The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- A Concert of Asia would be an answer to the US strategy of blocs

Nary a word did Japan's ambassador, Yasukuni Enoki, breathe, when speaking in Calcutta under Bengal Initiative auspices, about the far-reaching defence policy guidelines unveiled in Tokyo only a few hours before. He could get away with it only in a city where, as a senior European diplomat once said unkindly, all that people know of foreign affairs is what the British published a decade ago.

Irrespective of that, a strategy that is pegged on concerns about China and North Korea is not without openings for India. We may in fact be witnessing the birth of a Concert of Asia that for the first time formally excludes the United States of America though it will remain powerfully involved behind the scenes. Nine months ago, Mr Enoki set the cat among the pigeons by suggesting that 'trilateral' India-Japan-China cooperation ' he shies away from 'axis' which sounds anti-American and recalls First World War belligerence ' would be 'important for (the) stability and prosperity of Asia'. Worries about China 'trying to expand its scope of naval activities' probably make Japan more anxious than ever to co-opt India. Like its engagement with the Association of South-east Asian Nations, this may be Japan's way of entering a polite caveat to the fashionable assumption that the future belongs to China.

The guidelines, issued the day after Japan committed troops to Iraq for another year, despite the kidnapping and murder of a Japanese civilian, stress a determination further to reinforce robust ties with the US, especially to develop a missile defence system. It follows that only an India that enjoys American confidence would be acceptable. No less important is India's economic record. For all Mr Enoki's tributes to 'Chandra Bose' and 'Behari Bose', they are as irrelevant to Tokyo's contemporary diplomacy as the Hindu deities in the Japanese pantheon he also invoked.

Here and earlier in New Delhi, Mr Enoki emphasized the significance of his foreign minister, Yorika Kawaguchi, visiting India two years running. If so, it must be even more revealing that no Japanese prime minister set foot in this country for 23 years. Before that, when newly independent India was expected to blaze an Asian trail, two Japanese premiers, Nobusuke Kishi and Hayato Ikeda, came calling within months of taking office. Two visits in quick succession, the long interval broken at last by Yasuhiro Nakasone, and then a shorter gap of six years, provided a thermometer of India's economic health. Discussing this neglect, a Tokyo official laughingly told me that the Japanese regarded as Asian only those countries that their army had occupied during the Second World War.

All that has changed. The wrath in which Japan withdrew its ambassador and cut off aid after Pokhran II is forgotten even if Tokyo still pays obeisance to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Comprehensive Test Ban treaties. Last year India overtook China, with which Japan's stormily intense love-hate relationship continues, as the biggest recipient of Japanese assistance. Calcutta flyovers and Delhi's underground are visible symbols of the 'global partnership' pledged in 2000. Recognizing India as the 'most important country in South Asia', Japan supports the claim to a security council seat and promises to push for its membership of the ASEAN Plus Three (China, Japan, South Korea) summit at the 10th anniversary meeting in Kuala Lumpur. Observer status at the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, which Japan is also seeking, would give it additional diplomatic flexibility. That China 'is pushing forward its nuclear and missile capabilities and the modernisation of its navy and air force' (to quote the guidelines again) partly explains this shift. Apart from historical problems and the continuing dispute over maritime gas fields, Japan complains of increasing Chinese marine activities. A Chinese survey ship venturing into the exclusive economic zone of Okinotori island, Japan's southernmost territory, followed the intrusion of a Chinese submarine into Japanese territorial waters in November. Yet, whereas the guidelines describe North Korea as 'a major factor of instability' in the region, references to China are guarded. Japan is China's largest trading partner with a $130 billion turnover, and only the US has a bigger trade volume with Japan than China. This is not a relationship that can be jeopardized. But Japan will not yield precedence either.

Once called an economic giant and political pygmy, Japan now faces a faltering economy, mainly because of reduced exports to China and the US. That makes it even more necessary to increase its political profile and expand its options. A more inclusive Concert of Asia might provide strategic ballast to economic imbalance and contain regional ambitions. Even before the European Union came into being, Europe gained coherence and security from organizations like the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Asia has no equivalents. Nor would a formal framework of military collaboration be feasible. But there would be fewer objections to economic cooperation to reinforce security and strengthen the status quo.

That is modern East Asia's answer to the old American strategy of military pacts and blocs. But the US has shot down initiatives like Mahathir Mohamad's East Asian Economic Caucus that would have excluded it from the Asian theatre. Another proposal for an Asian Economic Community surfaced formally in June when the Japanese foreign ministry circulated a 16-page document at the Jakarta meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers. Divided into three papers, East Asian Community, Functional Cooperation and East Asia Summit, the document recommended membership for not just India but also Australia and New Zealand. It acknowledged, 'It is probably the first attempt in history to create a community on this scale in a region in which people are so diverse, and the traditional ties among countries are so weak.'

Whatever they might feel about the proposed expansion, the Chin- ese enthusiastically supported Mr Enoki's original suggestion of trilateral cooperation. 'China and India are both countries with ancient civilizations,' wrote a scholar at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. 'China, Japan and India should strengthen their ideological and sentimental connections by promoting oriental cultures; particularly, they should strengthen the harmony of relationship by developing the Great Harmony idea; and jointly pursue the grand realm of sustainable development by carrying forward the oriental idea of the 'Integration of Man and Nature.'

At a less esoteric level, the author pointed out that while China and Japan face the problem of an ageing work force, 47 per cent of Indians will be between 15 and 59 years old by 2020. 'By then India will be a country with the largest working population and the biggest number of consumers in the world. This may become a very important reason for the possibility of India's economy to maintain a fairly fast growth in the future as well as a vital factor that gives rise to economic complementarity among China, Japan and India in the sense of time coordinates.' The People's Daily set its imprimatur on the paper by translating it into English and placing it on its website.

Reiterating that argument in Calcutta, Mr Enoki also warned that a growth rate of 10 per cent or more could be politically dangerous for Indian democracy. India cannot hope to take its place in a Concert of Asia unless it continues to prosper. But too much prosperity ' inevitably in patches ' will breed discontent. As Manmohan Singh knows better than anyone else, reconciling economics with politics is the most difficult task for any Indian government.

If an exclusively Asian Concert of Asia does now emerge, it will be because the US trusts both Japan and India (Japan more naturally) and also tacitly supports the strategic expectations that produced the Japanese plan. With bases and troops in Japan and South Korea, facilities in Singapore and a naval presence in Asian waters, the US is not to be exorcised. It will remain a presence like Banquo's ghost at Macbeth's feast.

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