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MORE KIDS ON THE BLOCK
- ASEAN can make new modes of regional cooperation possible

It's all about who will be the driver and who the passenger. And the determinants are race and power. It was unfortunate for India, therefore, to be lumped with Australia and New Zealand ' neither ethnically Asian, and both seen as surrogates of the United States of America ' at the first East Asian Summit. The bracketing must have given a handle to China whose quiet diplomacy is aimed at ensuring it remains what the Americans call the biggest kid on the block.

However, with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations as the EAS's 'main vehicle', the likelihood of a clash of interests, not just between India and China but among other participants as well, will be reduced. Perhaps the most mature of ASEAN members, Singapore seeks economic space and feels a rising India might provide it more amicably than China's so-called 'peaceful rise'. Even Lee Kuan Yew, seldom one to fault his ancestral world, acknowledged in a recent interview that China is 'not averse to making its power felt'. Engagement in an East Asian architecture could revive the ancient civilizations of India and China and promote economic and cultural relations. But he is not unaware of potential danger. 'It would mean great prosperity for the region, but could also mean a tussle for power.'

In order to channel the tussle, which exploded in war 43 years ago, into healthy competition, India must meet China on an equal footing at the annual summits to discuss energy, trade, security and ways of combating disease and poverty. ASEAN alone deserves a special role: there must be no distinction between the three older and three new members. If Russia, waiting in the wings, is admitted, it, too, must enjoy the same status. Parity would allow India to deepen its engagement with a region that accounts for nearly 20 per cent of its trade, against 19 per cent with the European Union and 12.9 per cent with the US.

At one level, Indian diplomats may well find their Australian or New Zealand counterparts more congenial than the representatives of some east and southeast Asian countries. But social preference may have to be sacrificed to Asian sensibilities. With drunken mobs in Sydney attacking anyone who looked vaguely Arab, John Howard, who can be his country's worst enemy, should have been especially circumspect. Instead, he went into the Kuala Lumpur conference reiterating that the EAS would always play second fiddle to the US-sponsored Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation.

The argument is not without a grain of truth. With 21 members, a collective gross domestic product of $9.2 trillion and 50 per cent of the world's population, APEC is significant as international talking shops go. The US is the biggest military presence in the region with large troop concentrations in Japan and South Korea. Four of 16 EAS members (Australia, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea and Thailand) are American military allies. Singapore has strong economic links with more than 3,000 American multinationals, and India's strategic partnership with the US is now the central motif of its foreign policy. China's massive exports to the US are as vital for Chinese as for American prosperity. Indeed, a slowdown of the US economy would affect the entire region.

Similarly, the case for Australia and New Zealand joining is not entirely frivolous. If the European Union can discuss membership with Turkey, the two white dominions can surely also plead the logic of geography and trade. But the host prime minister, Malaysia's Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, stressed race. 'If you are talking about a community of East Asians,' he said, 'I don't know that the Australians would regard themselves as East Asians.' A former Australian foreign minister who pithily described his country as of the West but in the East and belonging to the North though in the South certainly would not. But Howard's presence in Kuala Lumpur implied a desire to project a different image. All the more reason, therefore, for not forgetting that the EAS was originally the brainchild of the irascible Mahathir Mohamad, then Malaysia's prime minister, to counter APEC. Like the Americans, Mahathir was not keen on including India.

This resistance is not new. Nonalignment was one obstacle. Dependence on the Soviets, reflected in India's position on the Vietnam war and support for Cambodia's Heng Samrin regime, another. Socialist controls impeded trade and investment. India, in turn, viewed ASEAN, when it was set up in 1967, as an outpost of American imperialism, and scuttled the possibility of Sri Lanka joining it. There were diplomatic moves at one stage to pre-empt ASEAN by offering Myanmar membership of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation instead. Such memories may no longer rankle. But asked if India would be invited to join the newly formed ASEAN Regional Forum, a Singaporean minister tartly reminded the questioner that the grouping was not the Asian Regional Forum. Earlier, a Japanese diplomat had claimed in private conversation that his definition of Asia did not include countries that were not part of the Co-Prosperity Sphere during World War II.

The continent's sinicized eastern fringe, what has been called Chopsticks Asia, dominates thinking and determines decisions. China's Wen Jiabao and South Korea's Roh Moo-hyun might have sulked and refused to meet Japan's Junichiro Koizumi but there are no fundamental differences among the three on what constitutes Asia. Bickering over Koizumi's sense of history and whether or not he should visit the Yasukuni shrine, which commemorates Japan's 2.5 million war dead including those who were sentenced as war criminals, is bound to rise to a higher pitch as Japan sheds its formal commitment to pacifism. But Japan is the world's second largest economy and these are only family quarrels. Koizumi could borrow Wen's brush pen at Kuala Lumpur because both use the same implements. Their squabbling will not affect east Asia's strong economic ties just as Sino-US tensions are not allowed to deprive Americans of cheap Chinese toys, clothing, footwear and electronics. Singapore-Japan relations are of the best for all that Lee warns that Japanese rearmament is like giving whisky bonbons to an alcoholic. An ASEAN economic community by 2020 need not be too far-fetched. Koizumi believes that ASEAN integration will take place first, followed by the ASEAN plus three (China, Japan, South Korea) group. His caution about the EAS is justifiable. India might patch up a free trade agreement with ASEAN but its strength will lie in bilateral commerce with certain key members of the group, not the group as such.

What is unlikely in the foreseeable future is an Asian equivalent of the EU's political personality. For one thing, these 16 countries are at many stages of economic development. For another, governments ranging from dictatorship to democracy have totally different interests. Add to that the manifold divergences of all that passes for culture and we have in Asia a geographical expression rather than a cohesive entity. Moreover, it is not in the American interest to allow the emergence of a second focal point of global power. Europe is just about as much as the likes of George W. Bush can stomach.

But an open, inclusive, transparent and outward-looking organization that accounts for a fifth of the world's trade and boasts a combined GDP of $8.3 trillion can indicate new modes of regional cooperation, revitalize the North-South dialogue and ease some of the tension in exchanges with the US once it has met the challenge of finding appropriate shapes and structures. Southeast Asia will benefit even if cooperation stops short of a community. Indochina is where Hindu gods and goddesses have Mongolian features because India and China met there in mythic times. It is where they could meet again under ASEAN's aegis. The future, as Manmohan Singh says, is India's past.

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