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TURNING A CORNER
- Why are both Washington and Tokyo interested in SAARC'

When does an organization, be it of the people or of governments, become relevant' When it gets noticed, to start with. By that yardstick, the 21-year-old South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation may be said to have turned a corner at its current New Delhi summit. For the first time, SAARC can claim that it matters.

It is to the credit of Japan that it was the first country outside south Asia to take SAARC with a degree of seriousness. Some five years ago, Tokyo expressed interest in being associated with SAARC in some capacity, either as a guest or as an observer. India made it clear then that it was unenthusiastic about any expansion of SAARC, even if it was symbolic, such as a nominal extra-territorial presence at south Asian summits. New Delhi took the realistic view that consolidation must be a greater priority for south Asia’s only organization for regional cooperation than expansion.

It was an argument that could not be faulted. After all, SAARC has been unable to even hold its annual summits with regularity: it completed 21 years of existence in December last year, but the current summit in New Delhi is only the organization’s 14th conclave of heads of state and government. But has anything changed now' Why are the Chinese and the Japanese and the Americans and the Iranians and others interested in getting onto the SAARC bandwagon' The answer is cold comfort to the organization, but it also offers hope that SAARC may yet be transformed into a vehicle to channelize the region’s dynamism, which is not in any dispute. SAARC may not yet have transformed into another Association of South East Asian Nations or a European Union, but in the last five years, south Asia has changed enough to interest all the global players in what goes on there.

Japan’s early interest in SAARC was, in part, a sequel to its worries in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks against the United States of America. It was also an initiative that reflected Tokyo’s imperative, since the end of the Cold War, of emerging from behind America’s shadow and claiming its place in Asia.

Indeed, Japan has been trying since the early Nineties to raise its profile in south Asia. It tried aid, but the returns in political or strategic terms were not really commensurate with the investment that the country was making. Tokyo then took up the matter upfront with governments in south Asia, most pronouncedly with India, supplementing it with Track II initiatives, but the effort did not go very much beyond lip service to the idea by south Asians. Now, with Iraq undermining American power in ways that were unimaginable at the dawn of the new millennium, the Japanese have received a shot in the arm for their efforts. In less than two weeks after the conclusion of SAARC’s New Delhi summit, Japan and the US will hold naval exercises jointly with India, the first such trilateral exercise.

If Japan is concerned about how waning American power will affect its interests in Asia, the Americans are looking to south Asia to shore up their stakes not only in the SAARC region, but in the Gulf and central Asia as well through a process of regional connectivity. That explains the interest of both Washington and Tokyo in SAARC. The Americans and the Japanese both maintain close and friendly relations with almost all south Asian countries. They see SAARC as the only viable link among countries in the region and as an effective instrument for engagement between themselves and the subcontinent. Predictably, India is proceeding with caution in dealing with the heightened strategic interest shown by both Washington and Tokyo in New Delhi in particular, and in other south Asian capitals as a whole. A third country which is debating whether to join this emerging caucus for Asian security is Australia.

There were plenty of hints going around in America’s capital city in the last few weeks that the US vice president, Dick Cheney, had proposed an “axis of democracy” made up of the US, Australia, India and Japan when he visited Tokyo and Canberra about a month ago. Earlier, on a visit to west Asia, Cheney had proposed an alliance of Sunni states and the US to deal with the challenge to American and Israeli power from Shiite Iran and its surrogates in west Asia.

The extent of Indian caution was evident in New Delhi’s circumspect announcement of the trilateral exercises near Japan’s Yokosuka naval base. India used to be similarly circumspect when it started military exercises with the US, but now such exercises have gained popular acceptance. But not so yet in the case of Japan and certainly not with Australia: a logical extension of the upcoming exercises with Japan will be similar manoeuvres with Australia at some stage in the future. When the ministry of defence in South Block announced last week that a new round of “Malabar CY-07” naval exercises would be held with the US, the announcement was silent on similar manoeuvres planned with the Japanese navy a few days later. It only made vague references to port calls by Indian naval ships at Yokosuka this month as part of 2007 being celebrated as “India-Japan Friendship Year”.

New Delhi’s worries are understandable. Japan and Australia are active partners of the US in the Proliferation Security Initiative, a programme of naval interdiction to detect and stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction. George W. Bush has been nudging the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, to join the PSI, but it is highly unlikely that the United Progressive Alliance government can survive if it takes India into the US-sponsored initiative.

There are other problems too. Last month, Japan and Australia signed a bilateral security agreement: it is only the second such agreement to be signed by Tokyo, the first being with Washington half a century ago. The Manmohan Singh government would like to dispel any impression that it is drifting towards a new post-Cold-War military alliance to contain China by agreeing to closer defence interaction with Japan right now and with Australia at some later date.

In addition, about three months after becoming Japan’s prime minister in September 2006, Shinzo Abe visited the Nato headquarters. The visit portends further expansion of Nato’s activities in Asia after the Western alliance broke new ground on that continent by getting involved in Afghanistan. Last year, Nato separately approached India, seeking greater cooperation with a country, which it had shunned during the Cold War and even viewed as an adversary. There will be little support within the country to any idea that India should cosy up to arrangements which have the potential to start a new Cold War in Asia. The foreign secretary, Shiv Shankar Menon, has tried to underplay the troubling potential in this emerging scenario by arguing that all this will enable the “subcontinent to reconnect to itself and to the rest of the world” and that SAARC’s 14th summit is, indeed, a “landmark”.

The challenge for India’s presidency of SAARC in the next one year has two sides. Asia’s changing security scenario and the global interest in south Asia mark a dilution of the traditional Indian role in the affairs of the subcontinent. India can go along with this trend, and in the process, retrieve any lost ground, but such a course is fraught with the potential of domestic discord. If India ignores this challenge to its supremacy in the region and beyond, there is a danger that it may be stranded by the receding tide of history once again.

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