Eager guest

Updated: Apr 21 2005, 05:30am hrs
The proposal among the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) to invite India to attend the first East Asia summit at Kuala Lumpur this coming December, is significant for what it is not about. Media reports have begun hinting at this as an indication of Indias growing importance in the eyes of Asean nations. It is not: it was India that was pressing for an invitation, while Asean is focused on its eastern neighbours. The entire debate in Asean political and government circles has been on China, Japan, Korea and Australia. You have to search hard for even a passing reference to India in the speeches and background papers, government and academic, in the region. The ongoing debate in Asean policy circles is on whether, and how, to sweeten the offer to get Australia on board as a founding member of the proposed summit. Quite different from the observer-status proposed for India, which is still to be formalised. That is irrespective of the fact that India adds the equivalent of an Australia every year to its billion-plus population.

The backdrop is crucial: in the 60s, when Asean was being set up, it wanted India to be a founding member. India declined and later began regretting its decision. From the 80s, it was our turn to plead for induction. A plea that has not been heard favourably as yet, though India and Asean have an agreed schedule to create a free trade area between 2011 and 2016. That too on our initiativea far cry from those days in the 1960s, when they asked us to be part of Asean.

Since end-2002, the annual India-Asean summit has been working on progress towards an FTA. India has been trying to ensure that it stays on course. But we continue to remain outside the ambit of the Asean-plus caucus that keeps the organisation pro-actively engaged with China, Japan and South Korea.

The last thing we need is to get into a self-congratulatory mode on the basis of an invitation to be an observer at the December summit. All large countries like to live in this make-believe world, that their size commands awe and respect among lesser beings. China, Russia, US and Brazil are, like us, members of this club. But the hard reality is that trade blocs of today are far more powerful than some of the worlds largest nations. It is how smaller nations get back at the larger economic powers. India has realised this a little late. That we are actively pursuing better relations with trade blocs now is most heartening.