India-Japan-China: India's fine balancing

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s two day visit to Japan from May 27 to 29 is taking place close on the heels of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s three day visit to   India, which concluded on 21st of this month.

In fact Premier Li’s visit to India, which itself was his first ever visit abroad after assuming the exalted office, took place in the backdrop of border incursion by China to Indian side of Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Western sector of India-China border giving rise to security concerns in India. While the precise reasons for the border ingress by China are still debated, it certainly exacerbated India’s persistent security dilemma with its mighty neighbour with whom India has an asymmetrical relations. Although the visit of the Chinese Premier some how assuaged India’s trust deficit, the incident has certainly left a scar, which can only be healed if Chinese charm offensive meets with actual action on the ground.

Not much media attention was paid to yet another important visit to India by the Deputy Prime Minister of Japan Tara Aso, when the dust on the border transgression had hardly settled. The strategic significance of the visit, which has a bearing on the region and on the triangular India-Japan –China relations can be inferred from the address which he delivered in Delhi to a select group of individuals on May 4. He catalogued the convergence of shared values in terms of India’s boisterous democracy, which he described as ‘noisy beehives’, a vigilant press which bites, and India’s ‘ascending navy’ in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). The choice of the epithets and the connect among them meet more than the eye, suggesting the elephant in the room. The allusion to the elephant in the room was discreet when he said, “Alliance, in the Indian context, drops some jaws, and I am aware of that”. 

In India’s ‘look east policy’, Japan is increasingly occupying a strategic significance. Defence and security cooperation has gradually emerged as a key factor of India’s strategic and global partnership with Japan and is recognised by both sides as beneficial to peace and prosperity in Asia and the world.’ Within the framework of the October 2008 India-Japan Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation, which was the first of such document signed by India with any other country, a concrete action plan was issued in 2009.

India’s relations with Japan has undergone a significant transformation in recent years, with the establishment of the ‘India-Japan Strategic and Global Partnership’ and the practice of annual summits during the visit of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Japan in December 2006. India and Japan have also concluded an Annual Strategic Dialogue between Foreign Ministers since 2007. One of the high points in India’s relations with Japan in recent years was Manmohan Singh’s visit to Japan in October 2010 for the annual summit with his Japanese counterpart Naoto Kan during which they signed two  significant documents, viz. a Joint Statement ‘Vision for India-Japan Strategic and Global Partnership in the Next Decade Joint Declaration between leaders of India and Japan and conclusion of the ‘Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement.’

The Elephant in the room. In the narrative of the India-Japan relationship China has been the elephant in the room.  The two countries have shared their experience of handling China. Beijing is wary of the closer strategic proximity between India and Japan. This discomfort was evident in the Chinese media after Manmohan Singh’s visit to Japan in 2011. Japan’s decision to allow its companies to take part in arms development projects with countries other than the US and the $15 billion currency swap deal between India and Japan had created some disquiet in China.

Given the persistent security distrust between Japan and China and conscious of Chinese wariness, New Delhi has been sensitive to the Chinese consternation about the evolving security and strategic relationship between India and Japan. India thus, scrupulously avoided any reference in the text of the India-Japan declaration to ‘the new security challenges’, a sobriquet that forms part of Japan’s strategic partnership with Australia, and is a euphemism the rise in China’s might. It must also be recalled that within hours of signing the security declaration, Manmohan Singh said in Tokyo that the increase in India’s bilateral relation with China alone was ‘more than the whole of total trade with Japan’. It is in this backdrop that India is trying to strike a fine balance.

It seems that in China there is also a section of scholars who argue for a better India-China cooperation to counter the US policy of expanding influence in Asia. New Delhi in turn has calibrated its relationship with China with a great degree of finesse. After the end of cod war a new paradigm of international relations is emerging in which economic interdependence is the main driver. If New Delhi is sure of China’s bona fide strategic intent, it will forge political trust between the two countries.

(The writer is a Senior fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses)

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