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Dr Singh heads to Bali with an eye on the future

Last updated on: November 16, 2011 20:37 IST

When Dr Manmohan Singh meets both Barack Obama and Wen Jiabao in separate bilaterals in Bali on Friday, all eyes will be on the atmospherics between the leaders, says's Saisuresh Sivaswamy, who is travelling with the prime minister's media delegation for the ASEAN Summit.

India and China may not be the antagonists everyone says they are, fighting for the same piece of pie, but nor are they the best of friends.

Unlike, say, the United States and India which have discovered each other after a long period of standoffishness.

Yet, look at the facts.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and US President Barack Obama last met more than a year ago, when the latter had come calling on India in November 2010. And it was not like their paths did not cross -- it did, and a few times at that, including a same-frame photo op at the recent Cannes G20 summit. Yet the two leaders, whose mentor-mentee relationship has been widely written about, did not find the time to meet.

Compare this with Dr Singh and his Chinese counterpart Wen Jiabao. The two leaders who, between the two of them preside over the destinies of nearly one-third of humanity, met last October in Hanoi, then met again in December in New Delhi, which was followed up with a meeting in China in summer this year.

Naturally, when Dr Singh meets both Obama and Wen in separate bilaterals in Bali on Friday, all eyes will be on the atmospherics between the leaders. Having rediscovered each other, have India and the US grown rapidly tired of each other, the oft-touted similarities palling in the face of frisson with China?

Maybe not, but the fact is that the three nations are engaged in some amazing footwork that will make the Mohammed Ali-Joe Frazier bouts look like an evening in the park. For the first time since the existing world order was drawn up following two bloody conflicts, unfairly according to most nations, Asia is the theatre where the world's future is being scripted.

The question is, will it be in Mandarin or in English?

The APEC summit in Hawaii, the Indian Ocean Rim conference, G20, and the imminent ASEAN talks and other alphabetical regional conclaves are nothing but shadow-boxing between the sole superpower and the sole aspirant. India is not a contender; but victory is more assured if India is in your corner.

And India, given its long years of isolation when it chose to plow a lonely furrow rather than join either of the ideological blocs, knows that any deviation from the straight and narrow path may result in immediate economic bonus but also mean a vassal status in the long term. Which explains its impulse to hedge its bets.

Which was why, at his pre-departure briefing on Wednesday, secretary (east) in the ministry of external affairs Sanjay Singh dwelt almost entirely on the economic framework between India and the region. On any other issue, he said the media would be briefed about it if it came about.

For unlike the first two world wars, the third one that has been underway for a while now is not being fought with arms and ammunition. Trade is the weapon here and it's all about economics, not geography.

But like the previous two conflicts, allies will make all the difference to the outcome. So nations are engaged in an elaborate fire dance that is being choreographed with the passion and skill of a Bolshoi Ballet performance.

If China looks like a spoiler it's only because it is the challenger to the world order that like India it too had little role in creating but is being asked to maintain it -- a task neither Asian nations are keen on discharging. But unlike India which has a history of going about it in a meek manner -- who knows, we may be different if our rupee was strong too -- China sees no need for an overkill of niceties.

To that extent at least, it is a game of containment that the US is playing, using its longstanding allies and new ones like India but also playing on the inherent fears of the dragon's hegemony among many nations.

India's position is peculiar: as the mother civilisation in the region, history may be on its side but neither geography and economics is. Yet, it finds itself at the global high table, where lots are being drawn on the future.

The Association of South East Asian Nations and East Asia summits later this week, which will see the attendance of India, the US, China and Russia, is one more exercise in a long train of carving out the world. Unlike the previous two exercises in 1914 and 1939, this one maybe bloodless. But it sure won't be painless.

Saisuresh Sivaswamy in New Delhi