Closing ranks

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 07 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 07 June, 2011, 12:00am


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Allow me to introduce you to Gapac - the Grouping of Asian Powers Around China. If you've never heard of it, don't be too disturbed as it does not exist - officially, at least. That means there is no secretariat, no formal charter, no regular meetings or even a single spokesman.

The membership, as best as it can be deduced, involves Japan, South Korea, the US, India, Australia and the two largest and suddenly thrusting powers in Southeast Asia, Indonesia and Vietnam.

Discreet communication and co-operation among the membership is rising, dominated by the strategic and security questions posed by the rise of China.

Think of it as a mutual self-help and support group of security officials and diplomats. They are united by a vexing problem - all feel they must remain deeply engaged with China, have stakes in its continued success yet somehow figure out how to stand up to Beijing when need be. Insiders describe it as a modern dilemma.

Gapac meetings are rarely visible. Yet, it is useful to track growing strategic links among its members. The disparate nations of Japan and India, for example, are engaged in a low-key courtship. Then there is Indonesia and Vietnam, tag-teaming over the push for action within Southeast Asia over the South China Sea. Consider, too, fresh security co-operation between South Korea and Australia - a relationship that feeds into the re-energised East Asian alliance between the US and both Japan and South Korea.

All members are, meanwhile, courting Vietnam as old suspicions of Hanoi fade into history.

Even as the historic appearance of Defence Minister Liang Guanglie attracted the spotlight at the weekend's Shangri-La Dialogue on security in Singapore, informal Gapac sessions were under way on the sidelines. While Beijing intensifies its military diplomacy, quiet co-operation across Gapac shows what it is up against.

'We are all pleased to see officials like General Liang becoming more engaged,' one Indian security official said. 'But in the background, we are all discovering a new safety in numbers. There is a sense the key Asian powers are closer now as they have to figure out ways of dealing with Beijing.' Japanese officials echo the sentiments.

South Korean former presidential adviser Dr Lee Chung-min, who is tracking the trend among Asia's 'middle powers', said: 'China's basically pushing us all closer ... it is too big to contain, yet somehow we at times have to act to constrain China ... It's about understanding, support and leverage.'

Gapac is emerging beyond the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which itself has shown new backbone over the past 18 months and has formalised an East Asian Summit linking the powers of East Asia, including China, the US and Russia.

Given the formality of Asean's glacial decision-making, Gapac exists on a more practical plane. Interestingly, traditional Asian powers such as Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand linger on the fringes.

Gapac, it seems, is more responsive as it works to influence developments.

Greg Torode is the Post's chief Asia correspondent.