India's place in an expanding East Asia

Can an optimal-sized East Asia Summit (EAS), an organisation and not a conference, become a governing council with a mandate to oversee, regulate, or manage the complexity of growing relations among the countries of an expanding region?

The answer is being determined by the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), a long-standing non-military bloc of 10 disparate countries with an insatiable appetite for ‘smart diplomacy' in their own ‘collective' self-interest.

What are the basic facts behind this latest snapshot of diplomatic action in East Asia as expressed in words?

First, a clear distinction exists between geopolitical East Asia and the geographical area in the eastern arc of the Asian continent. The geopolitical space of the existing EAS far exceeds the geographical confines of East Asia, because the organisation includes India, Australia, and New Zealand. These countries do not belong to geographical East Asia.

Secondly and more importantly, the EAS will soon be larger than at present under the ASEAN's new vision plan, which is being translated into follow-up “modalities.” The United States and Russia are likely to be formally invited to join the EAS.

With this, the EAS may well need a change of name as well! At this stage, though, the ASEAN, which floated the EAS five years ago and continues to function as its nucleus, does not propose any change of name. Besides the ASEAN's 10 constituent members, the existing EAS has in its fold six of their dialogue partners: China, Japan, and South Korea, besides India, Australia, and New Zealand.

The proposed inclusion of the U.S. and Russia is meant to optimise the size of the EAS. For now, the 10 ASEAN Foreign Ministers, who met in Hanoi last week, have decided that the ‘collective' self-interest of their countries would be best served by an expanded EAS, which can have 18 members in due course. These Foreign Ministers have also “recommended” to the ASEAN heads of state or government to take a formal decision on this issue during their scheduled summit in Hanoi in October this year.

What cannot, therefore, be exaggerated is the urgency of deciding the qualitative parameters of this organisation in its proposed full-fledged form. It is in this context that the third but not the least basic fact in East Asian inter-state diplomacy becomes doubly relevant. Simply put, this basic fact is that the calculus of conventional wisdom does not always drive politics, including inter-state interactions.

“Leaders-led EAS”

Unsurprisingly, therefore, the ASEAN, and not China or Japan or India, currently pilots the “leaders-led EAS.” And, the ASEAN is aware that its “centrality” to the security and economic well-being of geopolitical East Asia is grudgingly accepted by the bigger powers like China, Japan, and India. Each of these three competing powers cannot allow the other two, acting alone or in unison, to dictate the security and economic agendas of the EAS. Being sure of such a ‘ground reality,' the ASEAN tends to believe that China, India, and Japan find it comforting to engage each other in the company of other EAS members. Such an ‘empirical' reality of inter-state equations in geopolitical East Asia has now guided the 10 ASEAN Foreign Ministers to apply the same logic to the issue of admitting the U.S. and Russia into the EAS fold. Washington is generally seen across East Asia as a troubled but resilient intercontinental player with a global reach. And, Moscow is viewed as a yesteryear-global-player with a future-oriented agenda of resurgence. Both Russia and the U.S. are still nuclear superpowers. So, the ASEAN does not expect them to quarrel over their relative importance to geopolitical East Asia.

For reasons of contemporary history and because of the emerging post-modern global affairs in a space-cyberspace age, the ASEAN continues to accept the existential reality of the U.S. being “a resident power” in geopolitical East Asia. As for Moscow's credentials, Russia's far-east domain juts right onto the eastern seaboard of the Asian continent. Moreover, post-Soviet Russia, with its dramatically improved equation with China, is already a key participant in the now-stalled six-party talks on the denuclearisation of Korean peninsula.

The U.S.-Russia power differential may come into play in an expanded EAS at some stage in the future. However, the ASEAN's primary concerns, in its ‘collective' self-interest, necessitate suitable engagement with both these countries in as transparent a fashion as possible in a multilateral setting.

A relevant question, therefore, is whether the ASEAN has, while keeping its own interest in focus, taken sufficient notice of the interests of other EAS players like China or India or Japan.

Foreign Ministers of the existing 16-member EAS have in fact “welcomed” the ASEAN initiative for inviting the U.S. and Russia in due course. These ministers met in Hanoi during the course of a series of ASEAN-led dialogue sessions that concluded there last week. India was represented by Minister of State for External Affairs, Preneet Kaur, who was assisted by Secretary (East), Latha Reddy, and Ambassador Biren Nanda among others.

Expressing “respect” for the ASEAN's “valuable … consensus” on the U.S.-Russia-admission issue, China has conveyed its readiness to “stay in communication with other parties so as to finally reach consensus through consultations.” Critics of the notion of a futurist ‘Pax Sinica' may see in this formulation some signs of hesitation or reluctance to have the U.S. in the EAS. But the ASEAN itself has offered to “consult” its dialogue partners like China, India, and Japan in fine-tuning the “appropriate arrangements and timing” for the admission of the U.S. and Russia. Japan, while noting the ASEAN's offer of consultations on this issue, has expressed “support” for the inclusion of the U.S. and Russia.

For India, its Look-East policy has already produced a diplomatic dividend: the founding-membership in the EAS. Besides that, the possible or likely admission of the U.S. and Russia into this organisation is in sync with New Delhi's current world view.

Regardless of India's equations with the likely new entrants, its actual contributions in sensitive areas will determine its place in the EAS of the future. The kaleidoscopic political complexion of the EAS may compel it to set common but differential goals for different countries in such areas as climate change, energy efficiency, maritime security, and perhaps nuclear non-proliferation. It will, therefore, be a learning experience for India as an ‘emerging economic power' with a potential role in the regional and global domains.

Above all, the ASEAN believes that an expansion of the EAS will not necessarily lead to a power struggle among the big players in geopolitical East Asia. Such a sense of political faith can be reinforced only by a suitable agenda for an expanded EAS in tune with the restrictive realities of a multilateral forum in the next big theatre of global affairs.

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Printable version | Aug 5, 2021 7:34:14 AM |

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