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India-Japan Bonhomie: Chinese Perceptions

The structure of the international relations system has undergone changes ever since the end of the cold war in late eighties and the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack. What has not changed is the main influence coming from the ‘convergence of interests’ on the making of foreign policies by nations. Coming out true is the prophecy of one of the earliest Indian strategic thinkers, Kautilaya that ‘convergence of interests’ is the only permanent factor in shaping relations between states and other similarities like religion, ethnicity, languages etc. are secondary. To illustrate the point, at the time of Soviet Union’s intervention in Afghanistan in 1979, the ‘socialist’ China did not support the former, a fraternal nation though ideologically differing; it instead supported the ‘capitalist’ alliance led by the US Evident had been the congruence in the thinking of China and the US on the Soviet role in Afghanistan. A second case involves the roles on the Afghanistan issue of Iran and the Afghan Taliban. Iran, though having common Islamic belief with the Taliban, chose to oppose the Taliban regime in Afghanistan (1996-2001) by supporting the Northern Alliance along with Russia, India and the Central Asian Republics.

Many thinkers have predicted that the 21st century will be an Asian century and in terms of balance of power, Asia will dominate the global picture. But the prevailing disunity among Asian powers in the current stage belies such expectations; undoubtedly, responsible for this is the algebra of existing divergences between powers involved – those between China and India, China and Japan, China and ASEAN, China and South Korea etc. foremost, is the varying regional and world visions of the regional countries. Firstly, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) wants to become the only pole in Asia, but accepts emergence of multi-polarity at global levels. Japan and India, on the other hand, stand for a multiple power structure at both regional and global levels. Tokyo’s position in this regard is being reflected in its promotion of a concept aimed at setting up of a ‘democratic security diamond’ in Asia ; as Prime Minister Abe puts it, the concept envisages acting together by Australia, India, Japan and the US in safeguarding maritime commons from the Indian Ocean to Western Pacific nations . On its part, India is taking measures to upgrade its presence in almost every Asian platform and deepen convergences with all regional powers including China. As next point, Japan’s historical ‘militarist’ role has always been challenging other East Asian nations, especially China. Since centuries, that country remained as only Asian imperial power. During the 1868-1912 Meiji eras, it became the first Asian nation to modernize. Japan was also the first Asian country to emerge as a world power, defeating Manchu ruled China and Czarist Russia in separate wars. It was the only country beyond Europe to participate in the Second World war. After its crushing defeat in that War, Japan rose from the ashes rapidly to become Asia’s first global economic powerhouse and till date despite many odds remains as third largest global economy.

India and Japan share many common values based on philosophy and religion, Buddhism in particular. Rabindra Nath Tagore, India’s first Nobel Prize winner for Literature visited Japan when he focused on convergences between the two countries and stressed on deepening of bilateral cooperation; Prime Minister Nehru’s visits to Japan in 1950s were major events but the impact of the cold war animosity still continued to be felt in ties between two nations. For a forward movement, one had to wait till the ushering in of Prime Minister Narsimha Rao era in India (1991-1996). Mr Rao was the first Indian Prime Minister to reformulate the country’s foreign policy priorities in accordance with the changes in international relations anticipated by him. The “Look East” Policy launched by him in 1992 brought Japan into India’s foreign policy radar. Tokyo warmly reciprocated New Delhi’s initiative. The Look East policy also led to India’s membership in several regional platforms and cementing of ties with ASEAN nations. A major hurdle in India-Japan ties appeared in 1998; Japan imposed sanctions on India in protest to the latter’s conducting nuclear tests.

In recent years, both India and Japan have taken several steps to rebuild mutual trust; confirming the trend is the ongoing mutual exchanges of high level visits – Prime Minister Mori to India (August 2000), Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Japan (2006 and 2013), Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to India (2007 and 2014), Prime Minister, Mr. Yoshihiko Noda to India (2011) and Japanese Emperor and Empress to India (2013). Signifying the depth in policy coordination reached by the two sides are the steadily progressing bilateral exchanges at various levels – the Annual Summit, Ministerial-level annual dialogues and exchanges particularly the Foreign Ministers’ Strategic Dialogue and the Ministerial Level Economic Dialogue and 2 plus 2 talks ( between foreign and defence ministers of each side). Particularly notable in this regard are the signing of a Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation between the two, holding of Indian Navy- Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force bilateral joint exercises, India’s invitation to Japan to participate in India-US Milan naval exercises aimed at securing sea lanes of communication within Indian Ocean and Japan’s agreeing to make US-2 amphibian aircraft available to India. Undeniable also is the economic significance of Japan’s project assistance to India with respect to the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor Project and the Dedicated Freight Corridor West Project, and the new Chennai- Bengaluru Industrial Corridor Project. In 2011, bilateral trade between the two countries reached $17.7 billion. It is expected that this figure will increase further following the India-Japan Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA), which came into force on 1 August, 2011.

Is China factor behind the emerging close strategic ties between Japan and India? As far as Japan is concerned, it can be said without hesitation that in Tokyo’s strategic view, a rising and assertive China intends to turn the Asian balance of power in its favour, which needs counter balancing by allying with the US and regional allies like India. Illustrating this point have been the contents of Abe’s Democratic Security Diamond concept which mentions India. Of particular interest is a statement made by Japanese Defence Minister (New Delhi, 9 January 2014) that both ‘Tokyo and New Delhi should ask for a dialogue with China not to change the status quo in the region by force’. Another motivating factor for Japan, may lie in the necessity being increasingly felt by it for moving away from a line of overdependence on China in the fields of economy and trade and reaching other rising economies like India and establishing connectivity with regional powers like India.

Taking India’s case, it has valid reasons to be a ‘strategic partner’ of Japan. In particular, it seems to consider Japanese economic aid as key to the country’s modernization, but India has a different strategic view when it comes to relations with China. New Delhi thinks that it should not be seen ganging up with other nations like Japan against China and that India-China ties have their own dynamics which should be insulated from effects of regional rivalries like that between Japan and China. It is therefore not a surprise that with regard to regional maritime security, the Indian leaders, aware of China’s sensitivities, lacked enthusiasm in extending the existing bilateral maritime cooperation with Japan to a multilateral arrangement (Dr Manmohan Singh, Tokyo, May 2013).

How China Views India-Japan Bonhomie? China’s official stand on the deepening New Delhi-Tokyo strategic ties has so far been cautious, avoiding criticism of any of the sides. Providing an example are the remarks (Beijing, 27 January 2014) made, without any comment, by the PRC Foreign Ministry spokesperson that the Prime Minister Abe’s visit to India in January 2014 is a ‘bilateral issue’ between India and Japan. This being so, an analysis of what are appearing in the party and state media organs, seems to be the only way to understand the evolving Chinese perceptions on the subject . First to catch attention was the indication of China’s concerns over the close relations between India and Japan , available in an authoritative write-up ( Global Times, 30 May 2013) which accused Japan of “ attempting to forge alliances with India and other neighbors to encircle China” ; that was followed by a another comment in the same daily next day which said that “given the long-lasting Diaoyu Islands dispute and China-India border confrontation, there may be some tacit understanding in strategic cooperation between India and Japan and that India could get close to Tokyo at its own peril” . A third notable Chinese assessment ( Global Times, 27 January 2014) acknowledged the utility for Japan of India a country with a huge market and development prospects , but pointed out that ‘in terms of politics and security , Japan may find cooperation with India useful to serve the purpose of restraining China”. It added that “India’s main purpose is to obtain practical interests from Japan”.

One can see two pointers in the treatment of the developing India-Japan ties in China’s media, are: Beijing does not rule out an India -Japan tacit understanding on how to deal with China; it is suspicious of Japan making attempts to rope in India to encircle China, while not being so sure at the moment about India’s willingness to join Japan on this count. The following summing up of the scenario by the Indian security analyst Raja Mohan looks apt- “For nearly four decades, Japan and China have had closer relations with each other than with India. As they clash today, both attach considerable value to their relationship with India, which has the potential to alter larger Asian context. Rising China’s interest is essentially a negative one, to keep the relationship with India tranquil as it confronts Japan in the east. Tokyo’s interest is positive, as it seeks to build a strong strategic partnership with Delhi to balance an increasingly assertive Beijing”

(The writer, Dr Sudhir Singh, teaches at Dyal Singh College, University of Delhi. Views expressed are his own.

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