Any adjustments in the India-China-Japan triangle will have an impact all across Asia.
East Asia has eagerly set out to court New Delhi’s new government. That’s obvious from the spate of state visits that have taken place of late between India, China and Japan. Earlier this fortnight, Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Japan. Today, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s begins his first official state visit to India. Trade, investment and infrastructure are the buzzwords on the road towards deepening ties.
The complexities of the India-China-Japan triangle are far too intricate to be spelt out in a simplistic fashion. Will trade and investment become the motive force that will fashion ties, more so at the cost of pressing strategic realities that appear conflicting at times? Going by the school of interdependent liberalism, states will be propelled to adopt a cooperative framework by economic symbiosis and the web of multilateral international institutions and frameworks.
In the case of China, India and Japan, while investments have taken precedence, the competitive race is far too obvious. Last fortnight, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced that this country’s private and public investment in India will double to $34 billion over the next five years. Within a fortnight comes Xi Jinping with his administration’s plans to invest around $500 billion overseas in the next five years, with big-ticket investments coming India’s way likely to exceed $200 billion. It is being suggested that China could spend $35 billion merely on power and highway projects ‒ almost the same amount as Japan’s total investment in India.
Growing trade deficit
It is apparent that cooperation through economic considerations has its share of hidden problems. India continues to be hurt by the growing trade deficit with China, which stood at a record $ 36 billion in 2013-’14. In fact, China accounted for more than 50% of India’s current account deficit in 2012-’13. Indian exports to its neighbour fell nearly 10% during that period.
By seeking economic and military clout, could China reject the liberal regional order and seek to replace it with its own Sino-centric Asian order? China’s much-debated rise is always under scrutiny, given its role as Asia’s largest economy and the fact that it is the No. 1 trading partner for almost 120 economies around the world.
More so, in the strategic sphere, are Asian nations, including India and Japan, prepared to recognise such an order? So profound is the presence, rise and status of the People’s Republic of China that one is often confronted with a debate whether a potential Asian century could actually become a Chinese century.
The Chinese government chose to downplay Modi’s earlier indirect reference to China during his visit to Japan, where he took a swipe at the “18th century expansionist mindset of some countries”. But the reaction of state-controlled Chinese media over Modi’s remark was noticeably irate. Chinese media fervently cautioned against any attempt by Tokyo to structure a united front against Beijing with New Delhi as its pivot. All this very palpably falls into the realist paradigm of international relations, which posits that states often find themselves in a zero-sum contest for power and influence, where the prevailing international power balance remains a key determinant of the region’s future stability and strategic order.
Realignments in any part of the India-China-Japan security triangle will have far-reaching impact all across Asia. It should be remembered that Xi Jinping’s address at the 18th Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in 2012 contained a reference to “rejuvenating China”, which has been interpreted as an oblique reference to “reclaiming lost historical territories”. This approach could well have a direct bearing on Japan and India, with whom China contests territories and borders.
On another level, the camaraderie between Modi and Shinzo Abe speaks volumes. Systemic conditions present a favourable platform for the duo to guide their countries to “… the dawn of a new era in India-Japan relations”, as they agreed to in the Tokyo Declaration last fortnight. Moreover, providing cement for this approach, Modi underlined the significance of India and Japan being democracies, which affords them a solid basis to converge at various levels on the Asian stage. As for the ties between China and Japan, there could not have been a worse time for relations between them, with the bitter contest over the East China Sea amidst a rising tide of nationalist sentiment against one another in both countries.
Whether Xi Jinping will manage to find success in making inroads into Delhi and buying a sizeable share of Indian attention is too early to say. However, one thing is for sure ‒ it will not happen at the cost of Japan.
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