November 21, 2007Foreign AffairsSecurity

On East Asia’s periphery

India is being sidelined in the region due to its own strategic myopia Should it be of any surprise that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh arrived at the ASEAN summit to find that India (along with Australia and New Zealand) has been sidelined in the regional community? The ten South East Asian nations and China, Japan and South Korea “would remain the main vehicle towards the long-term goal of building” an Asian regional community, their statement declared. As the Bloomberg report says (via email from Ananth) the “statement recognises China’s demand that only Asean Plus Three countries should be included in the community.” When will it dawn upon New Delhi that the first lesson of realpolitik is that incumbents don’t make space for newcomers, however qualified the latter might be? Standing outside the UN Security Council’s or ASEAN’s doors with an application form won’t cut it. The only way to become a de jure member of any exclusive international club is to become a de facto one first. The latter can be done without anyone’s permission. Look at what India did on the nuclear front. Not being annointed as a “nuclear weapon state” didn’t prevent India from being a nuclear weapon state. Or in the World Trade Organisation—it’s a major player in international trade negotiations because it has become a major player in international trade (well, sort of). Once India acquires the characteristics of a member of a club, that club will need to accomodate India to itself stay relevant. To sideline India would be allow itself to be sidelined. As the poet said

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

Khudi ko kar buland itna, Ki har takdeer se pehle, Khuda bande se ye pooche, Bata—teri raza kya hai

And consider, in contrast, India’s recent geopolitical performance in East Asia: India’s silence on Burma confirmed the view in South East Asia that countries of that region cannot look towards New Delhi to balance the rising Chinese influence in the region. During visits to the region, Indian leaders did nothing to signal that India is ready to play the balancing game. First Defence Minister AK Anthony spoke about how he sees India’s strategic challenge stemming from internal threats. It was unsurprising that at the same meeting, the Indonesia foreign minister invited China and Japan to participate in the security of the Malacca straits. Second, Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee explicitly stated that India will be sensitive to China’s interests in Asia. Many might have thought this was mere diplomatic talk. But Burma was a litmus test…and as The Acorn warned, it is a test that India is seen to have failed. Defending India’s support for the junta, Indian realists argued that they were balancing Chinese influence in Burma. In doing so they failed to see that India would lose influence in South East Asia in general. Will ASEANs decision cure the strategic myopia that is affecting India’s realists?

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