India and new U.S.-friendly moves in East Asia

P. S. Suryanarayana

A relevant question is: Where does India figure in a non-polar international landscape?

For the first time since the East Asia Summit (EAS) was founded a few years ago, India’s position as a key player in this regional forum is beginning to attract critical attention behind the scenes. The issue acquires importance on the eve of two events in Singapore: the EAS Foreign Ministers’ meeting on July 22 and the Association of South East Asian Nations Regional Forum (ARF) session on July 24.

Surely, neither the EAS nor the ARF is in a drastic mood to review India’s membership in these multilateral groupings. Nor is the profile of India in these entities viewed solely against its civil nuclear energy deal with the United States or the current political crisis in New Delhi over this.

The question really is whether India can and will make its presence felt as a major East Asian player in a wide strategic domain ranging from maritime security to climate change issues.

New equation

Closely related to this poser, of course, is the new equation which India and the U.S. might strike, if at all, on the basis of how the present political crisis in New Delhi over their nuclear deal plays out. As a result, a matter of considerable relevance to the EAS is India’s stand on the U.S role, if any, in shaping the future of East Asia.

Doing the diplomatic rounds in this region now are two U.S.-friendly propositions. A striking new idea, floated by Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, is that an Asia Pacific Community be formed for regional security and inter-state economic linkages. The other proposal, mooted by the U.S. itself and a few others, is that the existing framework of six-party talks on the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula be scaled up as a new regional security forum. The six parties are China, which chairs their meetings, the U.S., the two Koreas, Japan, and Russia.

At first glance, Greater East Asia, which includes India as also Australia and New Zealand besides the Asian countries on the Pacific Rim, is already home to several regional fora. Conspicuous among these are not only the EAS and the ARF but also the U.S.-Japan-Australia Trilateral Strategic Dialogue forum, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), and the China-India-Russia Trilateral Dialogue framework. The existing Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum is not anchored to just East Asia.

The SCO and the ARF, while being the initiatives of China and the ASEAN respectively, have members from outside East Asia too. For historical reasons that have to do with the outcome of the Second World War, the U.S., as a global power, is generally accepted as a “resident power” in East Asia.

Noteworthy in this context is the critical fact that the EAS conspicuously excludes the United States but places India in the same league as China and Japan. There is no place for the U.S. in the SCO as well; and this forum has both China, whose economic growth has acquired space-age velocity, and Russia as the key players. The ARF, unlike the other groupings in focus on the East Asian scene, is entirely a dialogue forum with no action-oriented outlook as of now. Being also the most broad-based forum, the ARF includes all the major players of direct relevance to East Asia — the U.S., China, Japan, India, Australia, South Korea, and Russia.

Six-Party Talks

Explicit in these circumstances is the U.S.-friendly tenor of the new ideas about an Asia Pacific Community and an institutionalised Six-Party Framework by some name or other. There is a move now to hold the Six-Party Talks at the ministerial level for the first time, with the event slated to take place in Singapore on the sidelines of the ARF session.

The U.S. traces its exclusion from the EAS to the influence of China over the ASEAN. As the prime mover that launched the EAS, the ASEAN does not, of course, see itself as a pawn in the hands of China. Significantly, an Asia Pacific Community, as now proposed, can be formed only if China has no objections. No clinching discussions have yet taken place on how to form such a community; and the ASEAN has already expressed reservations. India, which figures in Mr. Rudd’s world view for the purposes of an Asia Pacific Community, has evinced interest. For now, India has little say over the institutionalisation of the Six-Party Talks as a new security forum.

The proposed proliferation of regional fora may go well with the current snapshot of a “non-polar” international landscape, which, as perceived by U.S. experts like Richard Haass, covers some non-state actors as well. A relevant question is: Where does India figure in a non-polar international landscape?

A key criterion for any future security architecture in East Asia is the proactive role of major powers to ensuring maritime security along the Straits of Malacca in the context of concerns over non-state actors. In this respect, India is seen to lag behind other major powers, for whatever reasons, although its capabilities are recognised. The maritime security issue may acquire greater clarity after the EAS and ARF meetings this week.

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