My recent swing through Singapore, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand coincided with President Obama’s visit to Asia, including his successful visit to India. There was much scrutiny of every detail of the India visit and Obama’s pronouncements. There was no doubt among these countries that the future trajectory of Indo-US relations would impact significantly on the prospects for both peace and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region. President Obama’s exhortation to India to move beyond Look East to Engage East, was echoed in virtually every Capital and a higher Indian economic and security profile was almost universally welcome. This is a strategic opportunity that India cannot afford to neglect.
In recent months, India has articulated a strategic doctrine of sorts for the Asia-Pacific region. This expresses a preference for open, inclusive and multipolar (read “balanced”) arrangements for the region’s evolving economic and security architectures. This is the reason for welcoming the expansion of the East Asia Summit to include both the US and Russia, and the setting up of the Asean plus eight Defence Ministers’ Meeting as its symmetrical security counterpart. India has also categorically acknowledged that Asean must remain the nodal centre of this emerging architecture since it is the best platform for reconciling the differing interests of major players in the region. Finally, we consider that the different economic and security fora in the region, such as Asean-plus-one, Asean-plus-three and the East Asia Summit, are parallel processes without an inside track or an outside track. This rejects the notion favoured by China that the Asean-plus-three, the latter comprising China, ROK and Japan, forms some kind of an exclusivist “core” around which the new architecture should evolve.
What should be heartening for India is the clear resonance of its approach in the Hanoi Declaration on the commemoration of the fifth anniversary of the East Asia Summit, adopted on October 28, 2010, which spoke of the need to establish an “open, inclusive and transparent, and outward-looking forum” in the region. And significantly, the Indo-US Joint Statement of November 8, 2010 declares, in similar terms, the commitment of the two countries “to work together and with others in the region for the evolution of an open, balanced and inclusive architecture in the region”. This is a rare instance where India’s strategic posture is aligned with almost all the major actors in the Asia-Pacific.
The Asean perspective towards recent developments in Asia-Pacific is a complex mix of attitudes, in particular towards China, not very different from our own. There is a recognition that the economic destiny of the region and its prosperity are dependent upon greater economic and trade engagement with a still rapidly growing China. At the same time, there is a fear of over-dependence on China and becoming its economic appendage. In this context, the only other rapidly growing continental size economy, India, is seen as a major partner providing the region some room for manoeuvre and possibilities for more diversified economic relationships. Singapore, for example, describes India and China as the two wings which will enable the Asean bird to soar towards higher levels of prosperity. Therefore, the importance of ensuring an economic architecture which permits increased engagement with both India and China as well as opportunities for more diversified economic relationships with all major economies.
On the security side, the situation is more complex and challenging. There is undoubtedly growing anxiety over the rapid augmentation of security assets by China, in particular its naval force projection capabilities and its recent assertive posture. There was a broad consensus that China seeks to achieve a level of dominance that would give it effective veto over the security decisions and choices of countries of the region. In response, these countries have adopted a number of coping measures. One, there is a significant, if not too visible, acquisition of enhanced military capabilities as an insurance policy. Two, there is encouragement of increased security cooperation both within Asean as well as externally with other friendly naval powers such as the US and India. The objective is not to form a containment ring around China but rather acquire levers to encourage China to become part of more balanced, diversified and loosely structured security arrangements in the region instead of pursuing unilateral dominance.
While there is fear of getting embroiled in an incipient Sino-US competition and rivalry for dominance in the region, India’s growing profile is generally seen as benign. In fact, the sentiment in virtually all the countries I visited was that India was not doing enough to establish a much stronger presence in the region. However, this comes with a caveat: India should steer clear of becoming an instrument of US attempts to construct a reverse “string of pearls” around China, which would inevitably and adversely impact on the stability and economic welfare of the region. There is a fine dividing line which most of the countries draw between promoting balance without practising containment. This is not easy and the one policy can easily be misjudged for the other and often is. The only way such misjudgements can hopefully be avoided is through deeper and regular engagement among the countries concerned. On the one hand, there must be a firm rejection of unilateral assertions of the so-called “core interests” by any country which impinge on the vital interests of other countries in the region, in particular the freedom of navigation and the security of sea-lanes. On the other hand, the temptation to build exclusivist, countervailing security arrangements to cope with the emerging security challenge is fraught with risk. China shows a disturbing tendency to swing from arrogance of newly found power to a siege mentality rooted in its earlier history of weakness and humiliation. Neither should be encouraged. The Asean countries seem to understand this instinctively. So should India.
The author is a former foreign secretary and is currently acting chairperson, RIS and senior fellow, Centre for Policy Research