Originally Published 2013-05-27 00:00:00 Published on May 27, 2013
Don't provoke China has been the mantra behind New Delhi's recent "go slow" strategy with Japan. At the very moment when many Asian countries are frightened by the prospect of China's non-peaceful rise and are looking to Indian leadership in constructing a stable Asian balance of power, Delhi seems trapped in strategic hesitation.
Talking Tokyo
As he lands in Tokyo on Monday evening, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will find his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe ready to think bold on transforming the bilateral relationship with India. A deeper partnership with India is central to Abe’s effort to bring Japan back to Asia’s centrestage. Since his landslide victory in the general elections last December, Abe has sought to shake Japan out of its prolonged economic stupor, revive its national spirit, rewrite Japan’s constitution, stand up to China, and reclaim its rightful place in Asia. But is Singh ready to play ball with Abe?

"Don’t provoke China" has been the mantra behind New Delhi’s recent "go slow" strategy with Japan. At the very moment when many Asian countries are frightened by the prospect of China’s non-peaceful rise and are looking to Indian leadership in constructing a stable Asian balance of power, Delhi seems trapped in strategic hesitation. The Depsang intrusion by the Chinese armed forces last month brought into sharp relief the many problems in India’s China policy, especially the hopes for an early deal on the disputed boundary with Beijing.

If the Ladakh flare-up highlighted the danger of putting all eggs in the China basket, Singh must now return to the sensible strategy of engaging all Asian powers without ceding a veto on its foreign policy to any one of them. This principle can be traced back to Jawaharlal Nehru’s approach to China and Japan, when hostility between Beijing and Tokyo was at its peak at the end of World War II. Despite the widespread Asian fears about the newly formed communist republic in China and outrage against Japanese imperialism in East Asia, Nehru argued against all attempts to isolate them. Nehru insisted that the People’s Republic must be recognised as the legitimate representative of China and integrated into the global order. Nehru was equally adamant against treating defeated Japan as an "enemy state". Nehru waived India’s claims against Japan for war reparations and stood by Tokyo at one of its most difficult moments in its national history.

Despite the price he paid for supporting China in the 1950s, Nehru is still viewed in Beijing as part of the problem in Sino-Indian relations. In Japan, on the other hand, Nehru is regarded with great affection for helping Japan’s post-war political rehabilitation. Abe cites his maternal grandfather and former PM Nobusuke Kishi’s warmth towards Nehru, who had lent much political capital to Japan at a moment when the rest of Asia was hesitant to engage Tokyo.

As Singh looks at India’s future relations with China and Japan, a number of realities stand out. First, the relationship with a rising China might indeed be "the most important" one for India in the words of our external affairs minister, Salman Khurshid. While many in Delhi may contest this view, few dispute that the relationship with Japan holds the greatest hope for a rapid and consequential growth. The Ladakh crisis has shown how the unresolved border dispute with China will continue to undermine the best-laid plans for the transformation of Sino-Indian relations. In contrast, there are few negatives in the relationship with Japan. As Tokyo learns from the mistakes of its own China policy in recent decades and confronts Beijing’s military assertiveness on territorial disputes, the prospects for the India-Japan partnership have entered a decisive moment.

Second, China is well on its way to become the dominant power of Asia; its leaders have little incentive to share regional primacy with either India or Japan. As the old Chinese adage goes, there can’t be two tigers on one mountain. The logic of political realism also suggests China has no reason to treat India as a strategic equal especially when the gap in the capabilities between the two is growing in favour of Beijing. The best offer from China is a subsidiary alliance, in which Delhi must reconcile to Beijing’s Asian primacy. Abe, however, recognises that a strong India is one of the best guarantees for a stable balance of power in Asia. The logic of an equitable and mutually beneficial strategic partnership with India is dictated by the new circumstances that Japan finds itself in.

Third, in search of a larger role in the subcontinent and the Indian Ocean, China will inevitably trample upon India’s natural sphere of influence. This is not about Beijing’s ill will towards India but linked to the very nature of China’s rise. Japan, in contrast, has the potential to boost India’s role

in the Indian Ocean and help extend it to the Pacific Ocean. It is only by hanging together that Delhi and Tokyo can prevent being outflanked by Beijing in their immediate environs.

Fourth, China is not interested in raising the international status of either India or Japan. Beijing had effectively undermined the campaign by Delhi and Tokyo for the expansion of the UN Security Council. China is also reluctant to support India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group and Delhi’s full integration with

the international non-proliferation regime.

Fifth, the idea that China might contribute to India’s manufacturing growth and infrastructure development is entirely aspirational at the moment. Japan has already proven its commitment to help India overcome the internal constraints on economic growth. Japan is ready to do much more if Singh is ready to advance India’s economic reforms.

A genuine strategic partnership between India and Japan will be a gamechanger for Asian geopolitics. Holding it back until now was the political fecklessness in Tokyo and Delhi. Abe, who has surprised the world by rekindling Japan’s samurai spirit, must remove the remaining political obstacles in Tokyo for civil nuclear cooperation and a military partnership with India. Singh, in turn, must demonstrate Delhi is not hostage to a "China-first" foreign policy.

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi and a contributing editor for ’The Indian Express’)

Courtesy : The Indian Express, May 27, 2013

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