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China Watching India-Japan Relations

Paper No. 5655                                                Dated 27-Feb-2014

By Bhaskar Roy

China has been cautiously, and with uncharacteristic restraint, watching the new flourish in India-Japan relations.

Beijing kept its counsel to itself with the state visit of the Emperor and Empress of Japan in early December 2013, followed by the visit of Prime Minster Shinzo Abe in January 24 which was a combination of guest of honour for India’s Republic Day celebration (January 26) on official visit. This was preceded by the visit of Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera earlier last year.

Apart from the trade and economic agreement signed and initiated during Abe’s visit, China would be assessing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Japan in May last year when an encampment of Chinese troops in the Indian side of the western border in Depsang had raised hackles in India. Dr. Singh had extended his visit by a day in Tokyo to meet Japanese business leaders.

Equally important for Chinese strategists is the fact that when Dr. Singh visited Japan in 2007, Shinzo Abe was the prime minister, and the two prime ministers agreed on the Japan-India Strategic and Global Partnership.

Personalities matter, and China sees Shinzo Abe as a right wing hardliner pushing to lower the bar of Japan’s post war peaceful constitution and break the restrictive “self defence” military clause.

After a pause for thought, the official Global Times (Feb. 19) a subsidiary of the party mouthpiece the People’s Daily, published the opinion of a leading expert on South and Central Asia titled “India uncertain as Abe looks for anti-China alliance”. The expert, Wang Dehua, head of the institute of Southern and Central Asian Studies at the Shanghai Municipal center for International Studies recalled Abe’s suggestion to establish a “democratic security diamond” consisting of Australia, India, Japan and the US state of Hawaii, which the Chinese saw as an architecture to encircle China.

Wang Dehua concluded that in the event of a military clash between China and Japan, which also he said was very unlikely, India will not back Japan.

In the last several years when China began to demonstrate its assertiveness with military backing on disputed maritime territorial issues, it began to perceive an encirclement threat led by the US and supported by Japan, India and, perhaps, Australia. In its propaganda barrage aimed at India, Chinese official media also mentioned repeatedly that India always followed an independent foreign policy and was not likely to join an alliance against China.

The Chinese have their own peculiar logic to argue their case. The Global Times article mentioned that the 1962 war remained a big obstacle to India and China coming closer; in 2013 India accused China of stirring trouble along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) by deploying PLA border guards in disputed territory, while China urged India not to aggravate problems on this border; but an upset India launched the Agni-V missile that is said to be aimed at China. It then went on to write positively about the developments in the India-China border issue.

The Global Times article seemed to suggest several other Chinese concerns over the new India-Japan cooperative relations. A significant concern was that Japan was trying to compete with China in economic and infrastructure opportunities in South Asia. Japan’s entry in the infrastructure and industrial sectors of India in a massive way will earn Tokyo huge points to enter other South Asian countries like Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and even Afghanistan.

Till recent years, Japan was satisfied with its investment in labour abundant China. As territorial disputes began to arise between the two countries, Abenomics came into play. Myanmar began to change with the military junta reluctantly realizing that the world was beginning to change, and unless they became more democratic and open the next people’s revolution would be difficult to avoid. It was also tired of Chinese pressure and exploitation, being dependent almost solely on trade, diplomatic support and military supplies. Japan, which already had a toe hold in Myanmar expanded its activities and assistance, following the US initiative.

Tokyo has shown much more interest in Nepal, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. China is concerned that its Bangladesh China-India-Myanmar corridor which would open into the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean, could be scuttled by Japan. This proposed corridor is in China’s strategic interest. It has also evinced keen interest in constructing a deep sea port in the Chittagong-Banderban area of Bangladesh. Eventually, such facilities can be put into military use as in the case of the Gwadar port in Pakistan built by China.

China-Pakistan relations will endure for long despite Beijing’s periodic anger over links between Pakistani terrorists and Xinjiang’s Uighur pro-independence movement. The two countries feed on each other. Pakistan is China’s corridor to the Middle East Muslim world, and the so-called silk road to Central Asia through Afghanistan. Their common interest however, remains countering India and China’s encirclement of India using Pakistan as the center point. This strategy still exists and  is used as a combination of economic-military coercive strategy.

It is an outstanding fact that China assisted Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme and continues to do so, and was linked directly or indirectly in Pakistan scientist A. Q. Khan’s nuclear proliferation black market network. India-China relations will remain complex as new developments emerge.

China was riding comfortably till India tested its nuclear weapon in May, 1998. This forced Pakistan to test their own, exposing China as the mastermind of nuclearizing Pakistan. The Indian action changed the entire paradigm. The rest is history.

China is trying to battle issues on all fronts as if there is no tomorrow. Late senior leader Deng Xiaoping’s advice “Build your strength, but maintain a low profile” appears to have been thrown out. Ultra-nationalism and military sword rattling has become prominent. This is causing a lot of consternation in South East Asia and East Asia.

The new initiative in India-Japan relationship is seen by China as a serious deceptive move by Tokyo to break out of its post war restrictions. India is seen as quietly, and not so quietly, encouraging Japan in its quest.

The bilateral economic initiatives during Prime Minister Abe’s India visit would have dismayed the Chinese to some extent. The Western Dedicated Freight Corridor, the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor, the planned Chennai-Bengaluru Industrial Corridor, high speed train and other are large infrastructural projects in India that China was interested in. The Chinese hope they will get entry into other projects in India.

What would have disturbed the Chinese is Prime Minister Singh’s foreign policy statement at the joint press conference with Prime Minister Abe (Jan. 25, 2014) that “Japan is at the heart of India’s Look East Policy”

This points out the importance India is attaching to Japan to establish itself in an area that Beijing feels should naturally be under Chinese influence. Added to this are the stated cooperation in the ASEAN and East Asia Summit-related process where India says it is a joint stake holder with Japan.

 

The Singh-Abe joint statement running to 51 paragraphs spelt out cooperation in a wide area over a number of subjects. This was a long joint statement where there were no reservations or disagreement between the two sides.

  Joint commitment to the freedom of navigation, unimpeded commerce and peaceful settlement of disputes according to international law, including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), freedom of over flight and civil aviation safety according to international law and recommended practice of International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), as recorded in the joint statement, challenge to some of the recent Chinese actions like the Air Defence Identification zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea and the Hainan fishing rules in South China Sea.

Japan’s inclusion in India’s anti-piracy naval exercise “Malabar” would imply Tokyo gradually extending its self-defence navy in far off waters, especially in the Indian Ocean which has emerged as a critical route of energy security for China and Japan. Discussions on possible sale of the Japanese made US-2 amphibious transport aircraft is another issue. According to China, both these developments are suspicious, portending rise in Japan’s militarism.

Perhaps the most difficult development for China is to accept a nuclear agreement between India and Japan. Beijing has done everything to try and keep India outside nuclear cooperation with Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) countries. Japan downgraded relations with New Delhi following the 1998 nuclear tests, something Beijing appreciated. But the wheel appears to have turned full circle with the new thinking in Japan under Prime Minister Abe. India is no longer nuclear untouchable. China recently demanded accountability on Japan’s holding of fissile material enough to make about twenty nuclear bombs. Japan is a highly technological country, some say lightly a screw driver turn away from a nuclear bomb.

The foregoing are examples in India-Japan relations that Beijing sees probably as a forceful start for Tokyo in breaking out of the restrictions of its peaceful post war constitution. If that were to happen, the strategic balance in North East Asia would change drastically.

Beijing has the practiced habit of accusing others of wrong behavior while pushing its own agenda as sacrosanct. It does not appear Beijing wants a military confrontation with Japan, but pressurize Japan to withdraw from power building and challenging capacity.

India has been kept under the Chinese microscope for years now, suspecting that New Delhi was cooperating with the US, Japan and even Australia to encircle China. It would, therefore, be difficult for Beijing to prosecute a really productive relationship with India. Relations cannot be built on mistrust and pressure.

(The writer is a New Delhi based strategic analyst.  He can be reached at e-mail grouchohart@yahoo.com)      

    

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