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Author, most recently, of Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.

China pushes natural allies India, Japan closer to US

Chinese President Hu Jintao

hina's rise in one generation as a global player under authoritarian rule has come to epitomise the qualitative reordering of power in Asia and the wider world. Not since Japan rose to world-power status during the reign of the Meiji emperor in the second half of the 19th century has another non-Western power emerged with such potential to alter the world order as China today. As the 2009 assessment by the US intelligence community predicted, China stands to more profoundly affect global geopolitics than any other country. China's ascent, however, is dividing Asia, not bringing Asian states closer. A fresh reminder of that came when provocative Chinese actions prompted the new Japanese Government to reverse course on seeking a "more equal" relationship with the US and agree to keep the US military base in Okinawa island. That outcome is similar to the way Beijing has been pushing India closer to the US through continuing military and other provocations.

Given that the balance of power in Asia will be determined by events as much in the Indian Ocean rim as in East Asia, Tokyo and New Delhi are keen to work together to promote Asian peace and stability and help safeguard vital sea lanes. Japan and India indeed are natural allies because they have no conflict of strategic interest and share common goals to build institutionalised cooperation and stability in Asia. There is neither a negative historical legacy nor any outstanding political issue between them. If anything, each country enjoys a high positive rating with the public in the other state.

Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama's visit to India last December, soon after coming to office, showed he is keen to maintain the priority on closer engagement with India that started under his four immediate predecessors, especially Junichiro Koizumi, Shinzo Abe, Yasuo Fukuda and Taro Aso of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), now in the Opposition. Hatoyama and his Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) came to power vowing to reorient Japanese foreign policy and seek an "equal" relationship with the United States. But events have forced a rethink.

How unstable the security environment is in Japan's own neighborhood has been brought home by two recent incidents with China and the renewed tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

One incident involving China occurred less than two months ago, on 8 April, when a helicopter from a Chinese naval vessel in international waters south of Okinawa flew to within 92 metres of a Japanese defence force escort ship — so close that Japanese sailors could clearly see a gun-wielding Chinese soldier. To compound matters, not only was Tokyo's diplomatic protest summarily dismissed, but Chinese naval ships less than two weeks later, on 21 April, sailed between Okinawa and another Japanese island chain to conduct a large-scale exercise. Once again, a Chinese naval helicopter buzzed a Japanese escort ship. A Chinese military analyst called on Japan to get used to China's Navy appearing in Japan's exclusive economic zone.

The second incident happened last month. Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi flew into a rage after his Japanese counterpart, Katsuya Okada, politely suggested that China cut its nuclear arsenal. At the 15 May meeting in the South Korean city of Gyeongju, Yang yelled that his relatives had been killed by Japanese forces in northeastern China during Japan's occupation of China. He almost walked out of the meeting. The upshot of such incidents and the volatility in the regional security environment is that Prime Minister Hatoyama and his Cabinet are now convinced that this is not the time to move the Futenma air base off Okinawa, even if it means breaking one of his DPJ's election campaign promises.

There is realisation in Japan and India that each is located in a very dangerous neighbourhood and that their security ties with the US are critical.

ignificantly, there also have been a number of incidents that suggest that China is starting to muscle up to India. The renewed Sino-Indian border tensions have resulted from growing Chinese assertiveness on several fronts — border (Chinese cross-frontier incursions have increased in a major way); diplomatic (resurrecting its long-dormant claim to India's Arunachal Pradesh, which is three times bigger than Taiwan); and multilateral (launching an international offensive to undercut Indian sovereignty over Arunachal, for example, by successfully blocking the Asian Development Bank from identifying that region as part of India in its $1.3 billion credit package last year). As the resistance to its rule in Tibet has grown since last year, Beijing has sought to present Tibet as a core issue to its sovereignty, just like Taiwan. Tibet now holds as much importance in Chinese policy as Taiwan. In ratcheting up the Arunachal issue with India, Beijing seems to be drawing another analogy: Arunachal is the new Taiwan that must be "reunified" with the Chinese state.

In fact, the incidents with Japan and India serve as another reminder how Chinese policies and actions are counterproductively pushing these countries closer to US.

There is realisation in Japan and India that each is located in a very dangerous neighbourhood and that their security ties with the US are critical. India and Japan, although dissimilar economically, have a lot in common politically. They are Asia's largest democracies, but with fractured, messy politics. Just as India has progressed from doctrinaire nonalignment to geopolitical pragmatism, Japan — the "Land of the Rising Sun" — is moving toward greater realism in its foreign policy. Their growing congruence of strategic interests led to a Japan-India security agreement in 2008, a significant milestone in building Asian power stability. A constellation of Asian states linked by strategic cooperation and sharing common interests is becoming critical to ensuring equilibrium at a time when major shifts in economic and political power are accentuating Asia's security challenges. The Japan-India security agreement was modelled on the 2007 Australia-Japan defence accord. Now the Japan-India security agreement has spawned a similar Australia-India accord. The path has been opened to adding strategic content to the Indo-Japanese relationship, underscored by the growing number of bilateral visits by top defence and military officials. As part of their "strategic and global partnership," which was unveiled in 2006, India and Japan are working on joint initiatives on maritime security, counterterrorism, counterproliferation, disaster management and energy security. But they need to go much further.

India and Japan, for example, must co-develop defence systems. India and Japan have missile-defence cooperation with Israel and the US, respectively. There is no reason why they should not work together on missile defence and on other technologies for mutual defence. There is no ban on weapon exports in Japan's US-imposed Constitution, only a long-standing Cabinet decision. That ban has been loosened, with Tokyo in recent years inserting elasticity to export weapons for peacekeeping operations, counterterrorism and anti-piracy. The original Cabinet decision, in any event, relates to weapons, not technologies.

As two legitimate aspirants to new permanent seats in the UN Security Council, India and Japan should work together to push for UNSC's long-pending reform. Asian peace and stability would be better served if all the three major powers in Asia — China, Japan and India — are in the UNSC as permanent members. Beijing's provocative actions underscore the risks of China remaining Asia's sole representative among the UNSC's permanent members.

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