A regional meeting of Commonwealth member, just ended in New Delhi, has provided reminders, both chastening and encouraging, to the 16 participants. Perhaps most encouraging was the fact that the old British connection of the members ensures both a common tongue and a sentimental link as the basis for a unique club -- one in which freewheeling exchange is easier than in most other international forums.
Ironically, the New Delhi gathering showed that this works even where Britain is not there. There was no British representation at the gathering for the simple reason that it was confined to the 16 of the 44 Commonwealth members located in the Asian and Pacific areas.
This meant that the heavyweights at the conference were:
India, a giant with a population of nearly two-thirds of a billion and with more personnel in its armed forces than any land on earth, after the three superpowers; Australia, the most advanced of the industrialized Commonwealth countries in the region, and in itself an island-continent rich in mineral resources; and Singapore, although only a city-state, the country in the region with the highest annual growth per capita and a per capita annual income higher than that of South Africa or Israel.
Chastening for all participants must have been:
* Their inability to keep free of entanglement in the superpower struggle -- particularly, since this was an Asia-and-Pacific regional meeting, the rivalry between the Soviet Union and China.
* The inability of even the most idyllic South Pacific island mini-states to remain apart from the rest of the world with their mounting political and economic problems. Remote Pacific islands, for example, cannot keep aloof from the political battle going on at the Law of the Sea Conference on rights to underwater mineral resources on the ocean bed.
As for confrontation at the New Delhi meeting, it was mainly between its chairman, Indian Prime Minister Indira Ghandi, and Singapore's tough and outspoken prime minister, Lee kuan Yew. Their differences were on:
1. Soviet activity (and the Chinese response to it) in Afghanistan and Indo-China.
2. International involvement in industrialization in what is generally termed the third world.
(Australia, an original sponsor of this regional Commonwealth grouping, kept a conciliatory if not a low profile at the conference. Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser may well have wanted to exorcize at New Delhi the "big white brother" stereotype that some Southeast Asian and Pacific peoples have attached to Austrlians at earlier international gatherings.)
Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew was more vigorously anti-Soviet and more pro-Chinese than Mrs. Gandhi. He also was more enthusiastic than she about the need (to use his vocabulary) to get plunged into the internationsl grid as a prerequisite for economic success.
Mrs. Gandhi may well have raised an eyebrow when Mr. Lee used the last weekend of the conference for a one- day visit King Birenda of Nepal. The loatter, not a member of the Commonwealth, is a buffer state between India and China on the Indian side of the Himalayan watershed.
Because of its geographical position giving it contro over headwaters of Indian rivers, Nepal (in Indian eyes) is in India's legitimate sphere of influence. But the youth ful King Birendra of Nepal, in an apparent effort to underline Nepalese independence, has not always kept in step with India in the latter's sometimes pro-Soviet and anti-Chinese stands.
Nepal, for example, has not followed India in recognizing the proSoviet regime of Heng Samrin in Cambodia, installed there by Vietnemese bayonets with Soviet support.
To Mr. Lee, Soviet-backed Vietnamese expansionisn in southeast Asia -- just up the road from Singapore -- is a more immediate and dangerous threat than China. But since India has needed the Soviet Union in the past as a counterweight to a sometimes hostile China, Mrs. Gandhi's perception can hardly be the same as his.