The first week of June saw two major developments which may help determine the direction of India’s foreign policy in the coming months and provide some room for manoeuvre in an uncertain world. The first Indo-US strategic dialogue in Washington saw the US pull out all the stops to assuage Indian anxieties over President Barack Obama’s perceived lack of enthusiasm for the Indo-US strategic partnership. On the other side of the globe in Singapore, there was, almost simultaneously and perhaps not coincidentally, a very public spat between China and the US at the annual Shangrila Dialogue. US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates decried Chinese reluctance to engage the US in a high-level defence dialogue and the lack of transparency in its security posture. China also found itself on the defensive on the issue of North Korea’s alleged sinking of a South Korean naval vessel. The senior Chinese representative present, General Ma Xiaotian, responded with considerable rancour, decrying hostile actions by the US, in particular its arms sales to Taiwan.
In recent weeks, the US has been at pains to assert its role as a pre-eminent Asia-Pacific power. It has reaffirmed its intention not only to maintain, but also to upgrade the network of bilateral military alliances, security arrangements and partnerships that it has built up over the years in the region. Nevertheless, both the US and its allies and partners are mindful of and increasingly concerned over the steady build-up of Chinese naval forces in the region, and the recent propensity to use this new-found strength to pursue what China refers to as its “core interests”. What is particularly worrisome to countries in South-East Asia is the recent addition of Chinese territorial claims in the South China sea to the category of core interests.
It will be recalled that China had taken the initiative to allay concerns over its expansive territorial claims in the region by concluding a code of conduct in the South China sea with Asean in November 2002, in effect shelving territorial disputes in favour of joint collaboration and activities in the region. This phase is now over and there is pervasive concern over the ability of the existing US-led security architecture of being able to resist Chinese activism on this score, particularly when the US is still preoccupied with two ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and its economy is still in deep recession. It is, therefore, no surprise that the countries in the region, in particular Asean, are pursuing their own version of a hedging strategy to safeguard their security as well as economic interests.
On the security side, the Asean search for an appropriate regional security architecture in which the regional association retains its pivotal role, has led to the establishment of the Asean Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus Eight (ADMM+8) forum, the first meeting of which will be convened in Hanoi in October this year. This forum will have Asean plus the six members of the East Asia Summit — China, Japan, the Republic of Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand — and now the US and Russia as key stakeholders. This will be a much more compact body than the Asean Regional Forum (ARF) and will enable a more focused dialogue on regional security issues. What is not stated but is implicit in the proposal is the expectation that it will also provide a collective countervailing constraint on China.
Interestingly enough, there is a parallel move to expand the East Asia Summit to include the US and Russia as well. At a subsequent Asia-Pacific Round Table in Kuala Lumpur, there was much talk about the need to have an “open, inclusive and multi-layered” economic and security architecture in the region, thus echoing terms that India has been using for the past couple of years in its own policy articulations regarding the region. There were arguments why the US and Russia must be part of the East Asia Summit process and the US itself declared its interest in being a participant. Thus, in the days to come, we may well see the creation of a symmetrical economic counterpart to the ADMM+8.
For India, these developments should not only be welcomed but also be proactively promoted. They are entirely in line with our own oft-repeated preference for an open, multipolar, inclusive and loosely structured economic and security architecture in Asia. This suits our interests best without entangling the country in arrangements that may be seen as the containment of China. Therefore, India should welcome the ADMM+8 initiative and also pronounce itself in favour of both the US and Russia joining the East Asia Summit process. We should contribute to the ADMM+8 initiative by recommending cooperative measures to serve convergent interests such as maintaining the security of sea lanes, dealing with maritime emergencies and observing a code of conduct that reduces the risk of conflict among the stakeholders. This is critical to maintaining peace in a region that is already crowded with expanding naval forces and is witnessing increasing density in sea-borne commerce, particularly in the Indian Ocean theatre. Both at Singapore and at Kuala Lumpur, it was clear that India was seen as a major and essentially benign actor in the region but one which was not fully engaged with countries of the region, in particular the Asean. Even on the economic front, the general perception was that India was a potentially important partner but currently it ran way behind China. India’s Look East policy must be refocused to take the latest developments into account and launch a much higher level of engagement with the region than has been the case so far. And that includes China.
The author was India’s foreign secretary and until recently the prime minister’s special envoy