The Chinese dragon is frothing at the mouth, according to
Delhi dailies. Because Japan is not respecting the cozy monopolistic
relationship that China’s been trying to cultivate with India, Shinzo
Abe and his government are “petty burglars,” according to official Chinese
sources. The despicable, party-crashing
Japanese are trying to steal a friend away, as if India, prime player of
diplomatic games long centuries before Machiavelli began musing about princes, hasn’t
known all along that Pakistan is also a friend of China. And one with much sexier (read:
military/strategic) benefits at that. Chinese
thinking goes something like this: if Pakistan can serve as a drag on Indian
resources and attention, Delhi will find it harder to compete with China in the
The Indian PM Visits Tokyo
So who’s fooling whom? Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh went
to Tokyo to meet his Japanese counterpart a week ago. He and Abe got along just fine on the
personal level ̶̶ as they always have, evidently. Substantively, the encounter was even more
successful. The two agreed to facilitate a package of increased economic assistance
and accelerated private investment that will come with intriguing military and
strategic aspects as well. If deeds follow words, these commitments have the
potential to change the balance of power in Asia.
All of a sudden, China looks less irresistible. As the Hindustan Times puts it, “China does
not fear its neighbours individually.
But it is concerned about them ganging up. Abe seems to want to use
Japan’s capacities to enhance Indian power and make it a genuine geopolitical balance
to the Middle Kingdom. A close
Indo-Japanese relationship would also bring the US into the picture, a
trilateral equation that has Beijing gnashing its teeth.”
China on the Move
China will surely do all it can to counteract India’s
interesting little coup, which is not complicated by bad memories of Japanese
occupation during World War II. On the
contrary, Japan supported the ragtag Indian National Army under Subash Chandra
Bose, who hoped to use the war to pry India from Britain’s colonial grip. So here’s the worst case scenario from
China’s point of view: strengthened ties between India and Japan will doom the
long-standing (and intensifying) Chinese strategy of divide-and-conquer in
dealing with land border disputes and with South China Sea issues involving
rocky islets that may be attached to oil-bearing strata. On the other hand,
should China remain unimpeded,long-standing U.S. access to important waters might be curtailed.
It’s no secret that China has been building deep water ports
in poor countries to the East and West of India: Pakistan. Sri Lanka. Myanmar.
Good for trade. Good for China’s
expanding blue sea navy. Now, according to the Hindustan Times, Japan is preparing to re-militarize and India is a
perfect partner. The two countries have
already begun bilateral naval exercises, and under the new protocols India would
be the first country to import military equipment from postwar Japan: a nifty
little amphibious airplane good for reconnaissance and rescues at sea. Finally,
the two countries have agreed on interpretations of the Law of the Sea which
are not at all to China’s liking.
No Bilaterals, Please
In the past, when members of ASEAN have proposed
multilateral arrangements with China, Beijing has spurned the idea in favor of massively
unequal bilateral relationships with the pygmies in its supposed sphere of
influence. However, if India and Japan
stand strong and in agreement at either end of the ring of less powerful neighbors,
the countries in between may find it easier to resist China’s more outrageous
hegemonic demands. Myanmar has already moved closer to the U.S., and
not-so-small Indonesia may find some backbone, instead of reverting to the days
when the rulers of Java and Sumatra paid tribute to Chinese emperors.
The Three Beneficials
According to a Hindustan Times editorial on May 30th, the gains from placing the Delhi-Tokyo
partnership “on a special pedestal” just now are threefold:
(1) Japan, “still the
third largest economy and one of the most technologically advanced nations in
the world,” is willing and able to invest in India “on a scale matched by
almost no other country.” This includes
a $90 billion infrastructure deal for the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor. In
return for this and other benefits, the super-bureaucratic, highly protective Indian
state will make it easier for Japanese companies to do business in India.
(2) “Japan Inc. is on the hunt for a new overseas home for
its factories and plants” as a result of higher Chinese labor costs and a growing
tide of anti-Japanese sentiment, much whipped up for political purposes by the
Chinese government itself. India’s gain?
Jobs. Exports. Capital flows. Some of the companies looking to move investment
and productive capacity from China to India?
Toyota. Sony. Toshiba. Hitachi. Honda.
(3) Japan and India share “a common concern about the
increasingly erratic and unpredictable international behavior of China.” To my
mind the editorialist’s choice of words here is odd. For “erratic and unpredictable,” I’d
substitute “relentlessly expansive.” China regularly lays claim to chunks of
border territory that have been governed from New Delhi for half a century. For instance, while Japan has been sparring
with China over the Senkaku Islands, India has been faced with the Red Army’s
18 mile penetration into mountainous Ladakh.
In the end, China withdrew, but one can’t help wondering how they could
have been allowed to penetrate so far.
Border Issues and the Tibet Card
Whether the intruder is Pakistan or China, India seems to be
pretty sloppy about border guarding. A short
winter war was required to throw the Pakistanis out of Cargil in Ladakh a
little over ten years ago, and who knows what it might have taken to get the
Chinese out ̶ major strategic concessions? an exchange of
fire? ̶ if a visit from the new Chinese premier hadn’t
already been announced.
conjecture in The Week for June 2nd
suggests that India might have played one of two cards ̶ or
both. (1) India could have canceled the visit, a humiliating prospect for such
an important visitor. (2) India may have
told the Chinese that it wouldn’t be possible to prevent India-resident Tibetan
militants from staging potentially violent protests during the high level visit.
This, too, would have caused public humiliation. In addition, the visuals would have been delicious
fodder for gleeful global news telecasters.
Even China’s powerful censorship apparatus would have found find it
difficult to keep reports from reaching and enheartening the restive Tibetan
population within China.
In the end, the visit took place. All was peaceful, diplomatic
platitudes were uttered, and no agreements or disagreements that could be
publicized came of it.
Bellicose Press Reactions
More interesting by far than the ritualized official
statements were the news analyses and op-ed pieces the visit called forth. A
number of them suggested that India’s military position vis-à-vis China is
stronger than mainstream international news outlets normally presume. For example, The Week’s R. Prasannan wrote on May 31st: “I am
convinced that militarily the Chinese fear us as we fear them. They fear our BrahMos cruise missiles, the
world’s fastest stationed in Ladakh.
They fear our superior Sukhoi-30KI squadrons parked in Tezpur and
Bareilly, which are a bomb’s throw away from Lhasa and Beijing…[But] China
unsettles us, [too]. We fear their
mountain trains will bring troops and tanks to Tibet to invade us [and] their barrages
will block the Brahmaputra” rendering Manmohan Singh’s home state of Assam “high
and dry.” Another writer noted how easy it would be to bomb those tracks and
trains with or without troops aboard.
And finally here’s what G. Parthasarathy wrote in India Today: “China knows that India is
today facing an economic downturn and a slowdown in its military modernization. It evidently believes its intrusion can be used
to coerce India into agreeing to freeze its troop levels on the border. Chinese assertiveness requires that India
should review the entire range of its policies on China. It should expeditiously enhance and modernize
its military capabilities and improve lines of communications along it borders. This will have to be reinforced by
imaginative diplomacy, especially in relations with the US, Japan, Vietnam and its
The Mild PM Minces No Words
As Manmohan Singh (who’s notorious for his almost infuriatingly mild manner) said to Shinzo Abe during his visit to
Tokyo, “Our defense and security dialogue, military exercises and defense
technology collaboration should grow.”
Maybe it’s time for China to rethink its doubly offensive, aggressive
and expansionist foreign policy. The blowback, I suspect, has only begun. Imagine this: India and Pakistan deciding that
their permanent state of war is more beneficial to China than to
the petulant siblings of South Asia. Would Pakistan’s army allow a normalization
of relations to happen this time around?