U.S. task force acknowledges India's regional role

SINGAPORE, JULY 6. An independent task force sponsored by the influential U.S.-based Council on Foreign Relations has recommended to the Bush Administration that it recognise India's increasing regional role in South-East Asia. The report entitled ``The United States and South-East Asia: A Policy Agenda for the New Administration'', said Washington and New Delhi should coordinate their approaches towards this region.

``India's political, military, and economic influence in South- East Asia is likely to grow in the coming decades. As Washington develops its own new relationship with New Delhi, it should include coordinated approaches vis-a-vis South-East Asia as part of its agenda,'' the report, which calls for greater American engagement with the region, said. ``Indeed, as the world's largest democracy and a state that has been transforming itself from a command to a free enterprise economy, India can work closely with the United States to bolster common interests, objectives and policies in the region,'' it said.

In another section, the report noted that India's affinities with South-East Asia were primarily cultural, via scattered Hindu communities throughout the region, most notably on Bali. ``During the 1990s, as the Indian economy began to take off, more money from South-East Asia found its way to the sub-continent... in the past few years India has raised its political, economic and military profile in the region, in terms of interaction with ASEAN and its operations in the eastern Indian Ocean.

``India's interaction is still relatively modest, though it conducted exercises with Vietnam during the summer of 2000. Several key ASEAN nations, notably Singapore and Indonesia, favour greater Indian involvement in South-East Asian cooperative security efforts, such as the ARF (ASEAN Regional Forum), in order to balance Chinese political influence. India's economic interaction with ASEAN States is also increasing,'' the report said.

While noting that it was not part of the ASEAN+3 (China, South Korea and Japan) group, the task force said India was assuming an increasingly important profile in South-East Asia, as it pursues a `Look East' policy. ``The January 2000 (actually 2001) visit of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to Vietnam and Indonesia, the first by an Indian leader since 1994, was aimed at strengthening India's position vis-a-vis ASEAN, in which it is a full dialogue partner. ``ASEAN States appear to welcome Indian interest, which has developed alongside warming Indo-U.S. relations. Yet ASEAN States seek to avoid entanglement in any Sino-Indian rivalry, which is especially sharp in Burma... similar diplomatic acuity will be required from Washington, as well,'' the task force said.

On China, the task force recommended that the U.S. pay close attention to the behaviour of the Chinese in South-East Asia, while avoiding unnecessary confrontation and seize opportunities for cooperation with Beijing. ``Washington should be careful not to contribute to any Chinese paranoia about containment by a hostile U.S.-led alliance. Being a competitor does not preclude active cooperation. In fact, while naturally remaining cautious about China's motives, its actions and intentions in Vietnam and Thailand being notable examples, the States of South-East Asia do view China as being interested principally in domestic development. China is also aware of and attentive to its impact within the region on which it borders.