October 17, 2010The Asian Balancegeopolitics

On the East Asian dance floor

It is important to bear in mind that the club only provides the dance floor. India will have to court its dancing partners on an individual basis.

Business Standard This is an unedited draft of my monthly The Asian Balance column that was published in Business Standard from 2010-2017. The column’s agenda was to persuade Indian policymakers to take an active interest in a region that has since come to be called the Indo-Pacific.”

The quest for an East Asian regional architecture is finally coming to an end. After more than a decade of proposals and counter-proposals, we have in the shape of the upcoming East Asia Summit (EAS) a club that is big enough to include the key players and small enough to avoid becoming a talking shop. Comprising of the ten ASEAN states, India, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, it’s still not perfect (what are Myanmar, Brunei, Laos, Cambodia and New Zealand doing in there, while the United States, Russia and Taiwan are outside?). The representation is nevertheless far more credible than various other configurations that were thrown up over the last decade.

But why does East Asia need a regional architecture? Sure, there is a need for Asia’s most important economies to have a common platform for policy coordination and co-operative initiatives. Moreover, many of the risks to stability and prosperity — geo-economic imbalances, jihadi terrorism, environmental pollution, epidemics and natural disasters — transcend national boundaries, and can most effectively be addressed within a multilateral co-operative framework. Underlying all this, however, is the big geopolitical reason: the need to create a set of norms that will bind China, the United States, India and Indonesia, and prevent them from rocking the East Asian boat.

At the moment, it is China that is doing all the rocking.

After a series of provocative statements and maritime clashes this year, China toned down at this month’s meeting in Hanoi of the defence ministers of EAS countries, the United States and Russia. Beijing’s relations with the countries of the region had hit such a low that hallway conversations with the Japanese and allowing the US defence secretary to visit China were considered measures of success. There was no give on substantive issues. Refusing to discuss South China Sea maritime boundary conflicts, General Liang Guanglie, China’s defence minister, said that practical cooperation within multilateral frameworks does not mean settling all security issues.” In other words, China will insist — and quite likely have its way — in negotiating bilaterally with the less powerful disputants. It will also insist on keeping the United States out.

What this means is although the EAS is set to become the pre-eminent regional grouping, bilateral alignments remain in a state of flux.

A divide is emerging between countries that have a dispute with China, and countries that don’t. The former — a list that includes Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei — will seek greater security in the form of alliances with the United States and India.

These countries want a closer tango, not least in the security arena. During Defence Minister A K Antony’s visit, his Vietnamese counterpart General Phung Quang Thanh welcomed Indian Navy ships to make more port calls and offered maintenance facilities at Vietnamese ports. Last month, South Korea signed two defence co-operation agreements with India encompassing a broad range of activities, including exchange of visits, R&D, training and joint exercises. An agreement is still some distance away, but the very fact that India and Japan are currently negotiating a civil nuclear agreement is already a sign of how far Tokyo has travelled.

India will have to go beyond defence and invest in building a deep, broad and balanced economic relationships with these countries. As the experience with Russia has taught us, a merely defence-centred bilateral relationship can often be troublesome.

On the other side of the divide, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore and even Australia — countries which do not have territorial disputes with China — while desiring an outcome where the big powers balance each other out, will be reluctant to do anything that might attract Beijing’s unpleasant attention. Not unlike the Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms of historical South East Asia that preserved their independence by paying nominal tribute to the Chinese Emperor in return for being left alone.

In a recent monograph, Hugh White, an Australian strategist, argues that (Australia) should try to persuade the US that it would be in everyone’s best interests for it to relinquish primacy in Asia, but remain engaged as a member of a collective leadership; staying in Asia to balance, not to dominate…China needs to be persuaded that it, too, should settle for a shared leadership in Asia, a continued strong role for the US and growing roles for Japan and India.”

Also, once the EAS gains momentum, it will diminish the relevance of ASEAN, the core around which all the regional groupings arose. Likewise, dynamics within the South East Asian grouping are set to weaken it. For instance, there is a growing quarter in Indonesia, ASEANs biggest power, that perceives the grouping as a constraint on Jakarta’s foreign policy, limiting it to a sub-regional theatre. Besides, the very unity of the grouping will be tested if China reneges on its 2002 agreement with ASEAN on the rules of conduct in the South China Sea. ASEAN will have to stand up for the interests of those of its members adversely affected by China’s positions, but to do so, unaffected members will have to put their own relations with Beijing at risk.

You can read more of these columns in the The Asian Balance archive.

As Prime Minister Manmohan Singh gets set to attend the fifth East Asia Summit in Hanoi later this month, it is important to bear in mind that the club only provides the dance floor. India will have to court its dancing partners on an individual basis.

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