Delhi on duty

At the East Asia Summit, India must articulate its political obligations in the region

At the annual East Asia Summit (EAS) in Phnom Penh this week, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh must address the many questions on where India stands in the rapidly deteriorating regional security environment.

Two decades ago, when India began its pivot to Asia, in the name of "Looking East", the region was sceptical about Delhi's role in promoting East Asian peace or prosperity. India then was eager to reconnect with Asia, after having turned its back on it since the mid-1950s, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) rather hesitantly opened the door for Delhi. Now the region wants India to actively contribute to the construction of a stable balance of power in Asia. Delhi, however, seems preoccupied with its own concerns. Bridging the gap between India's potential and performance in East Asia is emerging as a long-term policy challenge for Delhi.

Over the last few years, the prime minister has invested much of his political energy in pushing India into deeper economic integration with East Asia. Under Manmohan Singh's watch, India has signed free trade agreements with the ASEAN, South Korea and Japan. At the meetings in Phnom Penh, the prime minister will have to outline India's response to the new proposal on the table — the negotiation of an Asia-wide free trade agreement. Called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the proposed agreement will bind the 10 nations of the ASEAN, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and India into a massive framework for Asian economic integration.

While India has taken a productive approach to emerging Asian economic regionalism, it falls short on the political front. When India became a dialogue partner to the ASEAN in 1992, the advice from the country's well-wishers in the region was that it should adopt a low profile. India took this advice to heart. As the East Asian leaders turn to India today, they find Delhi's political voice muted. While India has become a full partner of the ASEAN and a member of all its forums, including those dealing with defence and security, its participation has been less than impressive.

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