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India, Japan and China

As appeared in

(Talk delivered on April 27, 2007, at a symposium organised by the Indo-Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Chennai, on Regional Security concerns of Japan and India )

At a meeting organised by the Indo-Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Chennai, on June 10, 2005, I had spoken on Indo-Japanese relations in the wake of the visit of the then Japanese Prime Minister Mr. Junichiro Koizumi, to New Delhi for talks with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and other Indian leaders in the last week of April, 2005. I had pointed out that in the interviews given before the visit, Mr.Koizumi did not characterise the emerging relationship between India and Japan as a strategic partnership. However, he spoke of a convergence of strategic interests. He said: “Japan and India need each other as strong, prosperous and dynamic partners.” He described the objective of his visit as “to reinforce the Japan-India ties with a new strategic orientation in a new Asian era.”

2. A joint statement issued at the end of the visit on April 30, 2005, spoke of the commitment of the two countries “to a high level strategic dialogue.” The dialogue would seek to boost economic, security, energy and other co-operation. It said: ” A strong, prosperous and dynamic India is in the interest of Japan and vice versa. …As partners in the new Asian era and as nations sharing common values and principles, Japan and India will expand their traditional bilateral co-operation to co-operation in Asia and beyond.”

3. Before the visit of Mr. Koizumi to New Delhi, Shri Pranab Mukherjee, the then Indian Defence Minister, had referred to India’s relations with China and Japan in his address to an Asian Security Conference at New Delhi on January 29, 2005. He said: ” With China today, we share more common interests and areas of agreement, than differences, including a shared commitment to a multipolar world. Our security ties have undergone a change, with resumption of military ties signified by joint exercises, bilateral visits and sharing of information on military matters of joint interest. By institutionalising the Sino-Indian dialogue at a political level, with regular exchanges between designated interlocutors, the territorial and boundary differences between our two countries are being addressed purposefully. Similarly, Indo-Japan relations, which plummeted after India’s 1998 nuclear tests, are now positive and robust. Despite the geographical distance between the two, there is a growing acceptance that India and Japan share a certain affinity on a number of issues. India and Japan have a convergence on energy issues and have joint concerns about the security of sea-lines of communications and vital choke points in the Indian Ocean. We also share similar concerns about WMD proliferation. Concerns about WMD terrorism are also equally shared. India and Japan also have views about the restructuring of the UN and the Security Council in particular.”

4. In my assessment after analysing these developments, I had said: ” Security-related issues are only now emerging as a component of Indo-Japanese relations. The present focus has been on the need for co-operation against maritime piracy, which is a reality, and maritime terrorism, which is a possibility. The threat perceptions of the two countries relating to maritime terrorism are unlikely to be identical. The possibility of threats in the choke-points of the Gulf area would be of equal concern to the economies of India, Japan and China, but threats in the choke-points of South-East Asia would be of greater concern to Japan and China than to India. Despite this, the Indian Navy seems to be keen to play an active role in South-East Asia. Opportunities for such a role in the Gulf are limited because of the heavy US presence there and the likely concerns of the countries of the Gulf area over the reactions of Pakistan to an enhanced role for the Indian Navy. The littoral States of the Malacca Strait such as Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia would be more comfortable with an Indian role in ensuring maritime security against pirates and terrorists than an American or a Japanese or a Chinese role. The US and Japanese navies would prefer a participatory role for themselves, but if there is resistance to this, they would be comfortable with an Indian role. The Chinese are opposed to an American or a Japanese role, but their attitude to a possible Indian role is unclear. Anyhow, it would not be advisable for the Indian Navy to get involved in the actual patrolling of the Malacca Strait even in the unlikely event of being invited by the littoral states to do so.It should confine its co-operation to exchange of intelligence, provision of training facilities and joint anti-piracy and anti-terrorism exercises with the navies of South-East Asia. After the visit of Koizumi to New Delhi, there has been a talk of similar anti-piracy and anti-terrorism c-operation between the Coast Guards of India and Japan. China is and would continue to be an inhibiting factor in the development of the full potential of the bilateral relations between India and Japan in the security-related fields. It is interesting to note that in his speech of January 29, 2005, Shri Mukherjee highlighted the developing military-to-military relationship between India and China, but refrained from commenting on the possibility and desirability of similar relationship with the Japanese Armed Forces. Any attempt to give a higher importance to security-related Indian co-operation with Japan is likely to be inhibited by concerns over its likely negative impact on the developing Sino-Indian relations, which are more multi-dimensional than the Indo-Japanese relations.”

5. Since my assessment of Mr. Koizumi’s visit, there have been four important developments having a bearing on the triangular relationship involving India, Japan and China. The first was the surprise and significant visit of Mr. Shinzo Abe, who succeeded Mr. Koizumi as the Japanese Prime Minister, to China in October, 2006. Generally, the convention has been that a new Japanese Prime Minister visits the US first, underlying the importance attached by him to Japan’s strategic relations with the US. Mr. Abe broke this convention and went to China first. The second was the visit of President Hu Jintao of China to India from November 20 to 23, 2006. The third was the visit of Dr. Manmohan Singh to Japan from December 13 to 16, 2006. The fourth was the recent visit of Mr. Wen Jiabo, the Chinese Prime Minister, to Japan in the second week of this month. Since the visit of Mr. Zhu Rongji, the then Chinese Prime Minister, to Japan in 2000, there had been no visit to Japan by either the Chinese President or the Prime Minister.

6. A qualitative change in the perceptions of both Indian and Japanese leaders with regard to bilateral relations became evident during the visit of Dr. Manmohan Singh to Japan. Before Dr. Manmohan Singh became the Prime Minister in May, 2004, there used to be a talk of a strategic triangular relationship involving India, Japan and China. The debate on this idea was, in fact, initiated by the then Japanese Ambassador to India, Mr. Yasukuni Enoki, who was reported by sections of the media as saying that a China-Japan-India trilateral relationship would be conducive to regional stability and prosperity. He was also quoted as claiming that India and Japan had held informal discussions on the subject, but this idea had not been formally put to China.

7. While the Chinese authorities refrained from commenting on this idea, it evoked interest in some sections of the Chinese academic circles. In an article contributed to the Government-controlled “People’s Daily” on April 30, 2004, Mr. Feng Zhaokui, Research Fellow at the Japan Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said: “Among China, Japan and India there shouldn’t be the kind of thinking of “pulling another over to one’s side so as to contain the other” or joining hands with a superpower in regions outside Asia to contain or even encircle one of the three countries. China, Japan and India each lay great emphasis on the importance of relations with the United States. In the meantime, they should attach great importance to the mutual relations with one another rather than letting oneself become a pawn of a superpower outside Asia in containing one of the countries within the region. This is of particular importance in the case of Japan-US military alliance that shouldn’t have the intent of targeting China. China, Japan and India each pay attention to developing relations with ASEAN; all want to establish a free trade area with ASEAN. In dealing with the relations with ASEAN, the three countries should build up a virtuous and healthy competitive relationship while at the same time enhance and strengthen their sense of urgency in cooperation among China, Japan and India.”

8. This qualitative change in Indian and Japanese perceptions became evident even before Dr. Manmohan Singh went to Japan. It became evident after his visit to the US in July, 2005, when India and the US signed an agreement on co-operation in the field of civilian nuclear energy. This agreement was projected as a great diplomatic triumph for India and Dr. Manmohan Singh. Subsequent developments have shown that India has had to pay a price—-which is not openly admitted by New Delhi, but is very evident— for this agreement. The price was keep away from Iran and get closer to Japan. The first evidence of this was the Indian vote against Iran on the nuclear issue in the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, which has already created difficulties in the implementation of the long-term contract between Iran and India for the supply of liquified natural gas to India. The second was the sudden Indian silence on any idea of a triangular relationship with China and Japan and the Indian interest in a quandrangular relationship involving India, Japan, the US and Australia.

9. Writing on the significance of Dr. Singh’s policy change vis-a-vis Japan, I wrote in an article titled “INDIA & JAPAN: DEMOCRACY AS A STRATEGIC WEAPON” : “The visit of Dr. Manmohan Singh to Japan evoked as much interest in China as it did in India. The interest in China was marked by ill-concealed concern that there was more than meets the eye in the developing political and strategic relationship between India and Japan. The Chinese tend to see an American nudge behind the sustained attempts to bring India and Japan closer together. The Chinese do not see it as a natural corollary of India’s Look East Policy. Instead, they see in it the thin end of the wedge in what they apprehend as an American attempt to contain China. Even before Dr. Singh had embarked on his visit to Japan, his interview to the Japanese daily “Yomiuri Shimbun” (December 5, 2006) caught the attention of China’s India-Japan watchers —particularly for two reasons. The first was the subtle differentiation in Dr. Singh’s characterisation of India’s relations with Japan on the one side and with China on the other. He characterised India and Japan as “the largest and the most developed democracies in Asia, which share a strong commitment to freedom, the rule of law and respect for human rights.” As against this, he characterised India and China as “the two largest developing countries” of Asia and added: ” My own view is that the world is large enough to accommodate the development ambitions of both countries. And, therefore, there is immense scope for us to cooperate with one another.” The second reason is what Dr. Singh had to say about Mr. Abe’s reported proposal for a new four-way framework for strategic dialogue involving Japan, India, Australia and the US. He said: ” Our bilateral relations (between India and Japan) are rooted in similar perceptions about the evolving environment in our region….. I wish to use my forthcoming visit to Japan to gain a better understanding about Prime Minister Abe’s idea of closer cooperation among major democracies in the region.”

10. Concerns over the implications of this idea of a quandrangular relationship among major democracies—though not openly expressed— have been an important factor influencing Chinese thinking in recent months. The further strengthening of the Chinese strategic presence in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar is intended to keep India confined to the South Asian strategic box and to prevent its emergence as a major Asian power in the strategic sense on par with China and Japan. The Chinese have no difficulty in accepting India as a natural leader of South Asia—- though, even here, they are trying to have India’s role and capability limited by increasing their own South Asian presence and through their recently-acquired observer status in the SAARC. This observer status is only the beginning of a larger ambition. On the margins of the recently-held SAARC summit in New Delhi, we saw Nepal projecting China as a South Asian power, which deserves to have the full membership of the organisation.

11. How does the Chinese leadership look upon India and Japan? In an article in the “Asian Age” (“Deccan Chronicle”) of April 24, 2007, Shri K.Natwar Singh, India’s former External Affair Minister, said: ” In Tokyo, he (Mr. Wen) made two vital points. Good relations between China and Japan are of importance not only to the two countries, but have wider and deeper ramifications. More importantly, this is what he said about the significance of his passage to Japan: “This is the most important task since I took office.” He put China-Japan relations several notches above Sino-Indian relations.”

12.How Beijing views its comparative relations with Japan and India also became apparent from what Mr.Wen said and refrained from saying during his visit to Japan. Speaking at the dinner hosted in his honour by the Japanese Prime Minister, Mr. Wen said: “Japan and China are at the crossroads where we must inherit the past while opening up the future. The two countries are important on the world stage, and are partners who must lead Asia.”

13. He thus projected China and Japan as world players, who must jointly lead Asia. In China’s perception, India does not figure in that world power league. Nor does it have a role as a leader of Asia. During Mr. Wen’s flight back to Beijing,the then Chinese Foreign Minister, Mr. Li Zhaoxing, who had accompanied Mr. Wen briefed the Chinese journalists on the significance of the visit. In a despatch of April 15, 2007, the official Xinhua news agency reported him as saying, inter alia, as follows: “The improvement and progress of China-Japan relations benefits not only the two countries but also the entire world. China and Japan should become partners conducting mutually beneficial cooperation and striving for common development, joining hands to rejuvenate Asia and keeping committed to world peace, stability and development. He stressed that both sides should master the direction of bilateral ties from a strategic height and long-term perspective, enhance political mutual trust, deepen mutually beneficial cooperation, strengthen defense and security dialogue and exchanges and promote cultural exchanges. He indicated hope that Japan could properly handle such major and sensitive questions as the historical issue and the Taiwan question.”

14. In the Chinese perception, a joint partnership with Japan in leading Asia would not evoke any concerns in Asia, but a similar joint partnership with India would evoke the concerns of its South Asian neighbours, particularly Pakistan. Strengthening bilateral strategic ties with India, yes—- but no joint leadership in Asia. The continuing reluctance of Beijing to accept India on par with China and its policy of conceding to India an important role, but some notches below China and Japan would come in the way of India’s quest for a leadership role in Asia.

15. The policies of India, China and Japan will continue to be marked by a mix of healthy co-operation in some fields and unhealthy competition in some others and convergence of threat perceptions in some areas and divergence in certain others. They have shared concerns regarding likely threats from non-State actors such as pirates and terrorists. They also have shared views on issues such as climate warming and protection of the environment. All three have high-growth economies dependent on hydrocarbon imports to keep their economies sustained. Despite their professed intention to avoid unhealthy competition in meeting their energy requirements, such competition will be a fact of life. Myanmar’s gas is an example. Initially, India and China were competing for this, but, now, Japan has joined it. By reportedly offering a price higher than what has been offered by India, a Japanese company has been trying to under-cut the Indian bid.

16. The divergence of threat perceptions is also quite evident. India is not concerned over North Korea’s military nuclear ambitions to the same extent as Japan. Tokyo is not concerned over Pakistan’s nuclear, missile and now space relationship with China to the same extent as New Delhi. China’s assistance to Pakistan in the construction of the Gwadar port, to Sri Lanka in the construction of the Hambantota port and to Myanmar in the construction of the Kyaukpyu port in the Arakan does not evoke the same concerns in Japan as they do in India.

17. India and Japan have parallel—but not shared— concerns over China’s military modernisation. Its modernisation of its Air Force and Navy is viewed with particular concern. Another concern of recent origin is China’s acquisition of an anti-satellite capability even while professing a policy of opposing the militarisation of space. The US has been deftly trying to have these parallel concerns transformed into shared concerns in order to nudge India into joining a quandrangular strategic relationship with Japan, Australia and the US. India should avoid this trap. India has many issues of concern with regard to China. It has many reasons for disappointment with regard to Japan in matters like the sluggish growth of economic co-operation and Tokyo’s reported reluctance to support India at the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group. The answers to these bilateral issues—whether of concern or of disappointment—should be found within a bilateral framework or through regional frameworks such as the ASEAN and the ASEAN Regional Forum of which India is a member and not through new multilateral frameworks back-seat driven by the US.

(The writer, Mr.B.Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies. E-mail:

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