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«India-East Asia Relations The Weakest Link, but not Goodbye By Satu P. Limaye Director of Research, Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies ∗ ...»

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India-East Asia Relations

The Weakest Link, but not Goodbye

By Satu P. Limaye

Director of Research, Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies ∗

During the two years since India-East Asia relations were last considered here (see

“India’s Latest Asian Incarnation,” Comparative Connections, Vol. 2, No. 3, Oct. 2000),

India has achieved incremental progress in building political, economic, and even limited

security ties to countries in East Asia. India, however, is still not an integral part of the region’s international relations or a critical bilateral relationship for Southeast Asia, China, or Japan. India’s relationship with East Asia thus remains the weakest link when compared to the region’s other major partners. But India’s growing engagement with East Asia in 2001-2002 both on a bilateral and multilateral basis demonstrates that India has neither bid the region, nor been bidden by it, goodbye!

India and Southeast Asia: A ‘Plus’ Up in Relations India’s “Look East” policy in the early 1990s began with a focus on Southeast Asia, and so it remained during 2001-2002. Bilaterally, India exchanged high-level visits with nearly every member country of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and in certain cases more than once. It also made notable strides in its official relationship with ASEAN as an organization, culminating in the inaugural ASEAN-India summit or “ASEAN Plus One” formulation.

Enriching Bilateralism: Singapore continued to be the key to India’s closer relations with Southeast Asia. In early November 2000, during Indian President K.R. Narayanan’s visit to Singapore, the first by an Indian president in three decades, Singapore promised to propose that India become one of ASEAN’s four summit partners along with Japan, China, and South Korea. The lack of consensus within ASEAN toward the proposal was evident in Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong’s caveat that he would pursue the matter “without being aggressive.” India and Singapore also pursued a number of private sector and government initiatives designed to enhance their economic cooperation, particularly in the realms of information and telecommunications technology. In July 2001, Singapore and India held the second meeting of their recently established ∗ The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, United States Pacific Command, the U.S. Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

Information Communication Technology (ICT) Task Force. During Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s April 2002 Singapore visit, his second visit to the citystate in less than a year, India and Singapore announced the establishment of a joint study group (JSG) to explore an Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) that would cover trade as well as intellectual property, customs cooperation, and the financial sector. The efforts on the economic front speak both to mutual interest, and simultaneously the lack of satisfaction in the progress made thus far. Singaporean officials repeatedly encouraged India to “achieve its full economic potential” (diplomatese for more economic reform).

However, significantly, reflecting India’s very active diplomacy in the region, Singapore did not repeat past admonishments to India to pay as much attention to Southeast Asia as it does to the United States and Europe.

Vietnam also continued as a focus of Indian bilateral diplomacy in Southeast Asia. In November 2000, eight months after the first-ever Indian defense minister’s visit to Hanoi, Indian External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh followed with a visit of his own. In addition to chairing the Indian team in the 10th India-Vietnam Joint Commission meeting, the primary purpose of this visit was coordination for the Nov. 10 inaugural meeting of the Mekong-Ganga Cooperation (MGC) grouping held in Laos. The grouping brings together India, Vietnam, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos and is aimed at cooperation on tourism, transportation, as well as cultural and information exchanges.

Singh’s visit also paved the way for the January 2001 visit of India’s Prime Minister Vajpayee to Hanoi, the first by an Indian prime minister in seven years. During this visit, India and Vietnam, rather than focus on defense cooperation as they had in March 2000, focused on political and economic relations. Prime Minister Vajpayee and Vietnam’s Prime Minister Pham Van Khai signed agreements to extend cultural exchanges until 2003 and cooperate on tourism as well as for India to provide equipment for a nuclear energy laboratory. India also granted $2 million to establish a Software and Training Center in Vietnam, following up an earlier credit of $5 million to set up two centers for software and human resource development. India and Vietnam also agreed to increase their bilateral trade from a paltry $155 million in 1999-2000 to $500 million in three years. On the investment front, India, which has about $200 million in direct investment in Vietnam, increased the amount significantly with the signing of a $238 million gas deal under which a foreign consortium led by India’s Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) Videsh Ltd. will extract natural gas from Vietnam’s Nam Con Son Basin. On the political front, Vietnam gave its support for Indian membership in Southeast Asian economic and political forums and reiterated past support for New Delhi’s entry into the United Nations Security Council. Defense issues were not entirely ignored. Both countries pledged to continue their cooperation though Vietnam reportedly decided not to purchase Indian naval craft due to their high prices.

India-Burma relations also received a fillip, building on a rapprochement initiated in the first half of 2000. Though India had sharply criticized Burma’s suppression of democracy after 1990, developments in relations during the past two years make clear that antiinsurgency, drug trafficking, and regional geopolitical considerations (i.e., countering Chinese influence) have taken higher priority than democracy in India’s approach to Burma. For its part, Burma seems committed to diversifying its relationships beyond China.

Perhaps the most important bilateral event in relations was the November 2000 visit to New Delhi by Gen. Maung Aye, vice chairman of Burma’s State Peace and Development Council, who received a “red carpet” welcome from India’s entire senior political leadership. During talks characterized as “highly positive,” India acknowledged Burma’s assistance in destroying the camps of Naga insurgents within its borders despite suffering causalities. The two countries agreed to further increase cooperation against insurgency and drug trafficking and to boost bilateral trade. Burma’s Foreign Minister Win Aung meanwhile sought to allay India’s anxiety about Chinese military activity in the Coco islands saying, “I want to tell the Indian public that any island in my country, or Burma’s soil, will not be used as a military base by any power against India.” Gen. Maung Aye’s visit to India was reciprocated by that of India’s External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh in February 2001. He became the first senior Indian official to visit Burma since Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi visited in 1987 and since the crackdown on democracy in the country in 1990. Burma’s Construction Minister Saw Tun and Singh opened the 160-kilometer Indo-Myanmar Friendship Road linking the northeastern India border town of Moreh in Manipur state with Kalewa on the Chindwin River in Burma.

Singh also inaugurated the “Myanmar-India Friendship Center for Remote Sensing and Data Processing,” which was developed with Indian technical expertise to help Burma generate weather forecasts as well as crop and ground water surveys. Burma and India also agreed to open four border checkpoints to increase trade and the ruling junta.

Rangoon said it would consider re-opening the Indian Consulate in Mandalay.

The year 2000 also saw a further consolidation of India-Indonesia relations in the postSuharto era. Indonesia’s President Abdurrahman Wahid’s first foreign trip was to India in February 2000. In January 2001 Prime Minister Vajpayee traveled to Jakarta where he signed five agreements on defense cooperation, the establishment of a Joint Commission, science and technology, cultural exchanges, and agricultural cooperation. The agreement on “Cooperative Activities in the Field of Defense” is especially noteworthy as no such agreement existed between the two countries in the past. Under its terms, the countries will coordinate defense activities in various fields including training, technical assistance, and supply of defense equipment and materials. Both countries will also share their experiences in the field of defense management and policy. The implementation of the agreement remains to be seen. The decision to establish a Joint Commission at the foreign-minister level suggests a decision to regularize bilateral relations at a fairly high level. India also took the opportunity of the visit to Indonesia to reiterate its desire for closer relations with ASEAN as a whole. Prime Minister Vajpayee, in a speech to the Indian community in Jakarta said, “we want an India-ASEAN summit on the lines of the India-EU summit held in Lisbon last year.” Wahid’s successor, Indonesian President Megawarti Sukarnoputri, followed up Vajpayee’s visit by going to India in April 2002, the last stop in a tour of Asian countries.

The two countries signed Memoranda of Understanding on cooperation in peaceful uses of outer space, visa exemption for diplomatic and official passport holders, and a vocational center for the construction sector. India and Indonesia also signed an agreement for New Delhi to build a railway line and a port terminal in South Sumatra in exchange for coal, timber, and crude oil. Several private sector business agreements were also signed on projects ranging from vegetable oil to computers.

India-Malaysia relations, never particularly warm, received attention in 2001-2002. In May 2001 Prime Minister Vajpayee visited Kuala Lumpur (following an earlier cancellation due to the devastating Gujarat earthquake), the first Indian leader to do so in six years. The visit was an especially important one given press reports that Malaysia opposed the proposal to have a separate India-ASEAN summit. Nevertheless, Vajpayee, in an address to the Institute of Diplomatic and Foreign Relations, made a case for a closer India-ASEAN dialogue. He also reiterated India’s position on nuclear proliferation, saying pointedly that “[w]e have proved that India is neither a proliferation threat nor an exporter of sensitive nuclear or missile technology. This cannot be said to be true of all parties to the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty.” Many observers viewed the last sentence as a reference to China, and specifically a reference to alleged China-Pakistan nuclear dealings. Malaysia was also noticeably cool in its view of India on the eve of the visit, with Malaysian Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad saying, “[we] should not look at [India] as if they are our enemy. We should think of them according to their policy and if they are friendly we should also be friendly.” Other irritants included a large trade imbalance between the two countries and difficult negotiations on an extradition treaty. To help address the trade problem, India offered Malaysia $50 million worth of credit to help boost trade. India also has promised to help resolve problems in contracts for road projects in the country awarded directly to Malaysia.

Notwithstanding these issues, the visit itself was successful on a number of fronts. Seven agreements between the two governments and a number of business-to-business deals were concluded. One agreement, for example, opens the way for Malaysia to use Indian facilities to launch its own satellites. Agreement was also reached to allow an Indian company to construct a new $1.5 billion rail link in northern Malaysia. India and Malaysia were not able to overcome, however, what Vajpayee described as “legal hurdles” in the way of concluding a bilateral extradition treaty.

India also pursued cooperative activities with Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos, both on a bilateral basis, as well as in connection with multilateral activities such as the MekongGanga Cooperation (MGC) program and India-Thailand-Burma trilateral cooperation on transportation infrastructure. For example, in June 2001, India’s Vice President Krishan Kant traveled to Cambodia for an official visit which was reciprocated by Cambodia’s Senior Minister and Foreign Minister Hor Namhong in March 2002. In April 2002, Prime Minister Vajpayee made a state visit to Cambodia. India offered to send a judge to serve on a tribunal for the possible trial of Khmer Rouge leaders if the United Nations decided not to take part in the tribunal. India and Cambodia also signed agreements on direct flights between the two countries, renovation of Ta Prohm Temple in Angkor Wat, and visa exemptions for diplomatic and official passport holders.

In November 2002, Vajpayee visited Laos, which will be ASEAN’s “country coordinator” for India beginning in June 2003. India announced plans to establish an information technology center in Laos. Agreements were also signed on drug trafficking, defense, visa exemptions for official passport holders, and a $10 million credit line for Laotian infrastructure development. In April 2002, India’s External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh visited Thailand to discuss terrorism and economic cooperation with Thai Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathai. The two foreign ministers then traveled together to Burma to discuss a proposal for building a highway linking the three countries. Prime Minister Vajpayee also held discussions and a working lunch with Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in Bangkok on his return from the inaugural ASEAN-India summit and state visit to Laos in November 2002.

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