A dominant view in East Asia today is that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is setting terms for India's long-term engagement with key regional powers.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's civil nuclear diplomacy towards the United States, and now ‘pacifist' Japan, is viewed in East Asia as a new message to the region about India's posture as a “rising power.”

Politically more visible, though, is a bunch of economic pacts that is beginning to fill India's pocket. Dr. Singh's economic diplomacy was, therefore, in prime focus, as he held talks in Tokyo on October 25, beginning a visit to Japan, Malaysia, and Vietnam.

East Asian leaders have often traced India's Look East policy to the diplomatic realism of former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao at a time of national crisis in the 1990s. Against this background, a dominant view in East Asia today is that Dr. Singh is setting the terms for India's long-term engagement with key regional powers. Inevitably, such diplomacy will extend beyond the economic realm. India's strategic calculations are easily discernible too.

Some officials in the region privately comment on how India has, in recent months, stayed the course of difficult trade negotiations with remarkable resoluteness. Obviously, it is not for the East Asian officials to worry about the economic fall-out these agreements might produce for the people in India, especially as seen by its various political parties.

In Japan, the political mood towards India is remarkably friendly on the economic front. A Japan-India Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA/EPA) was finalised by the negotiators on both sides in time for celebration during this visit.

It took them nearly four years to firm up Tokyo's first-ever pact with a big economy. India is behind only Japan and China in Asia in terms of their macro-level gross domestic products and related indices. No less significantly, Tokyo does not have an economic pact with either its long-standing ally, the U.S., or with an immediate neighbour like the ascendant China.

In this big picture, there is considerable macro-level asymmetry between India as a developing economy and Japan as a developed country. But Tokyo has viewed its negotiations with India as a unique exercise, without worrying about striking a model agreement between a developed country and a developing economy. The secret of success, despite delays during the Japan-India talks, is said to be economic realism driven by political will. The automotive industry in the two countries and their respective services sectors required sensitive attention during the talks.

According to a Japanese negotiator, Takeshi Matsunaga, the EPA provides for “a high level of liberalisation” of tariff by both sides and places them on “an equal footing.” Also built into the agreement is India's preferred principle of free “movement of natural persons.” Not amounting to migration, this will mean a free flow of professional talent in the services sector. This will benefit both countries, with India gaining an acceptance of this principle in the first place. Investment and several other aspects of a full-fledged economic pact are also covered.

The CEPA/EPA does reflect the new-found “importance of India to Japan” in the emerging world of several rising powers and a stagnant superpower. This formula about India's “importance” was first cited by a top Japanese official in June this year, when he informed The Hindu of Tokyo's decision to begin civil nuclear talks with New Delhi. Two rounds of talks have been held so far.

The negotiators face the challenging task of harmonising a pacifist principle with a pragmatic policy. New Delhi holds its voluntary moratorium on nuclear-weapon tests as inviolable pragmatic policy.

At the other end, Japan, as an “internationalist” and a “pacifist,” might have to “suspend” or even “stop” its civil nuclear cooperation with India, if New Delhi were to test an atomic bomb once again. America's nuclear umbrellas for its allies, including Japan, are in a different category altogether. In all, however, a Japanese official, Hidenobu Sobashima, told this correspondent in Singapore a few days ago that the Japan-India civil nuclear talks “will continue.” It is, therefore, possible that Japan will not risk writing off the new “importance” of India in a hurry, especially as long as the current fluidity in global affairs persists.

In Malaysia

If the Japan-India engagement is now dictated by high stakes, New Delhi's ties with Malaysia, too, are entering a qualitatively significant phase. India and Malaysia have firmed up a Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA). According to a top Malaysian official, Rebecca Fatima Sta Maria, the two countries would, during Dr. Singh's visit to Kuala Lumpur at this time, announce that the legally-binding text of CECA would be signed by the end of January next year. The CECA might then come into force from July next year.

As a measure of economic pragmatism, India and Malaysia negotiated the CECA in less than one year, truly a feat of fast-track parleys. The two sides are also keen to have a genuine strategic partnership. However, the world-view of Malaysia, which belongs to the Organisation of Islamic Conference, may not always be in sync with India's on all issues. At another level, the Hindu Rights Action Force (HINDRAF)-Makkal Sakthi, which seeks to espouse the cause of Malaysian-Indian minority, wants Dr. Singh to raise issues relating to its welfare in his talks with his counterpart, Najib Tun Razak.

As a banned organisation, HINDRAF has added the Tamil label of “Makkal Sakthi,” meaning “people power” which is in vogue in this region, in a bid to stay within the ambit of law. On a related front, Mr. Najib has signalled goodwill towards Malaysian-Indians by promising, most recently, government's contribution to the education foundation set up by the Telugu Association of Malaysia.

In Vietnam

In Hanoi, Dr. Singh will have to switch from the nuances of bilateral diplomacy to the compulsions of multilateralism during India's annual summit with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). India's Free Trade Agreement with ASEAN is already in force, providing a relative new framework for the summit.

At the annual East Asia Summit (EAS), Dr. Singh will be sitting with, among others, the leaders of South Korea and Singapore, with which India already has comprehensive economic pacts. But the EAS, which includes China, is a strategic forum, and this aspect will get heightened with the likely admission of the U.S. and Russia into this organisation. Issues of acute sensitivity to all major powers will then arise, especially in the ASEAN Defence Ministers' Meeting-Plus (ADMM+) forum, which might be co-opted by an expanding EAS as its security wing.

There are already indications that the issues might range from the long-term U.S. role in the region to the perceived flashpoints in the South China Sea or East China Sea or even Kashmir.

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