Spotlight on Geopolitics

In a surprising turn of events, Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh has this week launched his new “Look East” trade and foreign policy, during a week-long state visit to Japan, Malaysia and Vietnam.

India’s main concern these days is that of increasing the country’s foreign trade volume at least to pre-crisis levels. In Japan, premier Naoto Kan and Singh have announced the conclusion of the CEPA (Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement) and together they have explored ways of increasing bilateral trade, which currently represents only 0.8 percent of Japan’s external trade.

Singh believes that significant increases in trade could be achieved because of the “complementary nature of the Japanese-Indian trade relationship”, meaning that the Japanese have the capital and technology whilst the Indians have the labour force and the market. China’s rare earth minerals embargo and ways to go around it were also on the agenda, as well as a bilateral nuclear energy cooperation deal. India would like to solve some of its energy problems by building nuclear plants with Japanese help, which, however, might not be as simple as it sounds. India’s nuclear weapons program has alienated the Japanese public and there are concerns that India has so far refused to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty – a major sticking point in the negotiations.

Discussions between the two premiers also touched on regional security issues, with Japan asking for Indian advice regarding China. Whilst agreeing to cooperate closely with Japan in avoiding security threats for the two countries as a result of Chinese assertiveness on border issues, Singh has advised his Japanese counterpart to engage China through dialogue and to use patience as a weapon.

The underlying philosophy of the latest Japan-India security partnership in Asia is spelled out by a member of India’s National Security Advisory Board in no uncertain terms. According to him, “when there is a bully in the classroom, it is important for the other students to show unity. That is the meaning of a strategic partnership”. In European parlance, the Indian official is referring to the establishment of a balance of power mechanism aimed at containing China’s Asian ambitions. Such a strategic agenda mirrors that of the US State Department’s and looks to have been heavily inspired by it.

On his Malaysian leg of the tour, premier Singh has announced the signing of yet another Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA), aimed at doubling trade volumes with Malaysia by 2015, from the current $7.3 billion a year. As in Japan, security and counter-terrorism were high on Singh’s agenda. Again echoing the State Department’s latest policy initiatives, he has told his Malaysian hosts that

“in today’s unsettled world, it is all the more important for societies that are democratic, multi-religious and multicultural to work together”.

To be sure, this is exactly what Mrs Clinton has been advocating at the start of her “new American moment” crusade of democratic versus “authoritarian” states…

Aware of Indian obsessions with China’s higher growth rates, Malaysian premier Najib Razak has stated that he largely agrees with The Economist’s recent cover story on India which predicted that soon India’s economic growth might surpass all expectations. ( I have read the main article myself, which in truth is not one of The Economist’s best).

The Indian premier’s new “Look East” policy, whilst it might lead to increased trade in East Asia, is sure to lead to an increase in diplomatic tensions with China, at a time when India needs more, not less, access to Chinese markets. When trade with China will deteriorate as a result, the Indian premier and his foreign policy pundits will realise that following into Washington’s footsteps is largely a thankless task. (sources: Deutsche Welle, Asahi Shimbun, The Himalayan, The Hindu)

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