Archive for March 2012
The border dispute between India and China is one of the major flashpoints between the two countries that many worry about. In light of recently cited progress on border negotiations, I wrote a piece about a week or so ago for the Jamestown Foundation’s China Brief incorporating developments in both China and India from the last few years as well as other related shifts. Here is the first paragraph, but you can read the full thing here.
On March 6, China and India operationalized a coordination agreement to avert conflict along their contested border. The Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs, as the agreement is officially termed, was first broached by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao during a visit to India in December 2010, and officially formed during the 15th round of border talks between the two sides in New Delhi from January 15 to January 17 this year. After last week’s two-day meeting, Indian External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna said the mechanism would help in “minimizing” or “bridging” differences between the two countries, while the Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a statement declaring that “positive progress” had been made to safeguard peace and tranquility along the border (Indian Express, March 9; Xinhua, March 6). Deep underlying tensions and rapid buildups of military and infrastructure along the border by both sides however threaten to slow the already glacial progress being made in Sino-Indian border negotiations.
If the future of world politics lies in Asia, as Hillary Clinton wrote last October, then the countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will be critical players in shaping America’s Pacific Century.
The U.S. already recognizes this region of more than 600 million people as a core U.S. interest. It straddles strategically important sea lanes, it is collectively the largest destination of U.S. investment in Asia and it represents America’s fourth largest overseas market. While the United States has increased their engagement with ASEAN considerably over the past few years, Washington can do much more to further boost the relationship in the near future.
Recent American administrations have made an even more concerted effort to strengthen this relationship. Beginning under the second term of former president George W. Bush and continuing into the Obama administration, the United States has, among other things, appointed the first ambassador to ASEAN, acceded to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC), attended its first East Asia Summit, forged strategic partnerships with Vietnam and Indonesia, deepened military ties with the Philippines, engaged a reforming Burma, and unveiled several initiatives to assist the less developed countries of Southeast Asia. As the U.S. officially pivots its strategic focus to Pacific Asia, 2012 presents an opportunity to boost U.S.-ASEAN relations even further.
First, Washington must sustain the momentum in U.S.-ASEAN relations. This is no easy task. Foreign policy may drop off the priority list as the White House focuses on re-election, limiting the administration’s capacity to conclude sensitive agreements. Bitter partisanship and financial austerity could also serve as further constraints. Clinton and several Asia specialists on Obama’s foreign policy team are leaving government this year, which compounds the problem of following through with fresh initiatives. Mixed signals from Washington will only increase regional uncertainty with profound consequences for U.S. partnerships and the Asia-Pacific security environment more generally.
Second, the United States will need to manage its relationship with China nimbly. Southeast Asian states like the flexibility of maintaining relations with a range of big powers and are particularly sensitive to tensions between those powers that could undermine regional security and prosperity. Having to choose between Washington and Beijing in a confrontation is an especially nightmarish scenario for ASEAN countries, since several of them enjoy strong trade relationships with both but still rely on the United States for their security. During his visit to Washington earlier this year, Singapore’s Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam repeatedly warned that any U.S. attempt to contain China will only alienate Southeast Asian countries; even anti-China rhetoric in media circles, he said, “can create a new and unintended reality for the region.” So the Obama administration must strike a tricky balance between a U.S. presence that secures Southeast Asia, particularly on issues such as the South China Sea, but also avoids rattling Beijing.
Third, Washington should pay equal attention to non-security aspects of U.S.-ASEAN relations. In particular, stronger and more sustained U.S. leadership in trade and investment is needed. The U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which involves nine countries including the U.S., Brunei, Singapore and Vietnam, offers much promise. However, experts doubt the TPP will bring much economic benefit unless one other major economy joins. Japan, an applicant to join, is particularly attractive as the world’s third largest economy. The U.S. executive and legislative branches can also do more to promote new business opportunities in Southeast Asia. In the people-to-people realm, the Obama administration should increase U.S.-ASEAN educational exchanges and streamline inefficient visa security review programs as a high-level U.S.-ASEAN Strategy Commission recommended last year.
Fourth, the U.S. must support ASEAN in its efforts at greater regional integration. The chief concern for the U.S. in this respect will be encouraging the reform process under way in Burma. Washington must gradually coax the regime – one of the world’s most isolated and repressive – back into the international fold and help prepare it for assuming the ASEAN chairmanship in 2014. Furthermore, to help ASEAN reach its ambitious goal of regional economic integration by 2015, the U.S. can indicate its commitment to a U.S.-ASEAN free trade agreement, provide support for the new ASEAN Infrastructure Fund (AIF), and make progress on technical assistance initiatives directed at the less developed ASEAN states in mainland Southeast Asia. The Obama administration must also ensure it keeps up its attendance record in U.S.-ASEAN related summits despite a full plate of other policy issues.
U.S.-ASEAN relations have grown closer and more complex over the last few years at a rapid pace, to the credit of both sides. Washington must now do its part to sustain and nurture an increasingly mature partnership that will be critical to the realization of America’s Pacific Century.
This article was originally published on the Fletcher Forum of World Affairs website here.
The 4 February vote on the Syrian crisis at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has led many commentators to declare a ‘watershed’ in Indian foreign policy.
Instead of abstaining — as it has usually done on questions regarding the Arab Spring — India voted in favour of the resolution. This has been interpreted by some as a foreign policy shift to support the West, and by others as a sign of India’s emerging power on the world stage.
But India’s vote at the UNSC is largely consistent with the cautious stance it has maintained throughout the entire Syrian crisis. From the beginning, the Indian position on Syria has focused on three things: first, condemnation of all violence and human rights violations irrespective of who the perpetrators are; second, encouraging a peaceful and inclusive political process for the resolution of the current crisis; and third, ensuring that Syria itself leads the resolution, with the latter taking into account the aspirations of all Syrians and respecting the country’s sovereignty.
India’s first official statement on Syria at the UNSC in April 2011 embodied this balance, highlighting the ramifications of ‘prolonged instability’ in the country, but also drawing attention to the fact that both sides of the conflict have committed acts of violence. When India, Brazil and South Africa visited senior officials in Damascus in August 2011, New Delhi reaffirmed its commitment to Syria’s sovereignty, condemned violence from all sides and encouraged President Assad to end violence and introduce political reforms. This balance continued when India abstained from a UN Human Rights Council vote on Syria later that month, noting that finger-pointing was no substitute for constructive dialogue.
Even as the death toll climbed later in the year and it became clear the Assad regime had no intention of reforming, India abstained during a UNSC resolution in October 2011, resisting substantial Western pressure. In explaining his country’s vote, Hardeep Puri, India’s permanent representative to the UN, said the threat of sanctions did not accommodate New Delhi’s concerns and the resolution did not condemn the violence perpetrated by the Syrian opposition. The October resolution was subsequently vetoed by Russia and China.
Many see India’s decision to vote for the UNSC resolution this February, rather than abstaining, as signalling a dramatic departure from its habitual Syria policy. They cite various reasons, including the West’s increased pressure on New Delhi, the growing death toll in Syria and India’s growing realisation that its energy interests in the Gulf states ultimately matter more. Yet the facts suggest continuity rather than change in India’s position. As Indian officials repeatedly mentioned when explaining their vote, New Delhi only decided to support the resolution after its reservations regarding regime change, sanctions and military intervention were addressed and the resolution’s language was watered down. Far from bowing to Western pressure, India was part of a group of countries working to resist it. In fact, according to some accounts, the resolution was so weak that even Russia considered supporting it until the collapse of last minute talks with the US.
As if to confirm the consistency of the Indian position, Vinay Kumar, India’s acting permanent representative to the UN, reiterated New Delhi’s long-held policy on Syria on 13 February. He expressed concern over the present situation, condemning violence from all sides, and called for a peaceful and inclusive political process led by the Syrian people. Contrary to some who read India’s latest UNSC vote as an abandonment of the Assad regime or an alignment with Western positions on Syria, Kumar noted that India believed ‘the leadership of Syria is a matter for the Syrian people to decide’. India also attended the 70-member ‘Friends of Syria’ conference in Tunis as an observer soon after the UNSC vote.
While there remains a chance that India’s position on Syria will shift in the future, this seems doubtful at present. Much like its silence on other questions regarding the Arab Spring — from Libya to Bahrain to Egypt — India is trying to walk a tightrope and avoid taking bold stances. And while there may be many at home and abroad who wish that New Delhi were more assertive in its foreign policy, they should not be surprised if they continue to be disappointed, or fool themselves into seeing change where none exists.
This article was originally published at the East Asia Forum.