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China: Suspicions of an ‘Asian Nato’ in the Four-Nation Dialogue

As appeared in www.saag.org

Prior to analysing the significance of the revelations (The Hindu, January 17,2007) about the ongoing consultations between New Delhi and Tokyo on a proposal to hold a dialogue among the US, Japan, Australia and India, the four nations believing in ‘democracy and human rights’, a look into the background already available on the subject, would be appropriate.

A Japan-Australia-US Trilateral Strategic Dialogue system is already in place. It began as meetings among the senior officials of the three governments in 2002 and finally got elevated to the level of the foreign ministers last year (Sydney, March 2006). The event is going to be an annual one from now on. The system’s stated aims have been to ‘contribute to the maintenance of stability and security in the Asia-Pacific region, through giving support to emergence and consolidation of democracy and strengthening cooperative frameworks in the region’. In the run-up to the Sydney meet, the , especially the Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, has been expressing strong doubts on the objectives of China’s military modernisation, hinting at an anti-China slant cropping up during discussions in the three-power talks. It was left to the Australian Foreign Minister to set the matter right, who took care to openly declare that the trilateral dialogue was not a conspiracy against China.

A summit meeting (Washington, June 29, 2006<) between the President Bush and the then Japanese Premier Koizumi was to follow. Through the joint statement issued on the occasion, the two sides expressed a common desire to include more ‘like-minded’ nations in the system, by declaring “it is important for both the countries to advance the strategic dialogue with friends and allies in the region”. The subsequent remarks of the Japanese leader Shinzo Abe in July that year have been forthright by identifying India, for the first time, as a fourth power qualified to participate in the dialogue as it shared democracy and values with the other three- Japan, the US and Australia. Close to his official visit to Japan, the Indian Prime Minister Dr. Man Mohan Singh sounded positive on what Abe said, by revealing (The Daily Yomiuri, December 5,2006) that he would discuss in Tokyo the proposal of his Japanese counterpart to ‘open a four-way strategic dialogue for achieving close cooperation among major democracies in the region’. It was finally left to the Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Taniguchi to clarify (December 10,2006) that the proposal remained as an ‘idea’ so far, with no institutionalised mechanism yet. A specific purpose of the dialogue, according to him, is to hold quadrilateral discussions on maritime security and anti-terrorism cooperation, particularly the safety of sea-lanes which link Japan with Persian Gulf with India lying in between. The Indian media quoting diplomatic sources, have now confirmed that the matter relating to dialogue including some ‘specific proposals’ of New Delhi on holding preliminary official level talks, figured during Abe-Man Mohan discussions. The Joint Statement issued at the end of Dr Man Mohan Singh’s visit mentioned about the support of the both the sides to the idea of a dialogue among ‘India, Japan and other like minded countries in the Asia- Pacific region on themes of mutual interest’. Worth noting in such an atmosphere has been the absence so far of any official comment from Beijing on the US-Japan-Australia trilateral dialogue system and the reported plans to rope in India also into the same. The Chinese Party and State controlled media on the other hand have been openly critical of the moves. Quoting a senior former diplomat Liu Xuesheng, the ‘China Daily’ (June 3, 2004) condemned the trilateral dialogue efforts, and accused directly both Washington and New Delhi for their initiative towards forming an ‘Asian version of NATO as a security mechanism against China’. The paper especially blamed an Indian scholar M.D.Nalapat, associated then with the country’s National Security Council, for bringing out a formula in this regard. China revived its attack on the trilateral dialogue close to the Sydney meeting. The Party organ, the People’s Daily (March 17, 2006) quoting Wang Yusheng, a scholar of the authoritative China Institute of International Studies, found fault with the US and Japan for their attempts to find more dialogue partners to increase their influence in Asia-Pacific, which reflected a ‘cold war mentality’. The same expert has viewed very recently (China Daily, January 16, 2007) that ‘as a result of the tremendous opportunities created by China’s development in East Asia, the Asian NATO concept, advocated by the neo- conservatives in the US and Japan, has become impractical’. As a further sign that China is sensitive to Abe’s proposal to include India in the four-nation talks, some media analysts in Beijing, before the departure of Prime Minister Man Mohan Singh to Japan, contacted their Indian counterparts to get their opinions on the development. Only time will tell whether the US-Japan-Australia trilateral dialogue system would eventually be converted into a quadrilateral one, including India also. By all indications, the four-power dialogue proposal appears to have originated in Washington. New Delhi’s initial nod now to Abe’s idea, may in all probability be construed by the international community as signals to India’s intentions, with an eye on the eventual APEC membership, to play a more pro-active role in the East Asian region than what is being seen in the current period, marked by its accelerated regional involvement encompassing the fields of politics, security and economy under its “Look East” policy. Admittedly, for India, joining the quadrilateral dialogue will not mean an ‘alliance’ with the . But China, unless properly briefed by India, may willy-nilly find in the move, an indication that New Delhi wants to synchronise its regional strategy with that of the allies. It is already uneasy, though not openly, with the growing US-India strategic ties, symbolised by important bilateral deals on civil nuclear and defence cooperation. Adding to the Chinese concerns could be the apparent connection between India’s enthusiasm for Abe’s idea involving promotion of democracy and the New Delhi-Washington “Global Democracy Initiative” (July 18,2005). After all, Beijing has its own ‘socialist democracy’ principle, and for obvious reasons, rejects the suitability of any Western democratic model for China. At a time when the Sino-Indian relations are on the upswing due to joint efforts, there is need for New Delhi to display enough prudence and caution, in order to assure Beijing that it is not ganging up against the interests of China by joining the four nation talks. Japan, Australia and the may also find themselves in similar conditions in the face of deepening interdependence between each of them and China. Thus, the popular perception that proposed quadrilateral dialogue system conceals an anti-China intent, may, in the ultimate count, be proved wrong. However, the fact that the specific ‘democracy’ element is putting China and the four-powers in opposite camps, has to be faced squarely in foreseeing future developments regarding proposed quadrilateral talks. The need of the hour is to find a solution on this particular aspect. Considering that Beijing is already participating in the Asia-Pacific economic progress through the APEC, the bottom line for such solution should be that without China’s participation, any multilateral effort aimed at achieving the stated goal of stability and security in Asia-Pacific region, would indeed be doomed to end in failure. (The writer, Mr.D.S.Rajan, is former Director, Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India. email: dsrajan@gmail.com)

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