Japan-India summit highlights how badly both countries need – and need to contain – China

  • C. Uday Bhaskar writes that the growing India-Japan partnership must balance its rivalry with and dependence on China to realise the dream of an Asian century
  • While both are wary of China’s growing power, India and Japan have a trade dependency on Beijing that the other cannot fill
PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 November, 2018, 2:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 02 November, 2018, 4:11am

Concluding a two-day summit visit to Tokyo rich in complex symbolism, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi asserted that, “Without the cooperation between India and Japan, the 21st century cannot be an Asian century”.

Modi would have been aware that his host, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, had just paid a historic visit to Beijing – the first time in seven years that Japan and China were meeting at the summit level after considerable tension over disputed island territoriality.

China’s creeping military assertiveness remains a source of considerable anxiety for its neighbours. The South China Sea experience, which has rattled the Asean states, has been experienced differently by Japan and India, yet both have a sizeable trade-investment relationship with China, which now has the world’s No 2 gross domestic product after the United States.

Paradoxically, this flurry of summit-level activity among the three major Asian nations has been triggered by the policy petulance and turbulence associated with US President Donald Trump. The trade war option Washington is currently pursuing apropos Beijing is illustrative.

On assuming office in early 2017, one of the first major policy reversals that Trump approved was the US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which has weakened the East Asian trading bloc.

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Concurrently, domestic legislation introduced by the Trump administration relating to trade with Iran and Russia has the potential to create disruptions in the strategic-security-energy domain for both Japan and India; “uncertainty” has become the dominant leitmotif for the major powers.

The resultant macro trade-economic-fiscal consequences affect the long-term trajectories of China, Japan and India and these nations will engage again in November at the East Asia Summit in Singapore, and then at the G20 in Argentina to review the current global flux.

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If the US remains prickly and insular – and the European Union is as preoccupied with its Brexit-related dissonance – China, Japan and India will need a new template to realise their aspirations and assuage their historically tangled anxieties.

To harmonise the contradictory tenor between geo-economic needs and geopolitical and security imperatives – which are often filtered through a nationalist, emotive historical narrative – takes deft balance. This was on display both in Tokyo and Beijing.

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The joint statement issued in Tokyo on October 29 reiterated a tenet highlighted by Japan and India in relation to the maritime domain, wherein both leaders envisioned an Indo-Pacific region that would be “based on a rules-based order that respects sovereignty and territorial integrity of nations, ensures freedom of navigation and overflight as well as unimpeded lawful commerce, and seeks peaceful resolution of disputes … in accordance with the universally recognised principles of international law, including those reflected in the UNCLOS (UN Convention on the Law of the Sea), without resorting to threat or use of force”.

Even if not named explicitly, the reference to China is unambiguous and, to work towards this objective, the Abe-Modi statement acknowledged both the relevance of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the role of the US, even while underscoring the “inclusive” nature of the Indo-Pacific.

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The statement added: “The two leaders also affirmed that Asean unity and centrality are at the heart of the Indo-Pacific concept, which is inclusive and open to all. They shared willingness to expand concrete cooperation with the US and other partners”.

The two sides also agreed to institute a two-plus-two framework for the defence and foreign ministers of both countries to meet periodically – an arrangement India only has with the US.

Trilateral consultation and engagement between the navies of India, the US and Japan are already in place and a logistics-sharing agreement has been mooted.

However, it merits note that, as part of pragmatic diplomacy, during the Abe visit to Beijing, the Japanese prime minister declared at a press conference with his Chinese counterpart Li Keqiang: “Turning to cooperation from competition, the relationship between the two nations is entering a new stage”.

A subtle signal conveying Japan’s intent to join the Belt and Road Initiative may be a strategic game changer. In response, Li described China and Japan as “cooperation partners to each other and not a threat, and we support each other for peaceful development”.

Discord over territoriality bedevils the political leadership in all three countries and the Japan-China tension over the disputed islands in the East China Sea has a corresponding refrain in the unresolved territorial and border dispute between India and China that led to a brief war in October-November 1962 and flared up again in Doklam in August 2017.

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Abe and Modi have established a very warm personal relationship and this was reflected in the symbolism of Abe hosting his guest in his country home in Yamanashi – the first time such a personal gesture has been accorded to a visiting leader.

The Abe-Modi synergy has infused the bilateral relationship with distinctive political traction, but an anomaly persists.

Despite the determination of both leaders to impart a strategic depth to the bilateral relationship, and the emphasis on shared security and strategic empathy, the intractable trade imbalance is discernible.

India-Japan bilateral trade declined from US$18.6 billion (2012-13) to US$13.5 billion (2016-17) and no significant defence cooperation has taken place – though the intent is lofty.

In contrast, despite the security dissonance, the comparable Japan-China figure is closer to US$300 billion and total India-China trade amounts to US$85 billion.

Clearly, despite their mutual wariness, the three Asian nations are locked in a complex relationship of interdependence and divergence that spans the spectrum from cooperation to competition and potential confrontation over territoriality.

The core of the Modi and Abe visits is that the realisation of an Asian century will depend on the ability of these three nations to arrive at a modus vivendi over contested issues.

Commodore C. Uday Bhaskar is director of the Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi. [email protected]