| With Shinzo Abe, 2006
Can Asia ever be free of Western domination' If it is the United States of America today, reflected in Manmohan Singh’s four days in Japan, it was the Soviet Union after World War II. A Calcutta youth conference in February 1948 — saddling Lenin with the apocryphal saying that the road to world revolution lay through Peking and Calcutta — laid the seeds of insurgency and insurrection throughout a region whose present governments Indira Gandhi famously dismissed as “coca-cola regimes”.
The World Federation of Democratic Youth and the International Union of Students, both Soviet-controlled, organized the Conference of Youth and Students of South-East Asia fighting for Freedom and Independence in Calcutta. Andrei Zhdanov’s paper “For a lasting Peace, For a People’s democracy!” published the previous November provided the theme. Lee Soong (or Siong), chosen to represent the Malayan Communist Party because of his good English, missed the MCP’s fourth plenary in Singapore by a day when he returned on March 22, 1948, because he stopped off in Rangoon to mobilize revolutionary peasants. But he attended the fifth plenary in May, and was thus party to the decision on armed struggle that engaged Field Marshal Sir Gerald Templar’s forces for 12 years.
Vietnam’s Le Tam was another significant delegate whose speech, claiming that the anti-imperialist struggle had reached its highest form in the armed struggles of Indonesia and Vietnam (then against the Dutch and the French), set the tone for the entire proceedings. Most Vietnamese delegates were in fact Vietminh officers. The conference also fuelled the radical enthusiasm that bubbled even more animatedly on the sidelines of the main sessions in processions and speeches to exalt “the day of revolution of the Indian Navy”. One of the two Yugoslav delegates even ridiculed the Communist Party of India (whose own conference followed) for missing the revolutionary bus.
Asia dances now to another tune. Japan, previously distinctly cool — Mrs Gandhi unsuccessfully angled for an invitation before Ronald Reagan invited her after Cancun — would not have been so gracious now but for the Henry Hyde Bill enabling the US to sell India nuclear technology and equipment. That is the dramatic culmination of the American recognition of a booming growth — 9.2 per cent in this year’s second quarter — that analysts say will soon outstrip China’s.
If in the Forties the Soviet Union was expected to release Asia from colonialism, the US is now expected to steer Asia to wealth and power. Rampant anti-Americanism and condemnation of its west Asian role make no difference. Many Japanese grumble that American troops are stationed in their country not to protect them from China but to prevent a return to militarism. Nevertheless, Japan will not surrender the protection of the superpower that nursed it back to prosperity after the ravages of a humiliating defeat. China cannot survive economically without US consumerism: then bottomless appetite for shoes, clothing, electronics and other domestic goods saddled the US with a $190.6 billion deficit in bilateral trade in the first 10 months of this year.
India needs the support of the only power that can legitimize its nuclear status and exercise some restraint on Pakistani adventurism. Its priorities should be to complete as quickly as possible the formalities of the so-called 123 Agreement so that the process can move on to the 45-member nuclear suppliers group (Japan is a key member) and a pathbreaking safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Authority. Japan’s reception to Singh belies fears that Tokyo might oppose the deal. On the contrary, there are signs that Shinto Abe might be reviewing policy decisions taken when the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were still fresh in the public mind. Taro Aso, Japan’s foreign minister, recently called for a public debate on atomic weapons. The feeling is that only nuclear power can reconcile Japan as a politico-military dwarf with its stature as an economic giant.
As for China, Nicholas Burns, US under-secretary of state for political affairs, would not have expressed confidence that Beijing will not obstruct the deal without assurances to that effect. Wang Gungwu, the Malaysian-born, Singapore-based Chinese scholar with Australian nationality, offers an ingenious comparison between China and India. Despite its internal mess, China projects the image of a strong unitary state speaking in one voice. Perceptions of unity, strength and prosperity generate awe. But India looks and sounds disunited, probably far more than it actually is. The image helps. India doesn’t appear to threaten anyone in the region.
Schizophrenic diplomacy therefore sees India as the ideal candidate to balance — rather than contain — a China that is feared while it is assiduously courted. The European Union promoted China on Monday to the level of “strategic partner” without lifting the arms embargo imposed after Tiananmen. The first ever Sino-US strategic economic dialogue began yesterday amidst a litany of American complaints about China’s political, economic and human rights conduct. Nor is schizophrenia one-sided. Despite grumbles and grievances, China preceded the dialogue with the sweeteners of a crackdown on pirated DVDs, CDs and software and of deals worth millions of dollars with four blue-chip American companies. It knows the way to America’s heart lies through America’s pocket.
Japan is equally hard-headed. The chief cabinet secretary, Yasuhisa Shiozaki, might talk of “shared basic values” with India and Abe dress up his four-way dialogue plan as a defence of democracy. But Japan insisted on including India in the East Asia Summit, not because of Radha Benode Pal or Subhas Chandra Bose but so that China did not dominate the forum. The chance of reviving Japan’s economy, which has been stagnant for a decade despite being still the world’s wealthiest, was another reason. Reports from Tokyo indicate that Japan now realizes it has neglected India. There are only 330 Japanese companies in India against 20,000 in China. Japanese investments in India totalled 29.8 billion yen last year, just 4 per cent of investments in China. Japan imports 3 per cent of Indian software while the US buys 60 per cent. India-Japan trade is 1 per cent of Japan’s total.
Japan’s economic reasons for courting India are also America’s, as frankly set out in George W. Bush’s Asia Society address on the eve of his visit. The nuclear deal — the best possible under the circumstances — is its most visible manifestation. And its perceived disabilities are less crippling than might be thought. After all, Atal Behari Vajpayee voluntarily announced a moratorium on further tests long before the US imposed this as a condition. It was assumed in 1998 that India had achieved enough expertise to rely on computer simulation. The second supposed drawback — the need for an annual presidential statement — is a farce. Everyone knew that when the senior Bush certified year after year that Pakistan was not chasing the bomb though every American intelligence service regularly reported comprehensively on Abdul Qadeer Khan’s nuclear programme and China’s unstinting help. But, yes, the certification clause will be brandished in Singh’s face if he fails to toe the line on some other issue the US considers important. It happened to Benazir Bhutto. That’s the name of the globalization game.
The appearances of creating an Asian power structure will be sustained. The postponed Cebu summit will meet some time in the new year. Hu Jintao will follow up his visit to India by going to Tokyo. After playing host to Singh, Abe will receive Wen Jiabao. This hectic diplomacy may create the impression of a momentum that is independent of the US. But in one way or another, the affairs of all three Asian powers are too closely meshed with American interests to permit more than regional autonomy. The concert of Asia actually reinforces US supremacy.
Soviet strategy in Asia collapsed long before the Soviet Union did. But the coca-cola regimes ride triumphant under the fond slogan of China, Japan and India carving out a new Asian destiny.