India’s absence from APEC is a serious omission for the organization. Its entry should be on the agenda of the upcoming APEC Summit in Honolulu.
Having made the calculation that America’s security and prosperity would be enhanced by partnership with India, the United States over the last decade has promoted New Delhi’s admission into global governance structures. For the Bush administration, this meant doing the heavy lifting required to enroll India into the Nuclear Suppliers Group, an informal cartel governing the global nuclear regime whose original purpose of existence was to exclude New Delhi from its ranks. The Obama administration similarly helped usher India into the Group of 20 forum on the international economy and, most recently, endorsed its long-standing bid for permanent membership on the United Nations Security Council.
The time has now come for Washington to sponsor New Delhi’s entry into another international institution from which it has been barred for much too long. India for decades has desired formal involvement in the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, which engages over half of world gross domestic product and a large fraction of global trade. But its application has continuously been passed over due to a lack of consensus inside the grouping, which currently numbers 21 members. Some APEC countries have expressed concerns that the institution is too unwieldy as it is and cannot accommodate India or the dozen other interested countries lined up at its door. Others argue that India is not really a Pacific Rim country and is therefore outside of APEC’s geographic parameters.
But with India poised to become one of the world’s top economies in the years ahead, its absence is a serious lacuna for the organization. New Delhi already participates as a full member in regional leadership groups like the East Asia Summit (EAS) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum, both important venues for political and security discussions. It is also a full ASEAN dialogue partner.
Southeast Asia has historically been an area of deep Indian trade and cultural influence but was neglected diplomatically during much of India’s independent existence. Seeking to make up for lost time, New Delhi launched the “Look East” policy in 1992. It has proved to be a very successful initiative, paving the way for significant and rapidly-growing economic and diplomatic linkages in the region. The ten member-countries of ASEAN now constitute India largest export market. Southeast Asia takes in more than half of Indian exports, up from around 40 percent just a decade ago. Indeed, India’s total trade volume with East Asia now exceeds that with the United States or the European Union. And New Delhi’s trade diplomacy has been on a tear recently in Asia, with major economic agreements being signed with Japan, South Korea, ASEAN, Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia. It has commenced negotiations with Indonesia to boost the $12 billion in trade the two countries conducted in 2010.
India has also emerged as a major security player in East Asia and is fast becoming a key factor in the region’s geopolitical calculus. A landmark India-Japan security accord was signed in 2008, and important strategic partnerships have been established with Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam and Singapore. Indeed, Tokyo and Singapore lobbied for New Delhi’s membership in the EAS, over Beijing’s objections, in order to counterbalance Chinese influence in the organization. The United States and India now hold regular consultations on Asia-Pacific policy and a trilateral US-India-Japan security dialogue will be instituted next month in Tokyo.
The Indian navy has been conducting exercises with its U.S. and Japanese counterparts for a number of years now in the Pacific Ocean, and as the brief encounter two months ago between the INS Airavat, an amphibious warfare vessel, and the Chinese navy off the coast of Vietnam demonstrates, the navy is becoming a regular presence in the region’s waters.
APEC’s membership moratorium expired last year. With Washington currently holding the forum’s chairmanship, the Obama administration should be preparing the diplomatic groundwork to place India’s admission on the agenda of the APEC Summit that will take place in mid-November in Honolulu. To avoid interminable negotiations about whether other countries should be let in at the same time, the U.S. might repeat its persuasive line about New Delhi’s entry into the global nuclear order: India is simply so important that it merits a special dispensation.
As a previous post argues, New Delhi’s membership in APEC should be part of an overall agenda for advancing US-India economic engagement. But it would also pay major strategic dividends. In his address to the Indian parliament last November, President Obama urged India not only to “look East” but also “to engage East” for the sake of enhanced security and prosperity throughout Asia. Secretary of State Hillary Rodman Clinton underscored this theme in her visit to India two months ago. Speaking in Chennai (formerly Madras), a port city that has significant economic ties with Southeast Asia, Clinton urged India to take on a larger role in shaping the regional architecture for the Asia-Pacific. Reiterating Mr. Obama’s formulation, she stated that “we encourage India not just to look East, but to engage East and act East as well.”