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Commentary (April 22, 2004)

New security system for Asia - by Asians

Sunanda Kisor Datta-Ray (Visiting Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore)

With Japan suggesting that it, India and China should form an axis to co-ordinate strategic activities, Asia is at last presented with an opportunity to develop a security framework on the lines of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe, or even NATO. This is something for the ASEAN Regional Forum, with which all three countries are associated, to take up.

This trilateral axis was recently proposed by Yasukuni Enoki, Japan's new ambassador to India. Two days later, Chinese Defence Minister Cao Gangchuan was in New Delhi for talks with George Fernandes, his Indian counterpart. Describing the proposal as "important for Asia's stability and prosperity", Mr Enoki said it "had been discussed informally with the Indian side and will help India correct its positioning in Japan's diplomacy". Although the proposal had not been mentioned to China at the time of Mr Enoki's announcement, it is bound to have cropped up during General Cao's tour of Indian military establishments.

Mr Enoki's initiative, made while announcing a US$57 million loan for India, implies that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has reservations about the unipolar world view of President George W. Bush's neoconservative advisers. So far, Japan has been coy about diplomatic involvement in Asia, refusing to accept the political obligations of being the world's second-largest economy. It has now taken the plunge at a time when despite ostentatious signs of Indo-American solidarity (like US troops practising jungle warfare in northeastern India), Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee is anxious to underline his country's independence in global affairs.

Mr Bush's decision to bestow the accolade of "major non-NATO ally" on Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf is not a factor, although it rankles that US Secretary of State Colin Powell did not breathe a word of it when he was in New Delhi, springing a surprise only after flying on to Islamabad. India needs the US to restrain General Musharraf over succouring Kashmir terrorists. Mr Vajpayee calls India and the US "natural allies" and Mr Bush says they are "strategic partners". But, obviously, the relationship has its limits.

India refused to send troops to Iraq, did not support US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick at Cancun or endorse the US agenda at the World Trade Organisation. It refuses to yield on outsourcing. Mr Vajpayee also rejects American invitations to gang up on China at the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva.

India has its problems with China. But visits and talks have resulted in a bilateral dispute-resolution mechanism, and Mr Vajpayee and Mr Fernandes established excellent rapport with their hosts when they visited China last year. General Cao says the Asian giants are becoming "eternal good neighbours, good partners and good friends".

India has no intention of being dragooned into any exercise to contain China's growing might. Nor does it seek to rival Chinese influence in the Asia-Pacific region. But it does see itself as a major player in a multipolar world. That view conflicts with the strategy of determined unilateralism, first enunciated in a 1992 defence planning guidance document under Mr Bush's father, which bluntly warns even allies not to consider competing with America's political or military leadership.

Like India, China also chafes against the notion of the world being forced into a US-made straitjacket. But it is Japan's support, howsoever discreetly expressed, that could really translate a knee-jerk Asian reaction into strategic reality and a viable Asian security system.

(Originally appeared in the April 22, 2004 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, reproduced here with permission.)

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