A fortnightly column on the high politics of the Af-Pak region,the fulcrum of global power play in Indias neighbourhood.
As China rises and America dithers,the great game in the east is acquiring a whole new dimension an explosion of defence diplomacy among the Asian nations. While most states in East Asia would be happy to have America bear the burden of balancing China,they are taking insurance by expanding bilateral military cooperation between themselves.
Unlike Nato in Europe,there is no US-led collective defence system in Asia. What it has is a hub and spokes system of American bilateral alliances with Japan,South Korea,Australia,Thailand and the Philippines. The alliances among the communist states of Asia have been less enduring thanks to the Sino-Soviet and Sino-Vietnamese rifts. In recent years,Asia is trying to transcend the hub and spokes system. Even as the US treaty partners reinforce the alliances with Washington,they are putting in place mechanisms for bilateral defence cooperation among themselves.
Japan has deepened bilateral security cooperation with Australia and the Philippines and its defence minister meets every year with his South Korean counterpart. Australia,in turn,has enhanced defence engagement with South Korea and the Philippines. All these American allies are also reaching out in a big way to other Asian partners. Tokyo,once hesitant to act outside the US alliance system,is now seeking a wide range of defence partnerships. With an eye on China,Tokyo is trying to expand defence cooperation with the ASEAN states. It has liberalised the stringent rules on arms exports and has begun to provide military equipment to boost the maritime defences of Southeast Asian nations.
Vietnam,a Soviet ally in the past,is now expanding military engagement with the US while reviving security ties with Russia. Faced with an escalating maritime territorial dispute with China,Vietnam has mounted a massive campaign to diversify the base of its defence relations. Hanoi has reached out to Japan,South Korea,the Philippines and Australia American allies that it had kept some distance from.
Meanwhile,many Asian countries,traditionally non-aligned,are expanding military exchanges and signing security cooperation agreements between themselves and with the US allies. Indonesia,for example,has renewed defence contacts with the US and buying weapons from Russia. Jakarta has long had defence cooperation with Australia. It is deepening defence ties to South Korea,and is buying submarines and jet trainers from South Korea. Indonesia also has a strategic partnership agreement with Vietnam.
On the face of it,India is very much part of the new open-ended defence diplomacy in Asia. Starting with the 2003 defence cooperation agreement with Singapore,India has signed up to any number of security partnerships in Asia. They range the length and breadth of East Asia from Japan to Australia via Korea and Myanmar to Vietnam.
The problem with Delhi is not its words,but deeds. The ministry of defence,which is supposed to steer Indias military diplomacy,appears deeply uncomfortable with the whole enterprise. The prickly MoD bureaucrats in charge of Delhis defence diplomacy frustrate even the most ardent Asian proponents of military engagement with India. The armed forces are keen to connect with their Asian counterparts and the ministry of external affairs sees defence diplomacy as a valuable new tool. But the MoD is unhelpful,if not down right hostile. As a result,Delhi is unable to respond to the growing demand in East Asia for defence and security cooperation with India.
We,therefore,have a paradox. China,which is at the root of Asias current defence anxieties,is aggressively seeking security cooperation with a reluctant region. India,which is being eagerly courted by East Asian nations to diversify their security options,seems incapable of getting its act together.
With UPA 2 unwilling or unable to bring the MoD in line with Indias national security interests in Asia,it will be up to the next government to put in place a strong policy framework for Delhis security cooperation with East Asia. Indias long-term objective must be to build a regional security coalition that is not hostile to either the US or China. Such a coalition will help reduce Asias vulnerabilities arising from US-China tensions.
Purposeful defence diplomacy from India can help create military synergies among Asias middle powers,expand regional defence research and production capabilities and help build a stable Asian security order.
The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation and a contributing editor for The Indian Express