Asia’s pivotal triangle

India has to build on its close ties with Japan to counterbalance an assertive China

India Today, June 3, 2013

ClippedIndia, China and Japan, as they manoeuvre for strategic advantage, are transforming relations between themselves in a way that portends growing strategic collaboration between New Delhi and Tokyo but sharper geopolitical competition between China and the other two Asian powers. This had an echo in two virtually back-to-back summit meetings: the genuine warmth and expansion of substantive cooperation that boosted Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Japan visit contrasted vividly with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s all-smiles-but-no-compromise approach during his India tour, which, behind the hype, helped to underscore the deep Sino-Indian divide.

Li, who brought a large team of exporters, sought to secure bigger commercial benefits in India—in spite of an already lopsided trade—while safeguarding China’s latitude to box-in India from practically all sides. The visit stood out for the manner it attempted to cloak or underplay the contentious issues and put a positive gloss on the current bilateral relationship.

But just as President Hu Jintao’s 2006 India trip was preceded by Beijing’s jarring resurrection of its long-dormant claim to Arunachal Pradesh in the east and Premier Wen Jiabao’s 2010 tour followed China’s challenge to Indian sovereignty in the western sector, Li also delivered a pre-visit gift—a stealthy, 19-kilometre-deep incursion into Ladakh. The daring military raid after more than six years of increasing Chinese territorial assertiveness should have prompted India to link closer political and commercial engagement with China to substantive progress on the territorial disputes. Yet, a politically besieged Singh responded in a way that can only embolden China to step up its pressure on India.

First, China vindicated its coercive diplomacy by ending the intrusion only after India destroyed defensive fortifications at Chumar to the south and suspended patrolling along the critical borderline there. And second, Li had his way on the joint statement, which omits the standard commitment to try and resolve the border dispute “at an early date”; instead it expresses strange “satisfaction” with never-ending border talks that continue to take India round and round the mulberry bush. Beijing has signalled that it will not cede its territorial and border cards against India.

These are also the cards that China is now wielding against Japan. In the way it is trying to furtively disrupt the territorial and international-river flow status quo in the Himalayas, China launched a stealth war in the East China Sea to assert territorial claims over Japan’s resource-rich Senkaku Islands. China’s opening gambit—to compel the international community to recognize the existence of a dispute—has been successful, and foreshadows further disturbance of the status quo.

Far from allowing its booming bilateral trade to come in the way of its stealth wars against Japan and India, China is employing trade as a political weapon. With China serving as Japan’s largest overseas market, Beijing has sought to punish Tokyo through an informal boycott of Japanese products since last September. For China, trade is also about geostrategic interests. It values the lopsided trade with India as a strategic weapon that undercuts its rival’s manufacturing base, yet yields handsome dividends for it.

The more openly China has embraced market capitalism, the more nationalist it has become, encouraged by its leaders’ political-legitimacy need for an indigenous alternative to the imported but worn-out Marxist dogma. An increasingly muscular foreign policy thus has become intertwined with national renewal.

Cartoon in China’s Global Times ( mocks Japan-India partnership, with accompanying article warning New Delhi that strategic ties with Tokyo can “only bring trouble to India.”

With China’s rise casting the shadow of a power disequilibrium over Asia, Singh’s Tokyo visit highlighted the imperative for Japan and India to lead an effort to build freedom, prosperity, and sea-lane security in the Indo-Pacific region, the world’s leading trade and energy seaway. Given China’s mercantilist strategy to assert control over natural-resource supplies and their transport routes, the maintenance of a peaceful maritime domain, including unimpeded freedom of navigation, has become critical to the well-being of resource-poor Japan and India.

The fast-growing relationship of these two natural allies is remarkably free of any strategic dissonance. However, meaningful strategic collaboration between them hinges on important shifts in their policies. Japan, America’s treaty ally, has established military interoperability only with U.S. forces. Following its 2008 security-cooperation accord with India, Japan—with Asia’s largest naval fleet—must also build interoperability with Indian naval forces, so that, as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said in New Delhi before returning to power, “Japan’s navy and the Indian navy are seamlessly interconnected.”

Brahma Chellaney is a strategic thinker and author.

(c) India Today, 2013.