On April 28, India and Japan will observe seven decades of formal diplomatic relations, a milestone that will be seen from different perspectives. To some in both countries, it would appear that in spite of all that bonhomie, bilateral relations have not really taken off except in the last decade or so; and, to others, New Delhi and Tokyo were two democracies of different environments only destined to play different roles in the international system.
And today the conflict in Ukraine has temporarily taken the spotlight out of China in the Indo-Pacific and shed a lot of soul searching on what is in store for a region in the presence or absence of major powers.
In the context of India and Japan, one of the striking aspects of an evolving friendship is that it is still for the most part pegged to the security-strategic dimensions with economics only playing a distant second. Wary of the closed nature of the Indian business environment and of the governmental policies between 1960 and the 1990s, Japanese business houses stayed away and only returning in a slow but steady fashion in the last decade or so. But policymakers in the two countries have in the recent past woken up to fast-moving realities in the Asia Pacific or recently coined as the Indo-Pacific.
More than 50 per cent of the global population is accounted for by the Indo-Pacific; India and China together account for more than 2.5 billion people; India, China and Japan are heavily dependent on the Indo Pacific Sea lanes for trade and energy supplies; two-thirds of container trade passes through this area; more than 40 per cent of the world’s exports and 35 per cent of world’s imports pass through; and some US$ 2 Trillions of American trade goes through the Indo Pacific.
Realities that cannot be ignored
And to some extent what has opened the eyes of New Delhi and Tokyo is that in the midst of all the soft talk, the realities cannot be ignored: China is rapidly modernising its armed forces including its nuclear arsenal; North Korea, a nation that is propelling its nuclear capacities despite global penalties; and the danger of territorial struggle among nuclear states: India and Pakistan.
Today, the strategic environment of the Indo-Pacific is undergoing a tremendous change. Look at Japan and the current strategic environment in East Asia: North Korea, a troublesome China with newfound belligerence over the Senkakus, and a Japan-United States alliance that is fraught with uncertainties. Economically, Japan finds itself strapped having to face stiff competition from South Korea, Taiwan, and China with each one of these countries having an agenda of its own in the region and beyond.
New Delhi has had to deal with China over its String of Pearls strategy; the inroads of Beijing in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and the Indian Ocean States; Beijing’s continuous and ever-growing nexus with Pakistan; the persisting border dispute with China; and the aggressive challenge of Beijing in international waterways such as the South China Seas. What is happening in the Indo Pacific is a source of interest and concern to India, a democracy in a region that is laced with dictatorships, dangerous and irrational ones at that.
The Quad agenda
The concern over China triggered the formation and formulation of the Quad — a quadrilateral initiative that involves the United States, India, Japan and Australia — that supposedly has a broad agenda to include security, economics and maritime cooperation. But what started after the tsunami of 2004, members have been quite reluctant to even give a label to the organisation, preferring at times to call it a loose grouping of democracies instead of a formal alliance that would set off the alarm bells in the immediate region and beyond. It took a full decade or more for the four countries to have regular meetings.
What draws India and Japan closer in a political and strategic sense is that both countries are heavily dependent on freedom of navigation for trade and development in the Indo Pacific; and find it difficult to absorb Beijing’s challenges to established norms of international law especially pertaining to freedom of navigation in the high seas. Of tremendous discomfort is not only the unilateral and belligerent claims of sovereignty in the South China Seas but also provocations in the East China sea with Japan. At the same time, none of the four democracies in the Quad want to openly admit of a policy of “containment” of China.
China’s response to the Quad is another challenge that faces the leaderships of India and Japan. Calling it the Asian NATO that is “100 per cent outdated” and slamming Japan for its “Cold war mentality”, Beijing has taken on every one of the four members of the Quad militarily or economically. At the same time, while India has refused to be associated in any fashion with a formal military network, Japan seems to be quietly thinking of the consequences of openly challenging China keeping in mind that the East Asian giant is Japan’s largest export destination accounting for some 25 per cent; and any military sirens would rattle the neighbourhood especially the Association of South East Asian Nations that happens to be Japan’s fourth-largest trading partner.
Problem for India and Japan
As part of the Quad and quite independent of it, the problem for both India and Japan as far as the future of the American role in the Asia-Pacific is in the unknown. For the record, Washington has re-named Asia-Pacific as its Indo-Pacific Command in 2018 but a lot of questions remain on the extent to which there is a real commitment to stay focused in this part of the world that would invariably require a lot more assets to be diverted. The unofficial and private concern of many in this region is if the United States, in anxiety to wean Beijing away from Moscow over the Ukraine crisis, will take its eye off China as a trade-off.
And Japan has seen the first reaction from Russia: that Moscow is pulling out of the Kurils talks, a definite setback at a time when two countries were looking to finalise an arrangement. And Washington’s clumsy withdrawal from Afghanistan has raised larger issues of commitment and credibility in the Korean peninsula and Taiwan Straits. With the exception of the United States which continues to pressure India over Ukraine, the other Quad members Japan and Australia have backed the principled stand of New Delhi.
The Quad — especially United States and Australia — has yet another item on its plate when the next formal summit takes place in Japan sometime around May 24. And this has to do with the bombshell that China and the Solomon Islands have entered into a secret security arrangement that would allow Beijing to open up a “shop” in the Pacific, a move that has set off a round of extreme unease in Washington and Canberra, to some extent in Tokyo. Officially China and Solomon Islands have denied any military context to their evolving partnership, but few take this on face value.
The real challenge to the Quad members at the forthcoming Japan summit is in formulating a response to the moves of China, a difficult task given that members have even been reluctant to name China in documents and press releases. As India and Japan look at 70 years of diplomatic relations and the future in store, they would have to address not only the weak links in bilateral relations but also place the Quad in a realistic perspective of the deliverables in the Indo-Pacific.
(The writer is a former senior journalist in Washington covering North America and the United Nations)