HONG KONG: If articulations of goodwill alone were enough to grease the diplomatic tracks, the just-concluded second East Asia summit at Cebu in the Philippines must count as an unqualified success. Of bonhomie there was plenty among the 16 leaders – 10 from the members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and, additionally, from China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand. But beneath the surface, there was adequate divergence of views and opinions in the sub-text to reflect the various pulls and pressures at work within the region.
For India, the summit was significant in so far as it was able to formalise its presence within the East Asian trade bloc despite efforts by China –— at the first summit in Kuala Lumpur in December 2005 — to limit the geographical scope of a free-trade bloc, which was then under discussion, to keep out India, Australia and New Zealand. Diplomats had at that time read China’s unwillingness to expand the East Asian canvas to include, principally, India, which was perceived as an emerging Asian economic rival, as a reflection of an “own-the-turf” mentality.
But in these intervening months, China appears to have reconciled itself to giving India a foothold in the East Asia trade bloc. For one, China is a little more sure of its rising stature in Asia – and of its relations with other countries in the bloc. Premier Wen Jiabao said as much when he expressed the view that China’s relations with its neighbours “are now in great shape”. China also wrapped up a free-trade agreement with ASEAN, which it believes will further bolster its “Big Brother” image in the region.
For another, say diplomats in Hong Kong, China has “woken up to the folly” of slamming the door on India, particularly since India is increasingly proving an attractive investment destination to countries within the East Asian bloc.
Japan’s unstinted support for India too proved a critical factor. “Japan is betting on a deep-seated, strategic relationship with India,” says a diplomat. In some measure, this is driven by its own need to hedge against China’s dominance in Asia, and sees India as a worthy ally in this endeavour. But even beyond the prism of China, Japan perceives “natural synergies” in its relations with India. In fact, Japanese PM Shinzo Abe is on record as saying that he expects Japan’s relations with India to “overtake” those with the US and with China within 10 years.
There were other positive articulations of goodwill during bilateral relations among the leaders. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Premier Wen Jiabao, who met on the sidelines of the summit, gave the lead for the ninth round of Sino-Indian talks on the boundary dispute, which are due to begin in New Delhi on Wednesday. China’s Vice Foreign Minister Wu Dawei will lead the Chinese delegation to the talks as Special Representative. At their meeting, Singh and Wen had agreed that their two countries should speed up the border talks.
An East Asian free trade agreement – and even progress in the border talks with China – may be still some way off, but diplomats reckon that India has reasons to be pleased with its diplomacy in East Asia.