As the United States and China step up their defence diplomacy in Southeast Asia,India seems determined to step away. For the second time in three months,the Indian defence minister A.K. Antony has dropped out from a critical multilateral engagement in Asia.
Antony’s casual attitude towards defence diplomacy widens the gap between the region’s growing expectations of a leading Indian role in Southeast Asian security and Delhi’s disappointing performance.
Last June,Antony refused to travel to the annual Shangri La Dialogue on defence issues in Singapore convened by the International Institute of Strategic Studies. This week Antony has now pulled out at the very last minute from an even more important regional defence forum organised by the ten-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Bandar Seri Begawan,Brunei.
India will be represented at the meeting by the minister of state,Jitendra Singh,but the damage is done. For Antony’s absence reinforces the widespread perception in the region that Delhi is not serious about defence cooperation with Asian friends.
Called the ADMM (ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting) Plus,the meeting brings together the ASEAN defence ministers with their counterparts from the United States,China,Japan,South Korea,Russia,India,Australia and New Zealand.
ADMM Plus is part of the ASEAN effort at constructing a sustainable regional security architecture amidst the growing military tensions–on the one hand between China and its East Asian neighbours and on the other between Beijing and Washington.
The first meeting of the ADMM took place in Hanoi three years ago. This week’s gathering in Brunei is the second iteration of the forum,which has become the leading forum for shaping Asia’s defence landscape.
After announcing its military pivot to Asia three years ago,the U.S. has rapidly intensified its defence engagement with the ASEAN states. The U.S. Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel is on extended tour of the region and met the ten defence ministers of the ASEAN collectively for the first time.
Hagel has won their support for a formal meeting of the ASEAN defence ministers in Hawaii next year. China has long had a collective dialogue with the ASEAN defence establishments at a lower level. Since his return to power last December,the Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe has made defence cooperation with the ASEAN a high political priority.
Last December in Delhi,Prime Minister Manmohan Singh proclaimed a strategic partnership with the ASEAN at a joint summit with Southeast Asian leaders. One wonders if the word ever got to India’s defence minister.
Under Antony,the Ministry of Defence has become a crabby interlocutor and a reluctant partner. The Indian armed forces are keen to raise their profile in Asia. So are the Ministry of External Affairs and the Prime Minister’s Office. But Antony and his MoD bureaucrats appear utterly immune to India’s national security imperatives on Asian defence diplomacy.
(The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation,Delhi and a contributing editor for The Indian Express.)