P. S. Suryanarayana

Will Barack Obama consider a five-way dialogue among the U.S., China, India, Japan, and Russia for Asia-Pacific stability?

Greater East Asia, a geopolitical region that hosts the United States as a self-styled “resident power” and India as an “invited” player, is widely seen as the next big theatre in global affairs. Often cited as reasons are China’s dramatic rise as a global player at the “speed of thought;” India’s potential as a “force” to reckon with; Japan’s possible resurgence, and the perceived “durability” of the U.S. as superpower.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, Barack Obama’s truly historic triumph in the U.S. presidential election is of far greater importance to this region than to any other recognisable geopolitical zone in the world. Europe, the yesteryear centre of gravity in international affairs, and West Asia, a potential playfield for neo-ideological issues in the form of social identities, will of course remain critical to the U.S. Moreover, Africa and Latin America are areas of Washington’s “concern” and interest that Mr. Obama is unlikely to neglect in his world-view. On balance, though, Obama’s foreign-policy crystal ball should show up, in the pride of place, Greater East Asia, which lies in the geopolitical shadow of re-ascendant Russia. This is so, despite Russia being derided in the West now as no more than a newly-assertive “petro-state.”

There are two relevant factors which Mr. Obama cannot possibly overlook. First, Greater East Asia overlaps considerably, but not totally, with the vast area covered by the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum. India is not an APEC member yet; and almost all non-Asian economies in this forum, except for the U.S., are not “resident powers” in Greater East Asia as such. Yet, a key factor is that China, Japan, Australia, and the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), notably Singapore which will host the 2009 APEC summit, should loom on Mr. Obama’s Asia-Pacific compass. Such an intricate network of criss-crossing connections – partly the result of past U.S. diplomacy – will impinge on his emotional intelligence, if he, as expected, opts for a “creative” foreign policy.

The second factor of possible interest to him can be traced to the scenario of an entirely futuristic world order rather than the current ‘global financial crisis.’ Today, each of the five major space-faring countries – the U.S., Russia, China, India, and Japan – has a geopolitical footprint across Greater East Asia. China and Japan are “native” states; the U.S. “historically” is “a resident power” in the region; India is the “invited” member of East Asia Summit; and Russia is an interlocutor in the six-party talks on Korean denuclearisation. And, the scenario, as envisioned by the “realists” among international-affairs experts, is that dynamic space-faring nations will dominate a futurist global system, much like the way big maritime powers dictated an earlier world order.

The European Space Agency (ESA), which should be counted in regard to this truly distant scenario, is an institutional entity belonging to several countries. And, the European Union (EU), which inspired the formation of the ESA, will remain outside the Greater East Asian network of purely state-to-state political connectivity among individual countries. This fact, surely relevant to East Asian politics into the future, is not altered by the EU’s collective status as a dialogue-partner of ASEAN.

On balance, a futuristic scenario of space-age global politics, relevant at least to the few countries that now possess extra-terrestrial capabilities, is no idle speculation. Mr. Obama knows that the U.S. military has already portrayed China’s recent success in carrying out an anti-satellite test as an epochal event comparable only to the former Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik that heralded a space race. On a different but related plane, India and China have often emphasised the need to deploy space-faring capabilities for peaceful purposes alone.

It now remains to be seen how Mr. Obama, who is widely expected to be a new-age leader in a political (not musical) sense, will steer this international debate, given that the U.S. is still the foremost space-faring power. Space exploration is gaining momentum as a worthy pursuit, even if as a rarefied exercise, in Greater East Asia now.

Such a broad sweep of factors across this region could shape critical aspects of Mr. Obama’s foreign-policy priorities. The congratulatory messages to him from Chinese President Hu Jintao and Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso, both “native” East Asian leaders, reflect their current concerns. These relate to the ‘global economic crisis’ and Asia-Pacific peace and stability, rather than any futuristic scenario. Mr. Hu emphasised the long-term importance of “constructive and cooperative” U.S.-China ties.

Mr. Obama will doubtless be interested in the efficacy of China’s November 10 “economic stimulus package.” Players like U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, Jr. have advocated a continuation of “strategic economic engagement” with China into the future.

Mr. Aso, who wants the U.S. to co-opt Japan to address the ‘global economic crisis,’ remains no less focussed on the perceived efficacy of their military alliance as the “linchpin” of Asia-Pacific stability. More recently, Japan has signed a “security pact” with India. As a result, there are now three distinctive streams of security links emanating from Tokyo – leading to the U.S., Japan’s long-standing military ally, or Australia, another U.S. ally, or indeed India now.

This heightens the new political ambience in Greater East Asia, marked also by the U.S.-India civil nuclear energy agreement. In this context, the idea of China-U.S.-India dialogue, commended by a Beijing-based Chinese specialist Zhang Yunling in a comment to this correspondent in Singapore a few days ago, merits attention. This idea flows from the fact that India, China, and Russia are now institutionalising their trilateral dialogue. A relevant question, therefore, is whether Mr. Obama will consider a five-way dialogue among the U.S., China, India, Japan, and Russia for Asia-Pacific stability.