taking place Friday, Oct. 23, 2009 in Cha-Am, Hua Hin district, southern Thailand. Photo: AP
AP A Thai military police officer stands between the flags while guarding a hotel where the ASEAN Summit is taking place Friday, Oct. 23, 2009 in Cha-Am, Hua Hin district, southern Thailand. Photo: AP

Amidst renewed debate on the future structure of cooperation in East Asia, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh arrived at this beach resort on the Gulf of Siam Friday for back to back regional summits carrying one big message: the evolving Asian economic community should be based on “an open and inclusive regional architecture”.

But in a part of the world where China has risen, India is rising, Japan has declined and the United States is looking to reprise its Cold War role as a leading ‘Asian’ power, everything hinges on the question: how open should open be? As of now, there is little clarity on the matter.

The East Asian Summit, which will meet here on October 25, brings the 10 nations of ASEAN together with China, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. The United States is excluded, a prospect Washington has been prepared to live with till now since the EAS is so loosely structured. But America’s patience is wearing thin, now that the recent parliamentary elections in Japan have turned the terms of the strategic game in Asia upside down.

Prime Minister Yukio Hatayama and the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) have announced their intention of pushing for an East Asian Community modelled on the European Union with an ambitious future agenda for cooperation in economic and political spheres. There is even talk of an Asian currency to reduce the region’s reliance on the dollar. The Japanese and Chinese are divided on whether the EAS platform should serve as the springboard for the EAC or whether the community should begin with ‘ASEAN+3’ (i.e. Japan, China and Korea). But even if Tokyo and Beijing don’t see eye to eye on India, both agree that the U.S. need not be included.

As Japan pushes for a more independent foreign and even security policy, it sees less need for the U.S. to play the role of an off-shore balancer, a position at least one influential ASEAN country, Singapore, has publicly questioned.

At Hua Hin, Dr. Singh will find the EAS states gingerly feeling their way around these prickly questions. Even before the Japanese rediscovery of Asia, the EAS had decided officially to discuss the formation of a Comprehensive Economic Partnership in East Asia (CEPEA) to facilitate and expand trade. But now the potential agenda could widen. The Prime Minister acknowledged this when he noted that the EAS meeting “will provide an opportunity to discuss … [the] future direction for community building and cooperation”.

According to Indian officials, India’s ‘right’ to be part of any future arrangement springs not just from its regional heft but the extent of its economic engagement with ASEAN, which is likely to remain the formal driver of integration even if bigger players like China and Japan are the anchors.

On Saturday, Prime Minister Singh will attend the seventh Indo-ASEAN summit here at a time when bilateral trade is around $48 billion and a Free Trade Agreement in goods has just been signed between the two sides. In a statement on Friday, he said that India’s enhanced engagement with the ASEAN was at the heart of its ‘Look East’ Policy. “The conclusion of the India-ASEAN Trade-in-Goods Agreement in August 2009 is a major first step in our objective of creating an India-ASEAN Regional Trade and Investment Area.”

Apart from meeting Chinese premier Wen Jiabao on Saturday morning, Dr. Singh will hold a separate bilateral meeting with Mr. Hatoyama, who has already conveyed to the Indian side his willingness to travel to Delhi before the end of the year for the annual India-Japan summit. The Prime Minister will also meet President Nguyen Minh Triet of Viet Nam, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva of Thailand and Hun Sen of Cambodia, the last two of whom are locked in a war of words over Phnom Penh’s decision to play host to Thaksin Shinawatra, the fugitive former Prime Minister of Thailand.

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