India, Japan and theShadow of China

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Vol 11 Issue 4 Sep- Oct 2017
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Why the common fear of China lies at the root of India and Japan coming together
Ajay Singh
Wednesday, October 11, 2017

When Prime Ministers Shinzo Abe and Narendra Modi drove through Ahmedabad in an open jeep, wearing identical clothes (including the Modi jacket which is becoming the prime fashion accessory in world capitals), the personal bonding between the two leaders was indicative of the growing closeness between the two nations. PM Abe was one of the few to be personally escorted by Modi himself, and treated as a special guest. Ironically, the last such world leader to be feted in Ahmedabad this way was Xi Jinping.

PM Abe’s two day visit highlighted the shared economic and strategic concerns of both nations. And though never clearly articulated, it is China which is the common concern. India had just resolved a nine-week stand-off at Doklam plateau, where the only nation that publicly supported it was Japan. India shares the world’s largest disputed border – 3800 kilometers  – with China. Japan too is engaged in an acrimonious dispute over the Senkaku Islands (Or Diaoyu, as the Chinese call it).

Till 2008, the Chinese did little about it, then they sent fleets of fishing boats accompanied by Coast Guard vessels in to the area and established an Air Defence Identification Zone over it – de facto claiming it as their own. The increased Chinese belligerence with both nations (including smaller ones like Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Taiwan) are indicators that the ‘Peaceful Rise’ of China is over – it is just ‘Rise’ now. And India and Japan – at the two ends of the strategic fulcrum of Asia, have to come together as natural allies to help hold their own.

The flip-flop policies of President Trump also bring India and Japan closer. While India is gradually leaning towards the USA (and in a sense bringing Russia and China together) there is a lurking feeling that the sheer unpredictability of the Trump administration would not make the USA a reliable ally. Japan is realizing this too, as are South Korea, Taiwan and NATO. The famed US ‘Pivot to Asia’ has not materialized and for all their bombast over China, the US did not seem to come out in open support over the Doklam issue or the Senkaku Islands dispute. An inward-looking USA makes it even more imperative for India and Japan to come together in their shared interests in Asia-Pacific, the Indian Ocean and Africa.

Though economic interests underpin their relationship, strategic concerns bind it. On the economic front, the laying of the Foundation of the high-speed rail line (dubbed JAI; after Japan and India) between Ahmedabad and Mumbai will put the partnership, quite literally on the fast track. To be built over 6 years at a cost of Rs 1.1 Lakh Crores the amount will be funded by Japan as a soft loan at interest rates of just .1 % per annum to be repaid over 50 years.

The two leaders also signed ten MoUs, including those to open Japanese industrial parks in India and develop infrastructure in the North Eastern states. Though most of the agreements are economic in nature they have strong strategic implications. By agreeing to help India develop infrastructure in the North East, Japan has given a fillip to its ‘Act East’ policy.  This is also in sync with Japan’s ‘Asia-Pacific Initiative’ which seeks to boost its connectivity towards South and Central Asia. The development of a corridor through India’s North Eastern states into South East Asia and then by sea towards Japan will improve connectivity not only between the two nations, but all of South East Asia. It is significant that China has condemned Japan’s proposal for investment in Arunachal Pradesh, stating that the area was under dispute, conveniently overlooking the fact that its own CPEC passes through Pak-Occupied Kashmir through an area which is very much a part of India. 

The two sides also agreed on the Asia- Africa growth corridor to create linkages and boost development in Africa. This will also boost infrastructure and projects in Africa and help balance out the growing Chinese presence there (including their recently developed port at Djibouti). The proposed ‘Growth Corridors’ from India to Japan via South East Asia and from Japan to Africa via India will help both India and Japan to enhance their influence in Asia –Africa. It is obvious that the strategic arc which both nations are looking at extends from the Pacific, Japan, South East and South Asia, the Indian Ocean rim and on to Africa – the same arc that China hopes to cultivate.   

Both nations in their joint statement explicitly named the Lashkar-e-Toiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammed as terrorist organizations. This was a significant diplomatic success for India after it got China to agree to the same in the BRICS Declaration just a month ago. This helps further our policy of diplomatically isolating Pakistan. The two nations also expressed concern over North Korea’s nuclear and missile program and its threats to ‘sink Japan into the sea’. Yet, even as the joint statement was being issued, North Korea was firing an ICBM that overflew Japan. Japan’s concerns over the North Korean crisis are shared by India. The two sides also condemned ‘the backward linkages to the program’ – an oblique reference to China and Pakistan that have helped nurture and develop North Korea’s nuclear and missile capability. Yet while condemning nuclear proliferation, Japan has clearly endorsed India’s membership for the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the Wassenaar Arrangement and the Australia Group – irrespective of China’s efforts to block our entry into the nuclear club. As rising powers in the new world order, both sides should now work towards an enhanced United Nations Security Council which will include India, Japan, Germany and Brazil in what will be an apt reflection of their status.

In the strategic triangle of Asia, it is China, India and Japan that are the prime movers. Both economically and militarily, China is leagues ahead and its rising power can only be balanced by other nations coming together. The common fear of China brings not only India and Japan together but also many of the smaller powers who will be drawn towards an India-Japan alliance that provides an alternate power center. Concurrent with developing linkages with each other, India and Japan should also develop the Asean Regional Forum and the East Asia Summit to develop a strong regional security framework that can address the shared security concerns of the region.

The Indo-Japanese bonhomie is not viewed with wariness by Beijing, unlike the perceived Indo-US closeness which has brought China-Russia and Pakistan closer together. In terms of long term strategic and economic benefits it is possibly India’s most important relationship.  Yet, this must not detract us from developing our own relations with China and developing a constructive engagement with it, just as Japan develops its own equations with China. The three powers of Asia have to grow in tandem and the friction that exists between India-China and China-Japan has to be smoothened out. Countering China can only be done from a position of strength, and the Indo-Japanese relationship provides that power. It provides both nations with the synergy to counter the rising shadow of China, and helps balance its rising dominance in the region.