India has reason to be reasonably proud of its showing at the annual meeting of the asean and its security forum, the asean Region Forum, or arf, held in Singapore last week. Particularly if it is compared to last year's meeting in Manila, when New Delhi faced flak for Pokhran II and was strongly urged to adhere to the ctbt and npt regimes.
This time, not only was India lauded for its restraint over Kargil, the final statement issued after the asean ministerial conference may well have been from the Indian foreign office. Respect the LoC, it said. Respect the Lahore process, it said. And instead of calling on just India and Pakistan to disarm, as it had done the last time, the asean ministers included the entire nuclear club in its call this time around.
External affairs minister Jaswant Singh, who led the Indian delegation, pointed out that while the ctbt issue would be considered by the next government, the npt, which requires India to give up its nuclear status, was an absolute 'no go' for India. As for human rights in Kashmir, he said that given the situation in the Valley, India's record was exemplary.
Apart from the 10 asean members (Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam) the arf, the only forum for security cooperation in the Asia-Pacific, has 11 dialogue partners including India. The others include Australia, Canada, China, the EU, Japan, South Korea, Mongolia, New Zealand, Russia and the US. Papua New Guinea has special observer status.
'There are three factors which determine a nation's importance in multilateral fora,' says Udai Bhanu Singh of the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses. 'These are its ability to influence the agenda, the membership and the pace at which the forum is moving.' And India, he feels, 'has proved itself this time on all three counts'. While declining to agree with Jaswant Singh that the meeting was an 'unqualified' success, Bhanu Singh points out that India had managed to convince the world that it had moved out of the grip of 'subcontinental politics'. He points to the 'sophisticated manner' in which India responded to the freeze on arf membership, which effectively bars Pakistan from joining the club.
'Compared to last year, there is a considerable improvement in this year's resolution,' agrees Pran Chopra of the Centre for Policy Research. 'The previous one focused only on the tests on the subcontinent... It did not extend to a call for disarmament which extended to other nuclear powers. Then, last year the call was to resolve the Kashmir dispute, this time it specifically mentions the bilateral process and the Lahore spirit.' Of course, he adds, 'the background was very different. Last year, both India and Pakistan were in the dock, India more so because it was represented at the arf. This time, India's restraint has been recognised, while Pakistan is in the dock,' he says.
Jaswant Singh also met Chinese foreign minister Tang Jiaxuan, who'd earlier strongly warned against foreign interference in the internal affairs of other countries. The obvious reference was to US involvement in Taiwan, which the US was quick to deny. In a departure from earlier meetings, Tang apparently sought cooperation with India in regional and international fields.
Another much-touted success is US secretary of state Madeleine Albright's endorsement of India's stand on cross-border terrorism. Speaking after her meeting with Jaswant Singh, she said: 'Acts of terrorism must stop immediately because such actions make the Kashmir conflict more, not less, difficult to resolve.'
Congress spokesman Mani Shankar Aiyar, however, finds in this 'a blatant encouragement of US presence in the region. And why are we trying to collect other people's certificates? The way in which the bjp is encouraging US presence is extraordinary. Has it even thought what this means in a unipolar world?' he asks. 'I see a large amount of naivete there. Look at what happened to the Lahore process, which was described by the government as a major step forward in Indo-Pak ties. I think we are heading for a similar scenario involving Washington,' he adds.
Asserts his colleague and former foreign minister Natwar Singh: 'I don't see what there is to gloat about. If you look at the official communique, we hardly figure in it.' He, too, points to the 'precedence' of the Lahore bus ride. 'If anything, our showing at Singapore has been embarrassing.' Jaswant Singh sure doesn't think so.