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July 24, 1998


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Jaswant girds up to meet Albright, Jiaxuan

Amberish K Diwanji in New Delhi

Jaswant Singh, the prime minister's special emissary, is all set to cross swords with United States Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in Manila, during the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum meeting from July 25 to 28. Moreover, in what will be an Indian presence at the first major multilateral forum after the nuclear tests of May 11 and 13, Singh will also encounter Tang Jiaxuan, the Chinese foreign minister.

India, as a member of the ASEANRF and a full dialogue partner of the Association of South East Nations, will also be present at the Post-Ministerial Conference which brings together the nine ASEAN members with 10 non-ASEAN countries. The latter comprises, besides India, Australia, Canada, China, the European Union, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, South Korea and the United States.

While the ASEANRF has no fixed agenda -- the chairman selecting the subject for debate -- the nuclear tests are expected to come up for discussion. Senior external affairs ministry officials are seeking to downplay the likely discussion on the nuclear tests, stressing instead on the PMC's economic agenda.

With Pakistan not present at the Manila summit to raise the Kashmir issue, India has an opportunity to explain its security concerns that led it to test the nuclear tests. Officials also point out that within ASEAN, the nuclear tests have not been criticised too harshly, and that the Indian delegation is planning to play on this aspect.

In fact, right after the nuclear tests, there was a meeting with ASEAN members where India explained its stand, citing security concerns, and received a favourable response. This has, no doubt, buoyed the MEA and officials are sure this factor will emerge in Manila.

Officials, however, admit that the economic crisis in South-East and East Asia has given the United States a handle on ASEAN members, making them more pliable. Much of the South-East Asian economic recovery depends upon loans from the International Monetary Forum in which the US has a major voice.

Even China has a lever. The ASEAN countries are extremely keen that China does not devalue the yuan since doing so will hurt the recovery. It is these factors, say MEA officials, that will make the ASEAN members not too keen to oppose China or the US.

Besides the multilateral talks, attention is focussed on the likely meeting between Singh and Albright, and Singh and Tang. Singh's meeting with Albright comes after his meeting with her deputy, Strobe Talbott, and before he departs for Washington to continue the Indo-US talks on nuclear issues. MEA officials refused to comment on whether specific subjects such as signing the CTBT or Kashmir will be discussed.

Singh's meeting with Tang is the first Sino-Indian encounter after the nuclear tests. Relations between the two took a downturn after Prime Minister A B Vajpayee pointed a finger at China as India's major security concern.

MEA officials point out that the final draft is by consensus of all attending, and in this regard, India's concerns will find its way to the draft, preventing too harsh a line against New Delhi. A recent ASEANRF communique toned down its criticism of India's nuclear tests from the words "condemned" to "grave concern".

The officials also added that Pakistan has made serious efforts to enter the ASEANRF or at least become a full dialogue partner, so far in vain. Officials said after the nuclear tests, many ASEANRF members stated that they would not like to "reward" Islamabad by allowing it entry.

Officially, ASEAN has declared its support for a nuclear-free zone in South and South-East Asia, and its efforts would be in that direction.

Besides the issues of nuclear proliferation and security likely to dominate the summit, an economic agenda has been set in place for the PMC. India has played a marginal role on economic matters. It was not allowed entry into the recently held Asia-European meeting, nor is it a member of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation grouping.

However, MEA officials insisted that expectations are high. Despite the economic crisis, trade levels between India and ASEAN have remained constant (Indian exports have dropped, but imports have risen). Trade has doubled in the past two years from $ 3 billion to $ 6 billion.

A senior MEA official pointed out that Singapore remains most keen on investing in India. Plans are afoot for a software city in India, though the exact destination is yet to be decided. Moreover, India and Singapore have agreed to implement the Air Services Agreement -- which had been approved much earlier -- from this month, giving a fillip to Indo-Singapore ties.

And in what will be a major policy decision, India and Malaysia are likely to enter counter-trade arrangements, adds a senior MEA official. This means India will pay for its imports in rupees while Malaysia will pay in its currency, the ringgit. Details are yet to be worked out, and the Reserve Bank of India is still to give the go-ahead, which will include a safeguard margin for currency fluctuation.

In recent years, India has insisted on dollar-denominated trade, especially after New Delhi scorched its fingers in dealing with Russia in rupee-rouble transactions. The extremely steep fall in the rouble's exchange value made it virtually worthless for India, causing grave economic losses.

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