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Will India go whole hog to play the balance of power in Asia?

There are speculations that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s trip to Japan was a tit for tat to Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to Pakistan. However, the fact is that Manmohan Singh could not visit Japan in November 2012 owing to parliamentary elections in Japan.

There are speculations in China that a third day was added to Singh’s Japan visit in the backdrop of border ‘face off’ between India and China to demonstrate that there are converging strategic interests in the relationship. Though China understands that India’s reaching out to Japan is part of India’s ‘Look East’ policy, however, China sees India’s diplomatic expansion in East and Northeast Asia, especially the forging of strategic relationship between Vietnam, Japan, and South Korea essentially as ‘containment’ of China. It also sees India and above mentioned countries along with the US working in tandem and extending a helping hand to the US’s ‘pivot’ to Asia. India’s oil explorations in the South China Sea are also viewed as India conniving with Vietnam and undermining its sovereignty in the region though India has long made it clear that its presence in the region is primarily commercial in nature and also owing to the energy security needs.

Notwithstanding the language of the joint statement issued at the close of Li Keqiang’s India visit that envisages that both India and China ‘view each other as partners for mutual benefit and not as rivals or competitors, and also that the ‘two sides are committed to taking a positive view of and support each other’s friendship with other countries’ it was China who was first to raise eyebrows about India’s relationship with Japan (emphasis added) albeit India has been expressing its concern over the ‘all weather’ friendship between China and Pakistan every now and then. The Chinese apprehensions, rather paranoia over India-Japan bonhomie is visible in the Chinese print media. Some articles with headlines such as “India gets close to Japan on its own peril” by Global times, a sister paper of CPC’s People’s Daily known for its nationalistic fervors; “Warming of India-Japan relation is to compete with China” by Cankao Xiaoxi; “Enemy’s enemy is my friend” by; People’s Daily cautioning New Delhi against ‘petty burglars’ and ‘provocateurs’ among Japanese politicians who were out to target Sino-Indian ties and scores of other articles reflects the Chinese state of mind.

China is aware of the fact that the global political architecture is undergoing a fundamental transformation with power increasingly shifting from the West to East, and also that the 21st Century is going to be an Asian Century. It is also aware of the fact that the future of this century hinges on the relationship between India, China, Japan and also the US. Therefore, as the centre of gravity shifts from the Atlantic to the Pacific, all above stakeholders are calibrating their strategies in the Pacific. Shinzo Abe’s ‘Democratic Security Diamond’ between India, Japan, Australia and the US has also been seen as the one directed against China. China has warned the US that the latter needs to be cautious in its approach as regards China’s core interests in the region. As far as US’s commitment to support Japan in case of military conflict, under the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security Between Japan and the United is concerned, China wishes that the US must recognize that the treaty is a product of the Cold War, and has no relevance under present circumstances. In a veiled warning to the US, it has stated that the comprehensive national strength of China has increased manifolds since then, therefore the US should not be burning its fingers by taking the Japanese chestnuts out of the fire.

India-Japan relationship though multifaceted having huge potentials in trade and investment and defense and security, but is nascent, especially in the realm of security cooperation. For example the bilateral trade between India and Japan stands just at $14 billion. This is abysmal if compared with India’s $70 billion trade with China, and China’s $300 billion plus trade with Japan. It is generally believed that India and Japan have been slow in building the strategic partnership; if one analyses the trend, we can say that it was only since 2008 that the direct investment from Japan started to register an increase. It was $5.5 billion in 2008 and reached $13.5 billion in 2010. Secondly, the Official Development Assistance (ODA) from Japan to India has been impressive, especially after 2003 when Japan stopped its ODA to China. The ODA in India has been utilized in areas such as infrastructural development, poverty alleviation programs, sanitation and environmental protection etc.

As far as defense and security relations are concerned, these have undergone tremendous changes ever since October 2008 when India and Japan signed a Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation. With the establishment of ‘India-Japan Strategic and Global Partnership’ and the practice of annual summits at the highest level since December 2006, India-Japan relations have witnessed all round growth. During Manmohan Singh’s recent Japan visit between May 27 and 30, 2013 the news of Japan showing interest in selling US-2 amphibious planes found a wide coverage in Chinese as well as Indian media. Lü Yaodong, a researcher at the Institute of Japanese Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, suggested that it would mark a strengthening of the alliance between Japan and India in terms of defense and military cooperation, and that Japan is trying to take advantage of the border conflicts between India and China and to contain the latter with the possible sale. China has been keeping a close eye on India-Japan naval exercises, Han Xudong, professor at the National Defense University, Beijing wrote an article saying that the ‘the dagger of India-Japan military exercises was pointed towards China.’ A new dialogue for discussing maritime affairs, including maritime security challenges have equally invited the ire of Chinese strategists and scholarship alike. India’s intervention in the South-China Sea has been looked by China time and again through the prism of ‘containment theory’ notwithstanding the fact that India, Japan, the Republic of Korea and China coordinate escort schedules for merchant ships as well as the anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. China is also aware that India and Japan are keen to expand the dialogue on civil nuclear cooperation, India has shown interest in reactors vessels produced by Japan Steel, however, India is also aware of the Japanese sensitivities on nuclear front, especially after the Fukushima disaster in 2011.

The relations between China and Japan have deteriorated to nadir in recent times, especially in the backdrop of Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute. Analysts have often pointed to the economic benefits and the strategic location of the island. Both would like to extract the huge reserves of minerals, oil and natural gas from underneath the islands, as a 1969 UN reports has indicated that there are huge reserves of oil and gas in the area. It was also after the report went public that the voices of sovereignty have been louder in both the countries. Secondly, since Japan has been fishing in these waters since 1895, it does not want to let the benefits go over to China. As far as strategic position is concerned, if the Japanese retain the Islands, it can set up air and sea surveillance reconnaissance systems, shore-based anti-ship-to-air missiles on the island. By doing so, it could put a blockade to all the ports and air routes emanating from northern Taiwan, and also put areas such as Fuzhou, Wenzhou and Ningbo in mainland China under its radar. China would be very apprehensive of every move of the Japanese it decides to do so. Therefore, the establishment of the military bases and the deployment of heavy weaponry on the island will pose a serious threat to China’s national defense and security, argues China. It is this rivalry and historic animosities that China keeps on reminding its people about the Japanese aggression. For example, on the occasion of the 81 anniversary of the Japanese invasion of northeast China on September 18, 2012, the History Museum in Shenyang, Liaoning Province, which has been built specially to remember the anti-Japanese conflict (1931-45), rang a bell 14 times that signified the 14 year agony and disgrace China suffered at the hands of Japanese. Anti-Japanese demonstrations and protests ‘erupted’ across major Chinese cities, forcing the shutdown of many Japanese businesses. China has also accused India of taking advantage of its troubles with Japan and forging closer ties with the latter.

There is a constituency in India that posits that given the growing disparity in India-China power structure, India needs to forge close ties with the US, Japan, Vietnam, South Korea and Indonesia etc. countries so as to prevent China in gaining regional hegemony. They hold the view that Nehru committed mistake when he viewed the surge of communism in China as resurgence of the Asian nationalism in late 1940s; and warns that Indian leadership must not repeat the same mistake, as power is necessary expansionist. It appears that India has taken a leaf out of China’s strategies in the region and moved closer to Japan. While leaving for Japan, the Indian Prime Minister did tell the Japanese media in New Delhi that “Both India and Japan are important maritime nations. Therefore, safety and security of the sea lanes of communication, especially in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, is vital for both countries.” The pragmatists including Harsh Pant argues that it is irrelevant to debate whether China is a malevolent or benevolent power; they advocate that India must realize that it is the structure of the global politics that makes Sino-Indian rivalry inevitable, and India’s choice is either to play by the rules of global politics or resign to a secondary status in global hierarchy. Therefore, India must start to play the balance of power game more seriously, and should learn it from China, especially given the asymmetrical relationship between the two. Has India started to play the balance of power game, it seems doing so cautiously, but will it go whole hog, one has to wait and watch.

(Courtesy: South Asia Analysis Group, New Delhi.The writer, Mr B R Deepak is Professor of Chinese and China Studies at the Centre of Chinese and Southeast Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. The views are his ) Tags:

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