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The message from Bali

The US, India and other Asian nations must coordinate better to tackle China.

india Updated: Nov 20, 2011 21:41 IST
Hindustan Times

The one message received from the East Asia Summit in Bali, Indonesia, was that the US remains committed to being a geopolitical player in the region. This may seem a relatively mundane statement of policy. But the truth is that administration of President Barack Obama was very unclear about this during the first year of his term in office. Washington became caught up with the idea of managing the region by co-partnering with China. The logical consequence of that would be a gradual diminishing of the US's political and security role in the Asia-Pacific. It took about a year before this policy was disposed off. However, it did enormous damage to the US's credibility among a slew of Asian countries that found China's rise and Beijing's increasing assertiveness disconcerting. If the US, still Asia's most powerful military force, was in two minds about its commitment to the region, then for most Asian countries the only viable policy was to seek an accommodation with China. Only India and perhaps Indonesia are big enough and distant enough to even consider taking an independent path. But neither is yet big enough to be treated as a viable balancing partner by smaller countries.

The idea of 'containing' a country like China never arises. The game is about trying to preserve sufficient autonomy of action for other Asian countries that they can resist when Beijing lapses into aggressive or bullying behaviour — of which there have been many recent examples. The South China Sea dispute is exactly this sort of an issue. India's role in this is minor — this is an arena at the fringes of Indian power. But New Delhi has rightly said that it sees nothing wrong with its present resource exploration in the South China Sea even while avoiding a direct confrontation with China. When combined with the united position of the sea's littoral nations and the backing of the US, it is the type of act which gives Beijing some reason to wonder about the fallout of its foreign policy.

India needs to look over the horizon. Ensuring China behaves itself will not be possible so long as its economic decision-making remains opaque and politically-driven. The recent expansion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) deserves a closer look by India. This trading bloc is designed to provide incentives for China to become more normal in economic terms. The TPP will be hard for India to swallow as well, but New Delhi should give it serious thought. China has aroused the suspicions of all its neighbours and the US has announced it won't be moving away. These two developments are useful. But the main hope for Asian security is if China changes itself for the better. That will require even greater strategic commitment, deeper thought and coordination among countries like the US, India and other Asian countries than was present in Bali.