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.

Until now, India has had the luxury of extending rhetorical support to ASEAN's centrality in promoting an open and inclusive architecture. But the changing regional context demands a more purposeful Indian intervention in the unfolding debate on Asian security. Two major assumptions about the Asian regional order are now beginning to unravel. One was the proposition that there would be no great power competition in East Asia and the other was the belief that the ASEAN would remain a strong and coherent force.

For nearly four decades, Sino-American rapprochement and deepening economic interdependence between them underwrote Asian stability. But Beijing's recent assertiveness and Washington's response to it have begun to generate a new strategic dynamic in the region. Many of Beijing's Asian neighbours are looking to the US to balance a rising China. Washington has announced a strategic pivot to Asia and plans to deploy 60 per cent of its armed forces in the Pacific theatre. To cope with the dramatic expansion of Chinese military clout, America is strengthening its traditional military alliances in the region and building new partnerships.

Beijing, unsurprisingly, sees the pivot as an American attempt to constrain China's natural preponderance in Asia. Although Beijing and Washington are not yet locked in an irreversible confrontation, the growing tension between them has cast a shadow over the region.

The ASEAN has found it difficult to sustain its political unity in the face of China's rising power. Not all its members have been willing to stand by Vietnam and the Philippines, which have been locked in escalating maritime territorial disputes with Beijing. The last ministerial meeting of the ASEAN in Phnom Penh a few months ago ended without an agreed statement because the host nation, Cambodia, was apparently opposed to including any references that might irk Beijing.

The re-election of Barack Obama as president of the US suggests that the American pivot to Asia will continue. In his first trip abroad after the election, Obama is travelling to Cambodia to attend the EAS and making stops in Myanmar and Thailand, two important continental neighbours of China. The US is quite clearly unwilling to let China neutralise its Asian periphery. Undoubtedly, the smaller nations of Asia are caught in a bind. They desperately seek a balance among the great powers, but are wary of a potential confrontation between China and the US.

Until now, India's discourse has been limited to assessing the political costs and geopolitical opportunities that it will accrue from the rise of China and the US pivot to Asia. The focus in Delhi has been on the merits of strategic autonomy and geopolitical balancing. While this debate on national options must continue, India can't afford to ignore its larger political obligations to the rest of Asia. Six decades ago, with little power and even less economic clout, India was offering ideas on how to make Asia an area of peace.

India today, with one of the biggest economies and largest militaries in the region, has the responsibility to mitigate great power tensions and defuse regional conflicts in Asia. It must also enhance the security of small states through bilateral and multilateral mechanisms. India's independent foreign policy was never simply about looking after itself. It was always about shaping a sustainable order in Asia and beyond.

As the rest of Asia looks up to Delhi, Manmohan Singh needs to articulate in Phnom Penh a substantive Indian approach to peace and prosperity in Asia and signal the political will in Delhi to help calm its turbulent waters.

The writer, a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi, is a contributing editor for 'The Indian Express'

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