When India and China confronted each other in the highlands of the Himalayas this April, the reverberations could be heard in Tokyo. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, during his visit to Japan in the last week of May to coincide with 60 years of diplomatic relations between the two countries, relayed the concerns regarding an “assertive” China and the changing power dynamics in the region in no uncertain terms. Indicating India’s growing realism, Singh further asserted that “historical differences persist despite our growing interdependence; prosperity has not fully eliminated disparities with and between nations and there are continuing threats to stability and security in the region”.
Singh could not have been more correct in explaining the relations the two Asian democracies have with their bigger neighbor, China. The 4,200-kilometer Himalayan land border between India and China is Asia’s largest border dispute, over which the two states went to war in 1962. Meanwhile, China’s recent behavior towards Japan’s control of the Senkaku Islands (known as the Diaoyu Islands in China) has been seen as extremely aggressive. Economic interdependence has not helped ease tensions. Despite the enormous trade volumes between Japan and China, standing at about $330 billion in 2012, the aftermath of the 2010 boat collision and China’s aggression over the disputed islands illustrated that interdependence is no cure when it comes to peaceful resolution of territorial conflicts. Worse, Beijing has often used the trade asymmetry with Japan to its own advantage, stopping the supply of commodities such as rare earth metals on which Japan depended.
With its growing military and economic capabilities, the continued rise of China is now politically overshadowing established powers like Japan and rising states like India in equal measure. This disparity of relative power growth has created a perception of a slow but certain shift in the balance of power in Asia towards Chinese hegemony. As these asymmetries grow, smaller states have started hedging against China. In the India-Japan partnership, one can observe similar strategic maneuvers with shades of power politics.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
At the recent Japan-India Summit, Singh declared “Japan as a natural and indispensable partner in our quest for stability and peace in the vast region of Asia-Pacific.” Echoing him, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also repeatedly emphasized his 2007 remarks, “Confluence of the Two Seas,” which highlighted the maritime security and cooperation between the two countries.
China was clearly alarmed by this development, evident in the commentary that appeared in the Communist Party organ, Global Times. Calling Japanese “petty burglars” and “international provocateurs,” it warned India of getting close to Japan “at its own peril.” Clearly, Beijing has not missed the emerging balance of power in Asia.
In fact, an Indo-Japanese entente against the growing influence of China in Asia is not a recent phenomenon. Japan and India have been cooperating on defense and security issues since 2001, when the bilateral Comprehensive Security Dialogue was inaugurated. Further institutionalization of bilateral security cooperation continued, with the two countries issuing “the Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation between Japan and India” in October 2008, and commencing the bilateral 2+2 dialogue in 2009.
Still, there seemed to be an implicit strategic consensus not to create antagonism with China. During his first term, Abe sought to enhance strategic relations with India, fundamentally driven by the balance of power in Asia, hedging against China’s uncertain future. More cautious was India, then Asia’s rising star – the world’s most populous democracy with two decades of high economic growth backed by the liberal reforms from the early 1990s. Its foreign policy became more pragmatic, and New Delhi eschewed unnecessary strategic provocations vis-à-vis China. This was well illustrated in 2006, when Abe called for a “concert of democracies” – the U.S., Australia, India and Japan – to join hands in the Asia-Pacific. India (and Australia) were the first to back away from the arrangement lest it provoked China’s ire.