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Chance to refashion ties

Helping Asean stay relevant

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The bloc is feeling threatened. This presents India with a chance to refashion its ties, says Indrani Bagchi.

The screaming headlines this week should have been about the creation of RCEP. RCEP, you say, disbelievingly. India, along with 15 other countries including the US and China, agreed to start negotiations to create the largest free trade area in the world - this would include China, Japan, Korea, US and Asean. If everybody manages to sign on the dotted line by 2015, as they think they will, it could become a game-changer. India, then, would be locked into a free-trade arrangement with both the US and China, even if bilaterally such FTAs might be politically difficult.

But there are strong military underlays to future economic arrangements. That is the problem. At this week's Asean and East Asia summits in Phnom Penh, territorial disputes on the Spratlys and Paracel islands in the South China Sea overwhelmed talk of all other forward movement.

China successfully blocked any reference to the dispute, through the good offices of Cambodia, whose president Hun Sen persisted even after being upbraided by his counterparts from Philippines and Vietnam. The US, in its new "pivot" avatar, failed to sway the Cambodians, though how Washington expected Hun Sen to follow a different script when its senior officials were ranting about human rights violations by Hun Sen's government remains a mystery.

Asean was left flapping. The question all are asking now is, is Asean up to the job? There is much talk about the "centrality" of Asean as the strategic leader of south-east Asia, but the lack of a clear unifying principle among these countries is hard to miss. The outgoing secretary-general of Asean, Surin Pitsuwan, a talented and incredibly articulate Thai diplomat, is a worried man. "Asean is an enterprise, a vision that we have all tried to build together into a regional architecture of cooperation. But when the landscape and region are attracting players from outside, Asean feels the stress and strain. Asean is unprepared to deal with major powers and between us, how to deal with competing forces on our platform is the big challenge, " he said.

China wants bilateral deals on South China Sea disputes. Asean wants a declaration of conduct and a multilateral approach so they don't feel they are at a disadvantage with China. Beijing's more assertive stance regarding territorial claims in the South China Sea have all made China's southeast Asian neighbours look to Washington to balance the Chinese. The US has three options - it can strengthen alliances with China's neighbours, including defence arrangements that could be used to contain Chinese hegemony. It could try out a G-2, whereby the US and China would basically carve out spheres of influence and power. Third, America could go isolationist and turn inwards - stick to only trade with Asia, leaving the Asians to manage as best as they can.

India, Korea and Japan are all interested players in this - all three have territorial disputes with China and have an interest in containing China's sphere of influence. They also have a huge interest in keeping the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca open for free navigation. China's Achilles heel is the narrow strait through which its huge energy supplies travel, and therefore China would be keen to control those waters. China is not making it easy for itself as it continues to play tough - ironically, even though China's military capability has increased tremendously, its foreign policy is probably weaker than it was earlier. For instance, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines will meet in Manila on December 12 as part of Philippines' efforts to push for a multilateral solution to their disputes with China. Thailand has agreed to join the Trans-Pacific partnership with the US, and even Myanmar is being courted as the big breakaway.

This is a huge opportunity for India to refashion its relations with Asean and east Asia. India is the natural balancer in the region. New Delhi's tragedy is its inability to work out a coherent strategy. The navy should be at the forefront of the eastward push. India should work really hard to get an investment and services agreement with Asean as well - the body has been opposing this but they must be made to see sense. There is great merit in working on alternative supply chains to give Asean countries a sense of comfort in the Indian economy.

Bilaterally, India should intensify engagement with countries like Indonesia and Malaysia - these are the larger powers in Asean, and certainly Indonesia is finding that its ambitions are larger than Asean. India should accommodate such ambitions - there's merit in considering an Australian proposal for a trilateral with India and Indonesia on maritime security. India has worked on the Malaysia relationship in the past few years, and now is the time to cement it.
Asean is feeling threatened, and facing possible irrelevance. India can work this to its advantage.

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