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China and India-Japan relations: Q and A by Col. R. Hariharan

Col R Hariharan  C3S Paper No.2041 dated 17 September, 2014

[Answers to questions raised by the correspondent of an international weekly on September 16, 2014 on the impact of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Japan in the context of China’s President Xi Jingping’s visit to India are given here.]

Modi’s back to back meetings with Abe and Xi – should we read something in to it?

We should see China’s reaction to Modi getting cozy with Abe in the larger context of Xi-Abe confrontation espectially after Abe started asserting Japanese strategic power (he is trying to get the constitution amended so that Japan will formally have armed forces). This was seen in Japan’s strident posture to counter to Chinese navy’s aggressive moves in S China Sea.

Modi appears to have gained greater confidence in handling China after meeting Abe. For example, in the past India had developed cold feet when the Chinese objected to India’s offshore drilling in Vietnam’s disputed waters. But it appears to have mustered courage after Modi-Abe meeting to reassert India’s interest in S China Sea. In fact India’s foreign minister Sushma Swaraj is visiting Vietnam right now.

But Japan can help India only based on its self-interest. It still has strong strategic ties with the US (US does not seem to be particularly happy with Abe’s power projection) which could come under strain if Abe-Xi confrontation is translated into armed confrontation. So Abe probably wants to build better strategic relations with India which has geographic advantage as a major military power on China’s land borders. India is also a naval power of reckoning (though much weakened due to mismanagement) in Indian Ocean Region where China is making strategic forays.

Is India baiting China with Japan?

Baiting is a strong word. Modi is only leveraging China’s concerns about Japan-India stategic bonding in the context of Japan’s strategic diamond concept (Japan-Australia-US-India strategic networking) though India has not positively responded to Japan so far.

Modi’s main interest now is to kick start the economy and for that he needs huge investments to improve infrastructure, and manufacturing industry.  He is leveraging his personal equation with Abe to bring Japanese investments in these sectors which have generated competitive response from China.

Modi also wants Japan’s investment to revamp defence industry to meet India’s huge defence requirements. For strategic reasons, China’s involvement in this is ruled out. Japan has investible money and technology to meet this requirement (though American patent regime can dampen them). What is the significance of Xi’s visit to India? China has greater strategic relevance than Japan as it can impact India’s strategic interests more strongly in real time. India has already embarked on the process of building win-win relations wtih China  started under Manmohan Singh’s leadership. But it had been making slow progress. Modi probably wants to ginger up this process and Xi’s visit provides an ideal opportunity for him to do so.

India faces other compulsions in the competitive relationship building process with China and Japan.

  1. India knows its strategic relations with Japan will probaly continue to be conditioned by Japan’s umbillical relations with the US. In case of any India-China confrontation, this could act as rider on Japan’s support for India (unless of course in the unlikely scenario of Japanese state also facing a Chinese threat at the same time). This limits the scope for India-Japan strategic relations to flourish.

  2. Chinese government has a bigger investible amount at its disposal through the public sector companies. So it is not surprising the Chinese are flaunting $ 100 bn to invest in India against Japan’s offer of $34 bn. As opposed to this, Japan’s investments are dominated by private players. They have been very cautious in investing in India in the past due to lack of systemic improvement. So their interest could be dampened as India’s structural and systemic reform process would take sometime to complete. And Modi needs huge investments immediately, China can probably respond faster than Japan.

  3. China has the strategic option to tweak the border issue with India at a time of its choosing (just as it is reminding India of its national interest on the subject even on the eve of Xi’s visit). India does have a similar advantage in tweaking the borders as well as the Tibetan issue. But India’s infrastructure and force levels impose greater limitations to do this. Moreover, such conduct does not conform to India’s diplomatic and leadership culture. So it suits both India and China to maintain the status quo.

  4. Lastly, China has already entered S Asia in a big way. It’s already influencing policy decisions of India’s neighbours. China is selling its Maritime Silk Road (MSR) concept to India’s neighbours. It wants India also to partner China in this endeavour. Despite MSR’s negative strategic implications for India, MSR can benefit India only if Chinese involvement in S Asia is managed properly. This is possible only if cordial relations are maintained with China.

Xi’s visit is of special significance because of the strategic convergence relations he enjoys with Modi.

Xi also has compulsions to shore up the economy which is slowing down. He needs to open up India’s huge markets for Chinese products and services to help put Chinese economy in its feet.

Col R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the South Asia Analysis Group. E-Mail: Blog:

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