What India-China-Japan Relations Could Mean for Global Currents

Published on Oct 26 2018

The Asian strategic triangle that includes the complex and often contradictory relationship between the three major powers viz China, Japan and India will witness considerable summit-level engagement over the next few weeks. Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be in Tokyo (28-29 October) for a third visit to meet with his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe and it is expected that major infrastructure and defence logistic agreements will be concluded.

However, before the Modi meeting, PM Abe will be in Beijing for a much-awaited summit meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Friday, 26 October – the first such meeting  between the two estranged neighbours since December 2011.

PM Modi will also meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping  twice in November – at the East Asia summit in Singapore and later at the G20 summit in Argentina.

What Does Modi-Xi Meet Mean in a Post-Doklam World?

Given the backdrop of the Doklam crisis of 2017 and the subsequent rapprochement (albeit tentative) at Wuhan in April 2018, an apex-level meeting between the two Asian giants is a welcome development – more so against the global strategic turbulence engendered by the US-China trade war and the US-Russian discord over nuclear arms control issues.

For India the shadow of October 1962 and the unresolved territorial dispute shows no sign of consensual closure.  Even after 56 years, it is a matter of abiding concern and the Doklam crisis was an extension of this long festering discord.

Yet to their credit, both New Delhi and Beijing have been able to respect the spirit of the peace agreement of 1993.  Despite many grave provocations, neither side has fired a shot in anger across the notional Line of Actual Control (LoAC) that stretches across 4,000+ km over the last 25 years.

The fact that there are as many as 200 incursions across the LoAC annually and that yet there has been no recourse to the exchange of ordnance is a case of tactical turbulence being contained in through resolute strategic restraint.

Potential of Bi-lateral Ties Between the 3 Asian Powers

The texture of the bi-lateral ties between the three Asian powers has the potential to shape not only the Asian strategic map, but also the global canvas that includes the USA, the EU and Russia. The underlying post-Cold War strategic cohesion between the USA, EU and Japan is currently under visible disarray due to the policy uncertainty associated with US President Donald Trump and the post-Brexit flux that the EU is grappling with.

India, Russia and China – the other three nodes of the global strategic hexagon are seeking to maximize their own wiggle-room, and for New Delhi, the challenge is to retain its distinctive ‘swing’ status in this imbalanced hexagon. Thus while the India-China relationship is critical to the realisation of  the Asian century that both nations aspire for, they have deep seated anxieties about each other. Despite the currently visible bi-lateral  bonhomie (both armies are to meet in a ‘hand-in-hand’ combat exercise in Chengdu in December), the mutual New Delhi-Beijing trust index is low.

The Xi-Abe summit marks  the beginning of a gradual thaw in Sino-Japanese ties and it is likely that Tokyo will  review its position in relation to the Chinese BRI (Belt Road Initiative),  which is a high priority project for the Chinese president.  An improvement in Sino-Japanese ties will be of considerable relevance to India and accentuate New Delhi’s steadfast reluctance to endorse or join the BRI.

Interestingly, Japan has acquired a very special relevance in the Asian strategic framework and the Xi-Abe meeting on 26 October, could lead to a significant re-wiring of the East Asian strategic grid with deep implications for the USA , Russia and India. Tokyo has been buffeted in an unexpected manner by various Trump policy initiatives and these include the North Korean peace overture and what a unified Korean peninsula means for Japan in strategic terms. This is compounded by the current US-China trade war and the fact that the Trump team unilaterally decided to jettison the TPP (trans-Pacific trade partnership) and is now taking the wrecking-ball to global trade and climate protocols.

After the enormity of Hiroshima-Nagasaki, the political leadership of Japan accepted what is known as the Yoshida doctrine, wherein Tokyo internalised its disastrous military adventurism and accepted a subaltern security-strategic relationship with the USA – including protection under a nuclear umbrella. Is Japan at a similar cusp wherein long-term strategic decisions have to be arrived at in relation to China?

The Modi-Abe Equation and China

The Modi visit to Tokyo will follow the Abe visit to Beijing and it is expected that all three nations will again meet at the East Asia summit in November. India hopes to enter into a defence cooperation agreement with Japan that will also include maritime/naval engagement, but clearly both nations will not want stoke Chinese  anxieties – unless compelled to do so.

A delicate tightrope walk will be called for by Modi and Abe as they seek to manage the unpredictable policy flip-flops from the White House, even as they remain uneasy about Chinese intent to contain them.

However persuasively India wants to project its strategic relevance, the symbolism about India is not flattering. New Delhi’s interlocutors know they are dealing with a nation that is either unable or unwilling to design and manufacture its own automatic rifle or pistol. India’s strategic dependency on arms imports is unpalatable to its self-image, but alas, an embarrassing reality. This is the straitjacket that India has to emerge from to become a credible power.

Source: The Quint, 26 October 2018, https://www.thequint.com/voices/opinion/pm-narendra-modi-xi-jinping-and-shinzo-abe-meeting-in-tokyo