The next big East Asian power?

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 05 April, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 April, 2005, 12:00am

With Premier Wen Jiabao due in New Delhi on Saturday, and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi a few weeks later, one is reminded of Indian Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee arguing that Asia without India was like Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark.

The complaint was prompted by India's exclusion from the Asia-Europe dialogue spearheaded by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. But if the Asian community's internal dynamics now appear to welcome the entry of a politically stable and economically thrusting nation of more than 1 billion people that can hold the balance among the existing players, India, too, has much to gain from closer ties with East Asia.

Japan and China have endorsed India's aspirations for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, which the US again refused to do during Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's recent visit to New Delhi. But it is the evolving relations with China that promises to shape the Concert of Asia.

Trade between the world's two most populous nations rose 80 per cent last year to US$14 billion, and is expected to amount to US$20 billion by the end of the year. It could soon overtake the US$22 billion Indo-US trade. If that happens, it might induce profound foreign policy changes in India with consequent shifts in Asia's security architecture.

In particular, it would mean a new boost for the Japanese suggestion of a trilateral India-Japan-China partnership. But the key to the future lies in a resolution of the border dispute that provoked India and China to fight a brief, bitter war in 1962. Basically, there are two disputed areas. The larger lies in the east, where China does not recognise the British-drawn McMahon Line as the border and claims the 90,000 sq km Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh that lies south of it. In the west, India claims the 38,000 sq km Aksai Chin plateau beyond a Chinese military road to Xinjiang .

Indians are excited about Mr Wen's March 14 declaration that China is seeking a settlement based on 'accommodation of reality'. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh says the visit will have an 'impact of significance' far beyond the borders of South Asia.

The two visits will independently confirm the global status that President George W. Bush dangled before India as a sop when he promised Pakistan advanced F-16 fighters. New Delhi is also eager to take up a US offer to sell India the same aircraft. Thanks to American diplomacy, political and commercial, a new arms race may be building up between the two neighbours.

Looking forward to more US investment, outsourcing contracts, strategic and military co-operation and backing for its security council ambition, India cannot be unaware that the clue to US and Japanese overtures lies in the hope that it will balance China's rising might. Many Asean nations share the expectation. But they also know - as does India - that the role can be best performed if India and China compose their differences first. Ironically, Mr Wen's peace mission might result in encouraging a serious competitor for the Asia stakes.

Sunanda Kisor Datta-Ray is a former editor of The Statesman in India