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The China-Japan-India equation

  • Published at 12:00 am February 10th, 2019
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The growth in cordiality in India’s relations with Japan was evident during Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s two-day visit to Japan in the last week of October 2018. Their talks focused on working more closely in the Indo-Pacific region, where both countries have shared interests and concerns on China’s growing footprint in this region. 

What made this two-day visit to Japan unusual was the fact that just before hosting Modi, Abe had travelled to China for an unprecedented three-day visit -- the first bilateral visit in seven years. It marked a turnaround in relations from where it had collapsed in 2012, when ties between the two countries had assumed critical proportions over the disputed East China Sea islands, called Senkaku by Japan and Diaoyu by China. This bitterness in relations had also been noted during Prime Minister Abe’s meeting with President Xi Jinping when he was in Beijing for the APEC summit.

Seven years later, the optics was different with Abe being hosted first by Premier Li Keqiang, and then holding talks with Xi. It was apparent from their meetings that in the current political paradigm, according to Xi, China and Japan had not only become more reliant on each other, but also globally, the two countries shared diverse mutual interests and mutual concern.

Strategists have interpreted this as Japan having calibrated its position on China’s One Belt One Road initiative (OBOR) as opposed to the previous Japan-India initiative, the Asia Africa Growth Corridor plan, billed as an OBOR counter. One year on, this appears to have slowed down. Japan now appears to have undertaken a more practical position on OBOR. 

Japanese companies and entrepreneurs are now thinking that this Chinese initiative will provide them with greater opportunities for jointly working with Chinese companies. Some Japanese firms have, according to media reports, already informally begun working with Chinese companies on OBOR-related projects. The major Japanese logistics firm Nissin, for example, has said it will work with Chinese logistics firm Sinotrans to open up a new sea-and-rail transport route to Europe for Japanese goods, which will be shipped across the East China Sea to the eastern Chinese port of Lianyungang, and then will travel by rail to Khorgos on the China-Kazakhstan border, and then onward to Hamburg. 

Some critics have pointed out that the cost of such a route would be three times that of the shipping route through the Indian Ocean, but Nissin has remarked that it not only expects this cost to come down but also such an arrangement would be a suitable alternative in any emerging situation where there might be a rise in geo-political tensions in the Middle East.

This rapprochement according to strategists like Wang Yiwei has been influenced by the perceived potential of OBOR. Japan’s participation, according to Wang, would offer “an alternative path in globalization and hedge against risks from America by accelerating economic cooperation with China.”

The second factor that has persuaded China to think outside the regular ambit has been the uncertainty unleashed by Donald Trump, who has criticized not only China but also Japan for what he calls unfair trade practices and the trade surpluses they enjoy with America. This uncertainty about the future of free trade and globalization appears to have pushed Beijing reaching out to both India and Japan, who have, for the same reason, been happy to reciprocate.

It may also be mentioned here that in the recent past, China and Japan have also signed a currency swap deal for around $30 billion to boost trade. This would facilitate the People’s Bank of China and the Bank of Japan to exchange up to 3.4tn yen for 200bn yuan over the next three years. Economists have observed that such a measure was a welcome step, because this would provide some stability despite global fluctuations.

This evolving scenario has assumed significance as India is quite concerned with the increasing influence of China’s economic expansionism in the region -- Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, the Maldives, and Myanmar. Beijing’s growing political activism alongside its economic activities, according to Delhi, is also creating potential risks that might undermine new democratic institutions and stability in India’s regional neighbourhood.

There is general agreement that India’s China policy is now being shaped increasingly by their perception of acute threat assessments, especially in South Asia. India appears to be worried because of lack of sufficient transparency and oversight with regard to China’s massive infrastructure projects under the Belt and Road Initiative that are in some cases creating debt traps that might, according to Delhi, weaken good governance and undermine the rule of law in India’s immediate periphery. Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port is held up as an example.

Constantino Xavier has also observed that Beijing is now also beginning to flex its political muscle by seeking to shape public opinion, undermine critical voices, and influence electoral outcomes. China’s modus operandi in South Asia is consequently being seen by Indian strategists as ranging between classic public diplomacy and aggressive influence operations. 

This, according to them, is reflecting similar efforts undertaken by China already in Australia, Japan, and in North America. Such Chinese efforts are also being closely monitored by certain Western democratic forces (interested in India’s economic and security interests) who are working with India towards reform across the region, including Bhutan and Myanmar, and ushering in liberalization and consolidation of democracy across South Asia.

However regional strategists have remarked that though India’s role would be crucial, Delhi’s focus should not be limited to a merely defensive approach where they will subvert Beijing’s initiatives. India on the other hand should undertake a more positive approach pertaining to South Asia and diversify its efforts to cooperate with neighboring countries with regard to strengthening the rule of law, pluralist institutions, and good governance. 

One believes that greater and more intensive democratic cooperation across the Indo-Pacific through joint efforts of India, Japan, and China will create opportunities to work with other established democracies at the international level, and will also breathe new life and create new platforms for developmental initiatives and also financing connectivity infrastructure. These efforts could also counter unilateralism by enhancing existing international principles and institutions and help to collectively combat climate change and better governance in the cyber and outer space domains. 

Muhammad Zamir, a former ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information, and good governance. He can be reached at [email protected]