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India emerging key player in Asia-Pacific region

By Amit Baruah, The Hindu, Monday 23 July 2001

HANOI, JULY 22. Not long ago, India was not considered a player in the Asia-Pacific region. All that has begun to change. Slowly, but surely, India is being counted in the geo-politics of the region as an emerging power.

There is little doubt that the May 1998 nuclear tests focussed on New Delhi as never before - on its intentions and motivations to go nuclear. For some time, the focus of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) remained on criticising India for its actions, but gradually all that began to change.

As the ASEAN and ARF meetings get underway here from tomorrow, India takes its place as a dialogue partner and ARF member without the baggage of May 1998.

In place of the External Affairs Minister, Mr. Jaswant Singh, the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, Mr. K.C. Pant, will lead the Indian delegation to the ASEAN/ARF and Mekong-Ganga Cooperation (MGC) Ministerial Meetings.

Central to the gradual easing away of criticism directed towards India (and, of course, Pakistan) was New Delhi's growing engagement with Washington.

Scholars, journals and think-tanks have begun to mention India as a factor in the region today. All that is a sign that India's profile in the region got a boost. However, all depends on how far India is able to capitalise on it and project that it is genuinely interested in promoting and building upon current cooperative endeavours.

India, after all the fire directed at it in the Manila ARF meeting in 1998, is very much part of the process, and will be co-chairing the Inter-Sessional Support Group on Confidence- Building Measures of the 23-member organisation for the coming year.

The change in tone can be seen from the ARF chairman's statement (a consensus document). In 1998, the ARF Chairman said on India and Pakistan: The Ministers....expressed grave concern over and strongly deplored the recent nuclear tests in South Asia, which exacerbate tension in the region and raised the spectre of a nuclear arms race....they asked the countries concerned to restrain from weaponisation or deploying missiles to deliver nuclear weapons.....

In 1999, the ARF chairman's statement issued in Singapore read: The Ministers noted support for encouraging states that had tested nuclear weapons last year to exercise restraint, including by adhering to the CTBT, and to revive the Lahore process. And, last year, the ARF chairman said in Bangkok: The Ministers exchanged views on situation in South Asia and some expressed their continuing concern. The Ministers expressed the hope that efforts be made to bring about positive developments in the region.

The heightened engagement with South-East Asia during the year gone by since the ASEAN and ARF sessions in Bangkok in July last year have indicated that New Delhi is interested in forging stronger ties with this region.

Interestingly enough, the ASEAN, which remains the driving force behind the ARF, cannot be treated as one entity. And, as sovereign nations, their perspectives on security issues are their own. So, when India went ahead and offered qualified support for the American anti-ballistic missile defence proposal, it was certainly noted in the region. The Malaysian Prime Minister, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, sought clarifications from the visiting Indian Prime Minister, Mr. Atal Behari Vajpayee, about New Delhi's position in May this year.

Some other ASEAN members, India's traditional friends in the region, too, could have concerns about New Delhi's qualified support to the anti-missile defences proposal. It could, consequently, be in India's interest to explain its views on the issue.

Another high-point of Indian involvement last year was the formation of the Mekong-Ganga Cooperation (MGC) grouping in Vientiane in November last year.

Some eyebrows were raised at that time because China (a Mekong country) was left out of the grouping. However, India made it clear that the grouping was not directed at any country. In terms of size, India is the only counter to China in Asia. In terms of economic clout, China is ahead of India.

Whatever be the interests of powers operating from outside the region, India would gain from a cooperative partnership with China in South-East Asia.

The Cold War model of allies and pitting one against the other is not in the interests of either China or India.

A speedy resolution of some of the more ticklish issues between India and China could help promote this partnership in South-East Asia.