India will need to watch its steps as it seeks to expand its ‘market and security integration' across the region.

A dominant view in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) today is that China is a potential superpower. This view is also tempered by its parallel assessment that the United States remains powerful in the wider East Asian theatre. It is in this climate of opinion that India is now wooed by the U.S. and its long-time ally Japan in East Asia.

In fact, some of the latest moves by the U.S. and Japan towards India reflect a new reality. It is evident that Washington is seeking to mentor New Delhi in East Asia. The overarching context is the likely entry of both the U.S. and Russia into the region's premier strategic forum, the East Asia Summit (EAS), later this year.

Formally, the 10-member ASEAN is the driving force which created the EAS over five years ago and hopes to pilot it into the future. The ASEAN has, almost unilaterally, invited the U.S. and Russia into the EAS. In doing so, ASEAN held no substantial consultations with China or Japan or India, all founding members of East Asia's premier forum, say sources in the EAS.

The point for debate here is not whether ASEAN consulted its long-time dialogue partners like Japan, China, and India to their satisfaction on this issue. What transpired is ASEAN's proactive decision to induct the U.S. into the EAS by keeping an eye on China's phenomenal growth trajectory. Irrelevant to this ASEAN decision is the debate about China's ability to stay its current economic course without getting buffeted by a new West Asian-style political storm at home.

In East Asia, far less known than China's calibrated competition with the U.S. is Washington's effort, which began some time ago, to size up India as a potential friend or ally. However, it is precisely this aspect of the changing U.S.-India equation that has now, even if belatedly, caught the attention of some East Asian leaders and opinion-makers. The turning point came during U.S. President Barack Obama's exhortations to India during his visit there towards the end of last year, where he asked it to “engage East Asia” instead of just having a “Look East” policy.

Forum in Singapore

Speaking at a policy forum in Singapore on February 10, the U.S. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, Geoffrey Pyatt, suggested that New Delhi “adopt a ‘Be East' policy.” The objective was to encourage India “expand [its] market and security integration across the Asian region.” He was equally candid about the U.S. wanting to revolutionise its military relationship with India.

Acquiring unexplored meaning in such an evolving ambience is Mr. Pyatt's view that “one of the areas in which we see great potential for the U.S.-India international partnership is indeed in East Asia.” Such a potential partnership in East Asia can be viewed as part of “the U.S. support for India's expanding global reach.”

What is discernible is a simple, but profound, game-plan. The U.S. policy-planners are likely to explore the possibility of co-opting India on their side in the emerging new East Asia. Washington has already indicated its intention of playing a proactive security role in East Asia under the new canopy of a soon-to-be-expanded EAS.

Some old-timers among East Asian leaders and opinion-makers expect, or at least hope, that India will want to regain its once-famous penchant for “independence” in foreign policy. Such a view is more pronounced among those who do not want to see East Asia turn into a hotbed of China-U.S. confrontation.

Significantly, a Pentagon spokesman recently amplified Mr. Obama's latest intention of enlarging the U.S.' military footprint in East Asia. Mr. Obama had dropped hints of that after his talks with Chinese President Hu Jintao on the Korean issue in Washington in mid-January. The spokesman's version: “Over the long-term lay-down of our [U.S.] forces in the Pacific, we are looking at ways to even bolster that, not necessarily in [South] Korea and Japan [where America has its troops already] but along the Pacific Rim, particularly in Southeast Asia.” Surely, therefore, India will need to watch its steps as it seeks to “expand [its] market and security integration across the Asian region.” Such a goal, not really an imposition by Washington, is implicit in New Delhi's own willingness to stay as a member of the EAS as it expands later this year.

‘About opportunities’

There is also a new move by U.S. Ambassador to Singapore David I. Adelman to mentor a business delegation that will visit India in mid-March under the auspices of the American Chamber of Commerce in Singapore. U.S. businessmen from Hong Kong are also expected to join the team, which, in any case, may include American firms with an interest in India's civil nuclear energy field among other economic sectors.

To a suggestion that the zooming focus on political corruption and economic inequities in today's India might have already placed it in poor light, Mr. Adelman said: “You can take a snapshot at any point in time at any country and you can choose to focus on the challenges or the opportunities. And, this [planned business mission to India] is about the opportunities. … The long-term goal [of the mission] is [America's] relationship-building [with India].”

Relationship-building is indeed what Japan is also looking for in its latest moves towards India. In a reverse chronological order, they are: (1) the signing of the bilateral Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement on February 16; (2) the specific identification of India, among a few other countries, for “enhanced security cooperation” under Japan's new “defence programme guidelines” which were unveiled on December 17 last year; (3) the agreement between the Prime Ministers of India and Japan, in October last year, to enhance relations across the board and to “collaborate” in the sensitive sector of rare earth minerals; (4) Tokyo's strategic action, in June last year, of starting talks with New Delhi for striking a bilateral civil nuclear deal; and (5) Japan's earlier decisions to participate in U.S.-India naval exercises.

India's “market and security integration” with some countries in East Asia, including the U.S. as a long-time “resident power” of the region, has really begun. Yet, the appeal of India as a benign power may be enhanced by unconventional activities like its prospective launch of Singapore's experimental space satellite.

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