Author : C.Uday Bhaskar

The seventh East Asia Summit (EAS) that concluded in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on November 20, 2011, offers certain maritime possibilities for India to impart greater content to its two-decade-old 'Look East' policy — one conceived by late Prime Minister Narasimha Rao and his then-finance minister Manmohan Singh.

It is appropriate that Manmohan Singh has now been given this rare opportunity as the Prime Minister and his personal commitment to this major Indian policy initiative is palpable. While the 'east' has an inclusive geographical expanse that covers distant Japan and South Korea, it is the ASEAN collective that is at the core of the Indian 'Look East' policy. Over the years, Delhi's tentative linkages with its south-east Asian neighbours have become more robust and sustained — albeit quantitatively more modest in relation to what China currently enjoys in trade and economic determinants.

The EAS, launched in 2005 at Kuala Lumpur under Malaysian aegis, had envisaged a regional grouping of 16 states including India. At the time Chinese reservations about admitting Delhi were overcome by the concerted efforts of Japan, Indonesia, Vietnam and Singapore. But the first few EAS summits did not include the US — the security guarantor to many Asia-Pacific nations who were part of this effort. However given the altered dynamic in the extended south-east Asia, more nations were admitted progressively and both the US and Russia joined the EAS in 2011.

Thus, the EAS in many ways reflects the core of the Asian resurgence of the 21st century and it is instructive to note that barring the European Union and Latin America — either as collective or individual states — all the major powers are represented. In short, the EAS has gone well beyond the exclusive and limited contour that was envisioned by Malaysia and China in the conceptual stage.

The most complex challenge for ASEAN, which prioritises the agenda for the EAS, remains the Chinese claims over islands in the South China Sea. The Philippines and Vietnam have challenged the Beijing position of claiming sole ownership of these islands and this had led to an unprecedented impasse in July this year. The ASEAN foreign ministers meeting, for the first time in 45 years, did not reach consensus and was, hence, unable to issue a joint statement.

In the interregnum from July to November, there has been a leadership change in China — though PM Wen Jiabao attended what will be his last EAS meeting. The perception was that the ASEAN states would not raise the territorial disputes in deference to Beijing's sensitivities and more consensual issues would be addressed.

However, much to the dismay of the hosts — Cambodia and its patron, China — the Philippines and Vietnam were vocal about their own concerns and this was echoed by Japan in relation to the East China Sea island dispute. Thus, US President Barack Obama — making his first international appearance after re-election — was able to exhort the EAS forum to respect international law and the freedom of navigation.

This is the equivalent of the red rag to the Beijing bull and while China may have succeeded in creating a rift within ASEAN — with some states being more receptive to it (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and to an extent Thailand) — the communist giant was unable to prevent the so-called 'internationalising' of these contentious territorial disputes.

Thus, it was prudent of PM Singh to maintain a fine balance and encourage his interlocutors that "together, we can create an open, balanced, inclusive and rule-based architecture in the region for our collective security, stability and prosperity". It is evident that the EAS states excluding China and the few that have been drawn into Beijing's orbit are keen to include the US and India into this rule based security architecture.

Given the centrality of the energy determinant and the nature of the maritime domain that links India to the 'east' — as also the 'west', the summit statements contain a significant reference to the potentialities that exist at sea for more substantive cooperative engagement.

The elusive code of conduct for the South China Sea that will be binding on all parties was again mooted and while this may 'tether' Beijing — both Tokyo and Delhi have good reason to monitor the fine-print. This could well be the Helsinki variant for East Asia and China's response will be instructive for the US, Japan and India.

The Cambodia EAS also witnessed the US acceding to the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships and supported the Expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum that envisages greater coordination among members states including piracy, health of the maritime environment, resource management and related capacity building.

Many issues were flagged at the EAS but India has the pedigree and the post-2004 'tsunami credibility halo' to identify certain proven niches in the maritime domain where it can meaningfully contribute to some of the agreements arrived at. But the challenge will be in Delhi — to implement 'swiftly' — so that the next EAS acknowledges India's ability to contribute to the collective good of its maritime neighbourhood.

(C Uday Bhaskar is a Senior Fellow at the National Maritime Foundation. He can be contacted at . This article first appeared in The Economic Times on November 22, 2012.)
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