A survey of big power relations

Updated On: Oct 19, 2007

When the elephant sneezes, the whole forest shudders.

So the saying goes. There are several big power jostlings in the region this week, involving the big boys of the USJapanRussiaChina and India

India’s big power ambitions remains right on track as Delhi invites 31 Indian Ocean littoral states to a maritime summit. India has made no secret that it wants to be a major naval power in the global scene. As it bides its time to be the big marine boy in the region, it chooses cooperation for now with the process defined according to Indian priorities.

'With the increase in asymmetric threats, the importance of constabulary functions of maritime nations is increasing to disproportionate levels,' said Indian navy chief Sureesh Mehta. 'This places an unaffordable demand on the size and nature of maritime forces a country requires. The alternative lies in joining hands. The diplomatic role of navies assumes greater significance by the day,' he said. According to Indian naval officials, China and the US were not invited to the symposium because they were not Indian Ocean littoral states. FrancePakistan and South Africa figure on the list of invitees along with the navies of countries such as SingaporeAustralia and Indonesia.

'You can sum this up as oil, Islam and the rise of India and China,' said Mr See Chak Mun, senior adviser to Singapore's Foreign Ministry and a former envoy to India. Fearful of ChinaIndia has growing strategic ties with the USIndia also wants to ensure that it remains on top of open fuel supply routes while the goods made in their export-led economies reach markets abroad securely.

Southeast Asia’s call for open sea-lanes under the rubric of open architecture seems to be ignored while major powers are jockeying to elbow one another out of the arena. Some Indian naval officials are looking at the construction of a 1,000-ship fleet for its navy, some six times the current size. The Indian Navy is going out of its way to stamp its influence in the Indian Ocean traditional sphere of influence. Indian dockyards are having difficulty keeping pace with orders and the government has started handing out contracts to private shipbuilders.

While India steams ahead with its own naval plans, its nuclear ambition seems to have taken a backseat this week. Premier Manmohan Singh conveyed the message to US President George W. Bush, indicating that it is having trouble pushing through a landmark nuclear accord, in a fresh sign it may have caved in to pressure from its left-wing allies. Singh "explained to President Bush that certain difficulties have arisen with respect to the operationalisation of the India-US civil nuclear cooperation agreement," a statement said.

Singh has failed to win over India's Communists and other left-wing parties, who prop up the government in parliament. His opponents say that non-aligned India is getting too close to Washington. "I think the government has accepted defeat," said Lalit Mansingh, a former Indian ambassador to Washington. "I would presume the deal is dead as the timetable seems unrealistic," he added.

China is the other Asian power in the international news this week as the Dalai Lama was honoured with US Congress award. The Dalai Lama was also greeted by thousands of cheering admirers as President George Bush and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi presented the Tibetan spiritual leader with the Congressional Gold Medal during a lavish ceremony in the Capitol.

Richard Gere was the keynote speaker for the spiritual leader’s followers. "It was one of those magic moments that I will never forget. Most of us were all in tears," Gere. "It was really something extraordinary…His voyage to this moment is proof that non-violence can work in the end as a tool of change, as a tool of righteousness in the world."

"This recognition is an affirmation of the values that I cherish; values such as compassion, human understanding, kindness," said the 72-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate. "I also recognise this award as representing affirmation and support for the non-violent and just cause that we Tibetans have been pursuing in our struggle for freedom and our rights," he said through an interpreter.

This was a rare symbol of unity for American politics as Pelosi, the Democratic leader and the Republican president came together to dispense this award, despite warnings from China. With the medal, Pelosi said, "The United States was sending a very clear message, a very clear signal, to the People's Republic of China that we want them to receive His Holiness in Beijing for substantive talks."

China has to make a public response as the meeting and the award ceremony happened while the Communist Party congress is on.  The US ambassador was summoned by the Foreign Ministry and an official protest was launched.  An editorial in the China Daily newspaper also warned that “this event will cast a shadow over the relations”.  Earlier, China had already signaled its displeasure by backing out of an international meeting to discuss Iran’s nuclear programme.

However, China has been careful not to overplay its response as it hopes to become the 17th nation joining the International Space Station (ISS) project, Vice Minister of Science and Technology Li Xueyong said on Tuesday. It needs US permission for such a venture.

"China sincerely wants to cooperate with the United States in space exploration and join the International Space Station project that has already involved 16 nations," said Li, a delegate to the 17th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC), on the sidelines of the event. The Chinese government has been pursuing a policy of peaceful use of airspace, Li said.

To the East and North of China, Russo-Japanese differences have broken out. Russia is concerned about the Japan-U.S. project to develop a missile defense system, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in a recent interview. The project is "a subject of concern from our side," Lavrov said Friday in a written response to questions prior to his visit to Japan later this month. "We are opposed to the construction of a missile defense system aimed at securing military superiority," he said in Russian, arguing the system could be directed at Russian and Chinese strategic arms.

It is the first time that Russia has publicly expressed strong concern over the U.S.-Japan defense system in the Asia-Pacific region. Lavrov also cautioned Japan-United States-Australia military ties. "A closed format for military and political alliances" is not constructive and "will not be able to increase mutual trust in the region," he said. "It will bring about results that are opposite to the expectations" of the three countries.

Despite this, the continued deployment of the US missiles remains unabated. US deployed a mobile missile-tracking station in Japan for the first time yesterday as part of efforts to defend the country against a potential attack from North Korea at the Joint Tactical Ground Station in Misawa base in Aomori. It is the first time the US military has deployed the mobile unit in Japan, although one is already in South Korea, said Mr Yutaka Shirasawa, an official at Japan's Defence Ministry.

Local media had criticized the deployment, saying they had not received sufficient information. 'The US military might not be able to disclose military secrets. However, we should not just let it be,' the local To-o Nippo newspaper said in an editorial before the deployment. 'The mayor must press the US military and the (Japanese) government to give us a detailed explanation.'  (19 October 2007)


Furious Beijing summons US envoy (Straits Times, 19 October 2007)

China summons US ambassador to protest Dalai Lama (Channel News Asia, 18 October 2007)

Dalai Lama honoured with US Congress award (The Times of India, 18 October 2007)

Russia opposes Japan missile defense (Japan Times, 16 October 2007)

Nuclear deal in trouble, Indian PM tells Bush (Channel News Asia, 16 October 2007)

US installs missile-tracking system in Japan (Straits Times, 13 October 2007)

India to boost regional naval cooperation (Straits Times, 12 October 2007)