Tournament of shadows

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh heads to the East Asian Summit in Bali, Indonesia at a moment when the old continent's tectonic plates are moving. After decades of relative political stability and growing economic prosperity, Asia's international relations have acquired a new dynamism.

Asia's current power shift is driven by the rise of China. The belated but vigorous American response to growing Chinese power could be far more consequential than the previous convulsions in great power relations.

The Sino-Soviet split in the late 1950s, the Sino-American rapprochement in the early 1970s, the normalisation of Sino-Soviet relations in the early 1980s, and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 all convulsed Asia and tested India's national security strategy.

Unlike in the past, India need not be a mute spectator to the changes in the balance of power around it. It is in a position to influence the direction and shape of the content of the structural change unfolding in Asia and elevate its own standing as a great power.

The Bali summit marks the emphatic return of the United States to Asia's centrestage. After being the anchor of Asia's security system since the end of World War II, the US seemed to turn its back on the region in the last two decades.

In the 1990s, the US was preoccupied with managing the post-Cold War political arrangements in Europe. In the last decade, the US dug itself into a hole in the so-called Greater Middle East with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As it lost ground to China, Washington seemed unwilling or incapable of contesting Beijing's new Asian primacy. President Barack Obama's instinct in 2009, the first year of his tenure at the White House, was to construct a joint management system with China for Asia and the world.

For reasons of its own, Beijing dismissed Obama's offer for a comprehensive partnership. China seemed to bet that America's decline was terminal and unveiled a more muscular policy towards its Asian neighbours.

Beijing's attempt to enforce its territorial claims in the East and South China Seas shook the region to the core. Discarding the thesis of China's "peaceful rise", Beijing's neighbours turned to Washington in the middle of 2010. The Obama administration responded with alacrity by announcing a definitive return to Asia.

The first result of the mutual rediscovery was ASEAN's invitation to the US (and Russia) to join the annual East Asia Summit. The sixth annual East Asia Summit in Bali this week is the first occasion when a US president joins the process. It ends a longstanding illusion that Asia can construct a regional order on its own. By inviting America and Russia into the tent, ASEAN has declared that Asian security can only be constructed within a larger framework.

East Asia's fear of a rising China and its re-embrace of America are playing themselves out in three very different domains.

The first is the economic. Until now, East Asia accepted the centrality of China in promoting regional economic integration. The principal vehicle for this has been the "ASEAN Plus Three" structure that brought the 10 Southeast Asian nations together with China, Japan and South Korea. The region is now actively considering an alternative, the so-called Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Launched originally as a modest initiative for deeper integration among the most liberal trading nations by Singapore, Brunei, Chile and New Zealand, it has now been adopted as the future template by the US. Japan, Australia, Malaysia, Vietnam are among those backing the TPP. Beijing sees it as a mechanism to exclude China in the name of tougher standards of trade liberalisation.

The second is in the political arena. Only a few years ago, even the closest allies of the US, including Japan, Australia and Korea, were drifting towards neutrality between Washington and Beijing. Today, they are all eager to reinforce their longstanding alliances with the US.

The traditionally non-aligned Southeast nations too are drawing closer to the US as they contemplate the future of East Asia under China's shadow. Washington in turn is ready to build new strategic partnerships with countries like Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia.

Washington is also standing up with the smaller nations of Asia in their intensifying maritime territorial disputes with China. While the US does not take sides in these disputes, it has emphasised American interest in a peaceful resolution of the competing claims in the South China Sea according to accepted principles of international law.

Beijing in contrast prefers to talk with its neighbours bilaterally and is likely to oppose any discussion of the territorial disputes and the larger question of maritime security at the East Asia Summit this week.

The third is the military. There has been much concern in Asia about the military staying power of the US amidst the economic crisis and the growing pressure to cut the defence budget.

The Obama administration has outlined plans to reorganise its global military deployments in order to ensure a credible presence in Asia and its waters. Before arriving in Bali, Obama will announce the establishment of new military facilities closer to Southeast Asia in north-western Australia.

Washington is also rethinking its military doctrine. As it confronts China's rising naval and missile capabilities in the Western Pacific, Washington is expected to announce a new doctrine called "air-sea battle" that will counter Beijing's attempts to push the US navy away from the Asian littoral.

As he responds to the new regional agenda at the Bali Summit this week, extends support to the smaller Asian nations and meets US President Obama and Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao on the sidelines, Dr Singh has the opportunity to carve out a larger role for India in the definition and the management of the Asian security order.

The writer is a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, Delhi, express@expressindia.com

Please read our terms of use before posting comments
TERMS OF USE: The views expressed in comments published on indianexpress.com are those of the comment writer's alone. They do not represent the views or opinions of The Indian Express Group or its staff. Comments are automatically posted live; however, indianexpress.com reserves the right to take it down at any time. We also reserve the right not to publish comments that are abusive, obscene, inflammatory, derogatory or defamatory.