Counterbalancing China – East Asian Summit Begins

Today, Kuala Lumpur will birth the 16-member East Asian Summit. It comprises the 10 current members of ASEAN as well as China, Japan and South Korea (‘ASEAN plus three’, joined now by Australia, New Zealand and India).


Russia is interested in its membership. Sans consensus, however, it will not become a member – yet. Apparently, Russia does not meet the established criteria: ASEAN dialogue partner status, strong relations with the region, and a signatory of an “amity and cooperation” treaty.

No one yet knows what exactly the forum stands for, or even when it will convene again. Malaysia says that it will be a strategy-focused organisation with a wide geopolitical view; others hope that it could be the precursor of an eventual free-trade East Asian community.

Preparations have exposed deep divides with bitter exchanges between China and Japan and a split in the membership along pro- and anti-US lines. Moreover, as Abdul Razak Baginda of the Malaysian Strategic Research Centre believes, the inclusion of India, Australia and New Zealand is designed as a counterweight to China in a forum where the US is not invited.

Indeed, the calculated move to counterbalance China should arouse attention in a Nepal sandwiched between China and India. For instance, it was reflected at the recent Dhaka summit in India’s initial attempt to blackball China from SAARC. Failing that, she pressed for Japan’s association with SAARC as an observer, alongside China’s.

Many analysts in Dhaka then felt much the same, in light of the determined push for SAARC membership for an Afghanistan headed by Hamid Karzai, its pro-American president. It may be recalled that Pakistan, which had for years resisted the idea of Afghanistan’s association with SAARC, actually took the lead in proposing Afghanistan’s membership – with India predictably seconding the proposal. Some discerned behind-the-scenes American pressure on Islamabad.

Two subsequent developments relating respectively to Pakistan and Afghanistan are particularly worthy of note. One is the decision of the US government to pledge US$ 510 million dollars for Pakistan’s earthquake victims, announced at the Islamabad pledging conference on November 19. That sizeable sum, the largest amount from any single country, includes $156 million already donated. Likewise, shortly after the SAARC decision on Afghanistan’s membership, announced in Dhaka on November 13, NATO foreign ministers, including US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, approved plans to send more NATO troops to Afghanistan which like Nepal, Pakistan, India and Bhutan borders China.

Coming back to the recent SAARC summit and the issues connected to India’s approach towards China and Afghanistan, it is interesting that Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently told parliament that India had no reservation on China (and Japan) being conferred the status of SAARC observers.

Quite obviously MPs had raised questions regarding India’s stance on that issue, doubtless having received media and other reports about how the final decision on that and connected questions came about.

Indicating that the question would be settled at the next ministerial meeting of the group in July 2006, Singh went on to explain that as the question is connected with “specific obligations and rights” the same would be settled at that ministerial meeting (in Dhaka). One wonders if such references suggest that the question of China’s (and Japan’s) status as SAARC observer is still a fluid one, as far as New Delhi is concerned. Another Indian perspective on countering or counterbalancing China is reflected in a recent Times of India editorial in which it is stated, inter alia, “if ASEAN plus 3 were to become the key players in an expanded East Asian community that would have the effect of containing India to South Asia, when all of New Delhi’s efforts should be towards breaking out of the South Asian bracket.”

Expanding on that theme, India’s premier daily that often reflects the Indian establishment’s views on foreign/security policy argues that “its strategy should be the pursuit of multilateral linkages, firming up alliances with whoever would like to see India play a role in East Asia. Japan, Singapore, Indonesia, Australia and New Zealand are generally in this camp, and New Delhi needs to work in close tandem with them.”

The editorial suggests the possibility of persuading Pakistan to become an energy bridge between Central Asia and South and East Asia, disclosing that “recent thinking within the Bush administration favours such an orientation.” Then comes the clincher – “But Beijing is not going to like it,” drawing attention to the fact that it has formed the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) with Russia and the Central Asian states to ensure that the pipelines from those countries go China’s way. Unstated is that a Central Asia, South and East Asia combine, right around China’s periphery, backed by the US, would be yet another manifestation of the “counterbalancing China” strategy. That, thus, very clearly seems to be the new game in town sponsored by the neo-cons in Washington. It has plainly won ardent fans in and around the corridors of power in New Delhi.

Foreign policy Implications Is it any wonder that as AFP reports, “displeased by the inclusion of Australia, New Zealand and India, China is also pushing for the existing ‘ASEAN plus three’ grouping to remain preeminent.” Nepal must be alive to the full range of its foreign policy/security implications, especially against the backdrop of the international squeeze on it on the spurious pretext of promoting democracy.

M. R. Josse is a writer on Nepal and the author of Nepal: Politics of Statemate, Confusion and Uncertainty and Nepali Politics 2002-03: Gotterdammerung, The Twilight of the Gods.