By Bhaskar Roy*
The recent official visit (Dec. 11 – 13, 2015) of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to India and the 44-paragraph “Joint Statement on India and Japan Vision 2025” signed by Mr. Abe and Prime Minister Narendra Modi is not only a watershed in India-Japan relations but also an affirmation of a new narrative that joins the Indian Ocean region with the Asia Pacific region at the hip.
Since the end of the cold war, the global powers that be, the western coalition, focussed on the development of the Asia Pacific region while excluding the Indian Ocean region. The Asia Pacific region was designated as the region of the 21st Century. There was rapid growth of the People’s Republic of China in view of its cheap labour and vast potential market and China was also promoted as a great wall against the Soviet Union. The miscalculation of this strategy is now unravelling. The preeminent position of the US in the region is now being challenged by China.
There was no dearth of efforts by some countries of this region and outside the region to keep India boxed in South Asia, and forming an array of countries in the Indian subcontinent to keep nibbling at India. Taking advantage of Pakistan’s visceral anti-Indianism, China not only provided Islamabad its military hardware backbone, but also made Pakistan a standalone nuclear weapons power. Pakistan’s first atomic bomb was tested in China’s Taklamakan nuclear weapons test site.
The US was very well aware of Pakistan’s clandestine nuclear programme, but decided to keep quiet. When China supplied Pakistan nuclear capable M-11 missile in 1991, the US had smoking gun evidence. But the President of the US refused to make a “determination”.
That India was in a nuclear neighbourhood was not considered by the powerful international players when India tested its nuclear weapons in May, 1998. India was then pilloried and put in the dog house. If Pakistan had not tested its own nuclear weapons the same month, India would have been in a worse situation. Even now, when Pakistan has officially admitted having deployed tactical nuclear weapons along its borders with India, there has hardly been a murmur among the nuclear weapons countries and their followers. It is well known that this deployment by Pakistan is to dissuade India from attacking terrorist targets in Pakistan in case of a major terrorist strike, like the Mumbai attack, which took place from Pakistan’s soil.
While some things remain the same, somethings are certainly changing. India is a country to reckon with, and geopolitical power distribution has been shifting. To put it briefly, there have been tectonic shifts, especially since 2012.
The Indian government’s endeavour is to accelerate the country’s development. Its growth rate is likely to be the highest this year. This joint statement issued with Mr. Abe envisions strengthening some of the weak areas, the major emphasis being on infrastructure. The Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train with Japanese assistance is an ambitious project. But it is a small and important platform for future modernization of the Indian railways. Development depends on transport and communications. True, China also bid for this but the Japanese won it fair and square. There was some heart burning in China as per reports in the Chinese official media, raising the possibility of India-Japan cooperation to corner China. They make no mention that the Chinese won the Indonesian high speed railway project beating the Japanese bid. China’s policy of grab-all goes against the policy of fair competition.
They have been progress in flagship projects like the Western Dedicated Freight Corridor (DFC), reaffirmed the determination to expedite the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DMIC), the Chennai-Bengaluru Industrial Corridor (CBIC) among other projects, using ODA loans and other facility measures. There are other major projects on the anvil to help ‘make in India’ vision a real success. There are 1200 Japanese companies working in India, and the number is poised to increase.
India’s development agenda including ‘make in India’ need to be seen as the prime 21st century project. Of course, these were in existence from the time India became independent. With a weak India and a bipolar world, New Delhi followed a non-aligned position and executed an independent foreign policy. While these have not be discarded there has been some reengineering to suit the need global situation. Potential investors in India must understand that while Mr. Modi has not excluded any country, India is not up for strategic sale.
Mr. Modi has reached out to all, including China. Presence of Chinese companies in India is growing. Benefit of doubt has been given to Chinese information technology companies like Huawei Technologies and ZTE which have a questionable track record in other parts of the world. By this gesture ‘mutual trust’ has been emphasized by New Delhi. Reciprocation is naturally expected. And, countries which built excess industrial capacity chasing economic power, cannot expect a free way to unload this capacity in India at will.
India and Japan have arrived at a point of congruence of political, economic and strategic interests. The security and stability of the India-Pacific region has emerged as a high point because of the developments of the last few years. The South China Sea maritime lanes have been threatened, military skirmishes have taken place and islands are being created with military installations on them. Dislocation of shipping in this corridor would be economically disastrous for countries of the region, countries like Japan, South Korea and India among other countries. China claims the South China Sea in its entirety, based on highly questionable grounds. It has refused to go to the UN Conference on Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) to which it is a signatory, and even threatened the Philippines obliquely for having taken the issue to the UNCLOS.
China has been repeatedly assuring the international community that it will never obstruct international shipping in the South China Sea. On the other hand it has been pushing the US and the international community from 2008 to accept that the South China is its “core interest”. In China’s political, diplomatic and strategic lexicon “core interest” includes the Communist Party, Tibet and Xinjiang. It means, China is ready to use the military option to protect its core interests. This is a dangerous option since the South China Sea is claimed severally by five countries. This is gun powder keg and there is no visible guarantee that the situation will not change,
Policies change according to situation and history is dotted by such incidents. For example, Beijing had informed the world that the Ukranian aircraft carrier “Varyag” it acquired was for an entertainment platform. Now, the “Varyag” has been converted to ‘Liaoning’, China’s first aircraft carrier. Therefore, believing in Chinese semi-official word is landing oneself in jeopardy.
The India-Japan defence cooperation would benefit India and further strengthen bilateral strategic relationship. China would not be much concurred with tactical cooperation, though it would much rather see India remain militarily weak. After all, they feel responsible for their all-weather friend Pakistan. But they are highly apprehensive about strategic cooperation.
Japan agreeing to become a permanent member of the Malabar exercise in which the USA is a partner conjures a competitive picture in the Indo-Pacific region. The India-US-Japan Trilateral dialogue at the foreign minister level and appreciation by both prime ministers on the Japan-India Trilateral dialogue are seen in Beijing as the seeds of formation of a quadrangular entente cordiale to challenge China’s fast growing Chinese domination of Asia-Pacific region extending to the African coast.
China came out openly on these issues more clearly after Prime Minister Abe’s visit, when its ambassador to India Mr. Le Yucheng told a gathering in New Delhi “India should ensure that initiatives like the trilateral maritime arrangement or defence ties with other countries are conducive for peaceful and stable Asia-Pacific region. Giving this statement in New Delhi is a clear warning that India must desist from playing any role in the Asia-Pacific region, especially the South China Sea and the Sea of Japan. Ambassador Le reiterated China’s claim on the South China Sea and rejected any power questioning it.
China is equally frustrated with India’s “Act East” policy intended to build an overland connectivity with its East Asian neighbours with most of which it has historical friendly cultural connections. As India is growing in stature and its voice is being heard internationally, Beijing is feeling apprehensive that India may be nibbling into its immediate sphere of influence. These countries also welcome India. With Japan now willing to partner India’s Act East Policy, the move gains strength.
China must understand that India’s policy is not to prise the South East Asian Countries out of China’s relationship. None of these countries want to antagonise China, they remain highly invested in China, and it is not in India’s interest to provoke such an eventuality. India also values its own growing relationship with China. At the same time, the leadership in Beijing would be well advised to realise that their efforts to corral India in South Asia is a past effort. The future is cooperation.
Caution to India is unwarranted and unacceptable. China is known to use a hammer to kill a fly. And there is no fly here. They should not create a wasp here.
*The writer is a New Delhi based strategic analyst. He can be reached at e-mail [email protected]