At the heart of it, the visit of Shinzo Abe to New Delhi is another step in the effort by Japan, India and the United States to manage the rise of China in the Asia-Pacific region. It comes in an era when economic interdependence functions alongside inter-state competition and the global environment is characterised by fragmentation, uncertainty and danger. One characteristic of the situation is hedging— states involved are simultaneously engaging each other, even while they are also taking steps to secure themselves against the “other” or a combination of “others.”
In this era, India and Japan complement each other well. India needs
Japanese finance and technology for its economic growth. Japan, on the
other hand, knows that in terms of area, population and economic
potential, the only country in Asia that can offset the enormous pull of
China is India. With India partially countervailing China, Japan gets
some breathing space from the hostility it faces from Beijing.
Not surprisingly, some of the most significant aspects of the Abe
visit are related to security. The two sides may not have clinched their
nuclear deal, or the agreement to manufacture the US-2 amphibian
aircraft, but they have set the stage for quick movement in the area of
security. In line with Japan’s decision to permit sales of military
equipment abroad, the two sides have signed a foundational agreement on
the Transfer of Defence Equipment and Technology, as well as another
concerning Security Measures for the Protection of Classified Military
Information. Further, India has welcomed Japan as the formal third
partner of the Indo-US Malabar Exercise and has declared its intention
to press military-to-military ties across the board.
In the Indo-Pacific region, India has emerged as a swing state whose
position can strongly influence an issue. The India-Japan Joint
Statement providing unambiguous support to the US-Japan position on the
South China Sea undoubtedly puts pressure on China. It calls for “a
peaceful resolution of disputes without use or threat of use of force;
freedom of navigation and overflight and unimpeded lawful commerce in
international waters.” Of course, its call for parties “to avoid
unilateral actions that could lead to tensions in the region,” could as
much be addressed to the US as China, in view of the US Navy’s recent
Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) patrol. While India is not on
the frontline in the South China Sea issue, its position, which is in
line with countries like Vietnam, Philippines, Japan and the US cannot be ignored by Beijing.
In the past year, even while continuing to strongly defend its
position, China has sought to build bridges to regional states like
Vietnam and Japan, and the US. According to the Nikkei Asian Review,
Xi Jinping is wooing Japan. Even while cautioning Japan about
“sensitive” issues, Xi has been reaching out to Tokyo. Observers are
pointing to the short meeting Xi had with Shinzo Abe at the sidelines of
the Paris COP21 conference. According to the report, Xi spoke of
“common interests” between China and Japan and the need to deepen the
“favourable atmosphere” between them, presumably referring to the steps
taken following their first meeting at the APEC summit in Beijing in November 2014.
It is in this context that we must see the India-Japan partnership.
Both countries are hedging and both are seeking to maximise their gains,
something fairly normal in international relations. Japan and India
share an interest in shoring up ties with each other to balance off
China, but so acute is the imbalance that even to do this, they need the
United States to accomplish the task. Yet, neither New Delhi or Tokyo
will underwrite the other side’s border dispute with China, and the US
maintains a studied neutrality on the disputes. In some ways, strategic
cooperation remains limited to a lot of rhetoric and symbolic moves
which are, however, not unimportant.
A lot of it is demonstrative choreography and hedging. So, India and
Japan are creating a “Special Strategic and Global Partnership”, even
as the Sino-Indian “Strategic and Cooperative Partnership for Peace and
Prosperity,” deepens. Likewise, the US and Japan remain deeply committed
to economic ties with China. The US-China relationship may fester over
the South China Sea issue. But their military ties have improved
significantly in 2015 and so has the cooperation between the two
countries on issues like climate change and cybersecurity. In November,
the PLA hosted the first Army-to-Army dialogue with the US in Beijing
and the two countries have instituted important CBMs to manage crises.
Even in the recent sail-through by the US Navy in the South China Sea,
there seemed to be a relaxed edge with the two navies chatting to each
other and the Chinese signing off by signalling to the US destroyer,
“Hope to see you again”.
Japan and China, too, are seeking to play down their conflict and
the two countries are involved in working out ways and means to prevent
crisis escalation. Incidentally, China has surpassed South Korea to
become the largest source of foreign tourists to Japan indicating that
official dislike of Japan is not shared by the ordinary people of China.
As for India, it has become the second largest stake-holder in the
Chinese-led Asia Infrastructure Development Bank and one of the major
partners in the New Development Bank (BRICS Bank) headquartered in
Shanghai. More recently, it has been accepted into the Shanghai
Cooperation Organisation (SCO), a Chinese-led security grouping focusing
on Central Asia.
Futility of zero-sum approaches
This said, there are great advantages for India in shoring up its
ties with Japan. India needs Japanese investments, expertise and
technology to get “Make in India” to work. India must be able to become a
part of the global production networks and in relations with countries
like Japan and Taiwan are very important.
Whether the $12 billion high-speed train between Ahmedabad and Mumbai
will actually synergise India’s rail network is something that only the
future can determine. India is the largest recipient of the Japanese
Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) and this year we could expect $ 5
billion funding for a range of infrastructure projects such as the
Western Freight Corridor and the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor which
are taking shape, as well as a slew of new infrastructure projects
including metros for Chennai and Ahmedabad. An important outcome of the
Abe visit was the decision by Japan to set up a new finance facility
worth $ 12 billion to promote Japanese investment under the rubric of
“Make in India.” Japan had committed $35 billion investment in India
during Modi’s visit to Tokyo in 2014 and this has already started coming
If economic transformation of the country is the main goal of Indian
foreign policy, then developing close ties with multiple partners is in
India’s interests. India cannot become part of the global production
networks if it adopts zero-sum approaches with regard to China, Japan or
the US. After all these three countries are closely integrated markets
and to make place for itself, India needs to adopt a cooperative
approach with all of them. Yet, it is also true that to ensure a secure
periphery for itself, New Delhi has to ensure a balance of power in
relation to China in view of its border dispute and the latter’s
relationship with Pakistan. This balance can only come through
cooperation with the US and Japan. If this sounds complicated, it is.
But whoever said that living in the world of today was easy?
The Wire December 13, 2015