August 10, 2009

Clinton’s visit to Southeast Asia: Implications for India

Tuli Sinha
Research Officer, SEARP IPCS

Hillary Clinton’s declaration, made on arrival in Bangkok during her visit to the Asian partners last week, that "the United States [was] back," stressed America’s intent to engage in an all-around interaction and develop friendly ties with the Southeast Asian nations. This comment has reiterated the Obama administration's diplomatic strategy to improve America's image on a global scale. But given the sudden winds of change which suggest significant shifts in the international power structure-making, it is essential to find answers to several questions: Why has the US decided to re-engage with the region? Is it only due to individual interests or is this a preventive measure to contain the rise of regional powers? With the US and China both enjoying strategic ties with Southeast Asia, how will India maintain its position in the region?

It is interesting to note that after President Obama took charge, America’s policy towards Southeast Asia showed immediate signs of change for which myriad factors were responsible. First, in comparison to the US, major Asia Pacific nations such as China, Japan, India, and Australia have always valued their relationships with Southeast Asia. In the area of trade and commercial relations, though the US is in the lead in terms of its investment in Southeast Asia, it lags behind China in its bilateral trade volume with ASEAN. China had proactively established a free trade zone with ASEAN as early as 2004 and countries like Japan followed suit. Washington, however, never seemed to have a concrete plan in this area.

Second, in terms of political relations, China entered the "Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) in Southeast Asia" as a non-member of ASEAN in 2003, ahead of all the other major nations in the Asia Pacific region. Later, Japan and other nations signed the treaty, making it an important code of conduct within ASEAN, voluntarily accepted and followed by an increasing number of non-member nations. Therefore, when the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton signed the TAC in Phuket, it was the result of the US' re-evaluation and renewed understanding. This is a watershed that has marked a major change in the US policy towards Southeast Asia in the few months since the Obama administration came to power.

Third, the US wants to participate in the region's development process to show its clout in the area and help solve problems such as the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue and Myanmar's ongoing political instability. Further, Clinton's visit to Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country in the world, was widely seen as a remarkable gesture from the White House to the Muslim community, agitated by former US President Bush's decision to invade Iraq without credible reason. All these characteristics are consistent with Clinton's goal of using "smart power" to form comprehensive partnerships.

Like other nations, the US' willingness to become a contracted state on its own accord is not only a symbolic political stance, but more so, a binding political promise. As the foremost military superpower with an important strategic and practical interest in this region, the US' move signifies its willingness to interact with ASEAN on equal grounds. Apparently, this is another one of the Obama administration's efforts to rectify America’s international image to help eliminate various doubts people have about the country’s strategic intent. It would only serve to benefit America’s own interests, which include a broader and deeper involvement in Southeast Asia's affairs.

In the light of these recent developments in the regional dynamics, it becomes significant for India to reposition itself and seek a greater role in the region amidst the presence of the US and China. Clinton’s visit came close on the heels of an India-Pakistan joint statement of cooperation signed in Egypt that received scathing criticism in India, including from members of the Prime Minister’s own party. This misstep also gave credence to the charge that the UPA government has become in many ways a supplicant to US interests in the region. Though this visit was crucial, especially post the Indo-US nuclear deal, not much was achieved. The US remained non-committal on issues such as India’s candidature for a permanent seat in the UNSC, trade in sensitive technology, and climate change failing to provide the promised deliverables.

Therefore, it becomes imperative for India to diversify its foreign policy and engage with other regional actors rather than being an underling to the US. With China and the US both tactfully engaging Southeast Asia, India should strategise a greater role for itself in the region. The delayed India-ASEAN FTA also hints at the underlying problems in establishing a concrete relationship in the region and resolutions should be sought. India should reconsider its priorities and understand the long-term implications of the power game. It is significant for India to restructure its Look East Policy in a way that breathes new life into India-ASEAN relations. Initiatives to forge stronger political and economic ties should be proposed to maintain Indian emplacement as a major player in the region. Hopefully, India will succeed in carving out a pivotal niche in Southeast Asia amongst much bigger actors.

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