An Asian balance

As China rises and uncertainty grows about US staying power, India could learn from Indonesia

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's bilateral visit to Indonesia, after the multilateral summit with the ASEAN leaders in Brunei, focused on deepening Delhi's strategic partnership with Jakarta. As two of the world's largest nations, plural democracies and rising powers, India and Indonesia are destined to shape the balance of power in Asia and secure its future amid the rise of China and the growing uncertainties about American commitment and ability to sustain its long-standing primacy in Asia. US President Barack Obama, with unfinished budget battles at home, did not show up at the ASEAN summit and cancelled his bilateral visit to Indonesia. If Obama reinforced Asian doubts about American staying power, the Chinese leaders looked taller than ever before.

Delhi has tended to view the unfolding Asian power play between America and China and between Beijing and its neighbours in a mechanical manner and responded with predictable but vague notions about reinventing non-alignment. India can learn a trick or two if it pays attention to how Indonesia and other Asian neighbours are responding to the changing geopolitical landscape. Most countries in Asia are seeking deeper and stronger economic ties with China. Consider, for example, that the ASEAN has this month set a target of one trillion US dollars for trade with China by 2020. Even as they hitch themselves to the Chinese economic bandwagon, the Asian leaders including insular Myanmar, traditionally non-aligned Indonesia, and communist Vietnam are all seeking to balance China through closer security cooperation with the US.

At the same time, the East Asian nations are realistic enough to want to diversify their partnerships. That is where India comes in. Unsurprisingly, the Jakarta talks between Prime Minister Singh and the Indonesian President Susilo Yudhoyono underlined the urgency of boosting defence and security cooperation between the two countries. Their plans now cover the full range of issues, from countering terrorism to maritime security and sharing military intelligence to joint production of conventional weapons. These plans are welcome and could inject some real content into the strategic partnership that was unveiled nearly a decade ago. Translating India's good intentions into effective policy, however, demands resolute political purpose and a nimbler security policy. Regrettably, both are conspicuous by their absence in the Delhi Durbar today.

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