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India and the East Asia Summit

Dr. G V C Naidu was Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • December 20, 2005

    The inaugural East Asian Summit (EAS), representing nearly 50 per cent of the world's population with 20 per cent of global trade, and comprising 16 nations that are on a dynamic path of economic development, is obviously a mega event. For India, it is yet another opening to increasingly align itself with this region and play a commensurate political and security role. There is no question that the centre of gravity is decisively moving to East Asia and developments in this region will offer great economic opportunities and pose serious challenges as well. The EAS was touted as the beginning of a new era of economic integration and a progenitor to the creation of an East Asian 'community.' There are however doubts whether the EAS can accomplish this.

    When Malaysia offered to host the EAS at last year's ASEAN summit, no one had a clue about its composition or about the agenda it would pursue. It was widely believed that the EAS would provide political impetus to the process of growing regional economic linkages. East Asia is interacting with itself feverishly like never before - intra-regional trade has increased from about 40 per cent a decade back to over 55 per cent now and investments too are increasingly inward bound. The rise of gargantuan economies such as China and India will further expedite this market-driven process. This process is driven by market conditions, but there is no region-wide overarching economic or political mechanism to provide guidance to it.

    Conspicuous by its absence is the United States, which has been the most dominant player in the region for more than a century. Interestingly, it is not unduly worried about its exclusion probably knowing pretty well that there has been a spate of new multilateral frameworks that came into being in the last decade and half, none of which have had much impact either economically or politically.

    This is the basis for scepticism about the EAS. What can it do that other forums had earlier failed to achieve? In addition to the ASEAN Dialogue Partnership meetings with important economic powers that have been in existence since the mid-1970s, the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) was created in the early nineties with a similar objective of economic integration. It is nowhere near achieving any of its goals notwithstanding grand annual summit meetings and declarations. Another such mechanism is the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), founded in 1994 to address security-related issues exclusively. The 1995 ASEAN Concept Paper envisioned a three-stage development for the ARF -confidence building measures, preventive diplomacy, and conflict resolution. Aside from some progress in CBMs, the ARF has failed to promote transparency and a predictable pattern of relations, which it had set out to do. In fact, the ARF was found to be wanting when crises actually arose such as the East Timor issue or the North Korean nuclear problem. Another forum created in the aftermath of the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis was the ASEAN Plus Three (the three being China, Japan and South Korea) to regularly exchange views, promote economic cooperation, and ensure non-recurrence of economic crises. A+3 has also been holding annual summit-level meetings, along with ASEAN summits with India since 2002.

    We thus have multiple fora of all sorts and creating one more may not make much of a difference. It is claimed, nonetheless, that the EAS is different since it also aims to create a community in the region. The idea appears to be far-fetched, for 'community' has a different connotation and certain common characteristics are indispensable to build a community. Unlike in Europe, in Asia there is not a single trait that can be said to be common or pan-Asian - religious, linguistic, ethnic, or cultural. Indeed, this region is so vast and complex, with extremely uneven levels of economic development, ridden with a large number of unresolved disputes and a heavy historical baggage of suspicion and animosity, that doubts arise whether the community idea is feasible even as a long-term goal.

    Perhaps an equally important dimension is ASEAN's ability to lead the EAS. ASEAN is in a much weaker position especially after the financial crisis and has failed to emerge as an autonomous power centre that can engage the great powers and ensure regional balance. The relationship between the EAS and other fora, the impact of widening rift between Japan and China, and the future role of the United States are other issues that remain ambiguous.

    As far as India is concerned, it has been a remarkable turnaround in fortunes. As late as a decade back, it was not considered worthy enough to be a member of APEC nor did it figure in the deliberations when the ARF was created. An invitation to India to the EAS now is recognition of its fast growing economic and political clout. However, a policy centred on multilateralism has its limitations. Hence, bilateral relations become crucial and moreover tend to be longer lasting. There is already a budding rivalry between China and India. India should therefore aim at firming up its ties especially with Japan and qualitatively improve its relations with countries such as Indonesia and Vietnam. With some diplomatic adroitness, India can do this not necessarily at the cost its relations with China.