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    South Asia
     Nov 18, 2011



Tiger in the dragon's yard
By Sreeram Chaulia

This year's East Asia Summit (EAS) in Bali, Indonesia on November 18-19 will welcome two new member states - the United States and Russia [1]. The new members make this annual grouping of odd-fitting dialogue partners an even more complex body, while defying the geographic context of its title.

The EAS has had extra-regional dimensions since its inception in 2005 in Kuala Lumpur, when the presence of Australia, New Zealand and India excited controversy from different quarters. The hosts and chief initiators of the whole project, Malaysia, objected the presence of two Pacific states that were ethnically non-Asian and seen as Western stooges, while China resisted the the inclusion of India, as a South Asian state that could threaten its predominant position.

Among the non-East Asian powers that now command seats at the EAS, India faces perhaps the greatest challenges in justifying its influence over the region's diplomatic agenda. Coverage in Indian media in the run up to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's Bali voyage has focussed largely on a bilateral pow-wow he is scheduled to have with US President Barack Obama on the summit's side-lines. Hardly anything of import about India's capacity to become a major East Asian player has come to light, reflecting a large gap between aspirations and reality.

India's strategic elites want to shape their country into a countervailing force in China's strategic surroundings, possibly replacing the US in the long run should Washington lose the fiscal strength needed to project power in East Asia. Since China's military and economic penetration of South Asia, India's "near abroad", is quite advanced, New Delhi seeks tit-for-tat pressure points in Southeast and Northeast Asia to remind Beijing that hegemony in Asia will not be conceded without contest.

The political dimensions of India's two-decade-long "Look East" policy underscore this willingness to enter a zone that China has lorded over since Japan's decline, with hopes New Delhi will be entrenched as a "resident power" like the US. However, unlike Washington, New Delhi faces a serious paucity of material means to fuel its dreams of becoming a pivotal actor in the Southeast and Northeast Asian regions.

Indian naval strategists warned earlier this year against bravado in the disputed South China Sea waters, following a spat with China over oil exploration by an Indian state-owned oil company off the coast of Vietnam. Admiral Arun Prakash, a retired chief of India's navy, cautioned against conflict with China over "freedom of navigation in international waters" at a time when the Indian navy was thinly stretched and lacked the means to "sustain a naval presence some 2,500 nautical miles (4,630 kilometers) from home to bolster ONGC Videsh Ltd's stake in South China Sea hydrocarbons".

In an inversion of former US president Theodore Roosevelt's maxim of "speak softly and carry a big stick", Indian officials have been unable to seamlessly integrate diplomatic exchanges with China-fearing countries in Southeast Asia like Vietnam and the Philippines into concrete naval expansion.

Unlike the US, India lacks the naval bases or warships that could deter the formidable People's Liberation Army Navy in Southeast and Northeast Asia.

China, which usually dismisses India's pretensions as an Asian superpower over its internal weaknesses, has not however been complacent about multilateral military exercises involving India, the US, Japan and Australia in waters Beijing claims. But bowing to the fait accompli presented by its relatively weak navy, New Delhi has in the past limited these exercises to avoid riling China.

The Chinese position that foreign navies should not be "intruding" on vast oceanic areas far beyond the concept of territorial waters and exclusive economic zones is arguably the central security issue of the EAS. Despite its soaring ambitions, India is at best a bit player on this point and will remain so as long as its navy is not a global force.

In the economic sphere, India's free-trade agreement (FTA) with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) does lend New Delhi an undeniable importance at the EAS. While this pact much smaller in the volume of exchanged goods than China's FTA with ASEAN, the mere availability of another gigantic market of a billion-plus consumers in the vicinity of China is a welcome development for smaller nations in the EAS that fear damage to local producers at the hands of China's predatory exports.

However, one of the deficiencies in India's "Look East" economic policies is that its gaze has not reached far enough east. Indians are more familiar with plotting a role in Southeast Asia than farther afield in Northeast Asia. The latter is witnessing remarkable moves towards closer economic integration, a process in which India is currently a non-entity.

In spite of their historic and strategic divides, China, South Korea and Japan have deepened a series of currency swap agreements put in place since the global financial crisis of 2008 to absorb sudden shocks. As export-dependent economies, the three Northeast Asian powers are closely enmeshing their financial sectors, generating a new dynamic of pro-China domestic constituencies that rival the older pro-American lobbies in Tokyo and Seoul.

India's challenge as a rising economic power is to find ways to cultivate pro-India forces in East Asia through concrete trading and financial tools. Unless the Indian economy develops a significant manufacturing and exporting segment, New Delhi will find itself locked out of the innovative economic regionalism that China is spearheading in its neighborhood. It is China's prowess in exports that has enabled it to now prepare a yuan trade settlement agreement with the 10-member ASEAN group, boosting the yuan's status as a regional reserve currency in Asia.

At the Bali summit this weekend, Manmohan will make all the ceremonial statements and satiate the press corps back home with photo-ops with Obama. However, the crux of the matter is the reality that India is still not a central actor in the East Asian theater. New Delhi will need to orchestrate multiple structural transformations of its naval priorities and economic thrust before it can claim to be a genuine match to China and a tiger with teeth in East Asia.

1.) The 18 countries attending this year's East Asia Summit are: Australia, Brunei, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, New Zealand, Philippines, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, United States, and Vietnam.

Sreeram Chaulia is a professor and Vice Dean at the Jindal School of International Affairs in Sonipat, India, and the first ever B. Raman Fellow for Geopolitical Analysis at the strategic affairs think tank, the Takshashila Institution. He is the author of the recent book, International Organizations and Civilian Protection: Power, Ideas and Humanitarian Aid in Conflict Zones (I.B. Tauris, London).

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