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Updated: January 27, 2014 00:58 IST

Japan, India and the balance of power

K. Shankar Bajpai
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Symbolic: The recent six-day India visit of Japan's Imperial Majesties presages a relationship that can influence the global power structure. Photo: Kamal Narang
The Hindu
Symbolic: The recent six-day India visit of Japan's Imperial Majesties presages a relationship that can influence the global power structure. Photo: Kamal Narang

India and Japan can honestly say that they are not building relations in hostility against China; but it is right for them to plan for the eventuality of Chinese hostility

Within two months, we have received from Japan, first that rare, and symbolically greatest, gesture, the visit of Their Imperial Majesties, then the Defence Minister’s, and now, the Premier’s. It is heartening that such an important country attaches such importance to us, despite our best efforts to prove ourselves unready, if not unable, to play the role clearly expected of us. Formally, we have so many ‘strategic partners,’ the term has lost meaning, but Japan surely could give it solid contents. The economic component is obvious, limited largely by our own non-performance; the strictly strategic part is even more important but even less attended to. We could grow economically even without making the most of Japan’s cooperation, but to our national security interests, it is irreplaceably valuable. Moreover, the relationship’s significance is more than bilateral; it will influence others and the global power structure.

The power-politics and balance-of-power calculations we denounce are facts of life, standard practice for all serious countries which plan for their national security interests with evaluations of the international distribution of power. Having multiple, often conflicting, interests to manage, all countries need some organising principle. During practically all of India’s first half-century, the Cold War furnished that principle for everyone, the pursuit of other interests being conditioned by this central fact of international life. Since its end, all countries have been at sea, casting around for some new sextant to guide them. We Indians, like all others who only took charge of their own destinies just before or during the Cold War, are dealing for the first time with the interplay of multiple powers, some rising and some weakening. They all act without the constraints, indeed the discipline, imposed by the Cold War, but one development provides a major sort of organising principle, for many states if not all: the enormous rise of China.

No country has divined the ramifications of this for itself or globally — not even China. How far it will prove an alarmingly assertive power, throwing its weight about aggressively, and how far a constructive, if self-centred, leader in shaping a new, equitable world order, is a question that has spawned quite an industry, but leaving everyone guessing. Great powers have, historically, been both, usually more the former. China should prove no exception, but in a very new setting.

Most countries cop out with the banality that one must build on areas of cooperation with China while remaining wary of unwelcome possibilities. The first depends on Chinese attitudes, the latter on your own capabilities. Since no regional country comes anywhere near China’s present capabilities, leave alone tomorrow’s, each must strengthen its own, which includes building partnerships. Each will strenuously — and genuinely — maintain these are not aimed at harming, or even containing, China, but that is what China will consider them. Is that a reason for eschewing them?

Territorial integrity paramount

Perceptions are often more consequential than actualities, but that works both ways. China surely knows that how it appears to others inevitably shapes their policies. We should not fight shy of readying ourselves for unpleasant eventualities, nor imagine that these won’t happen if we do not give China cause for misunderstanding. In this complex world, we must deal with many, varied concerns, but in regard to our national security there is surely a clear and imperative organising principle: do whatever you must to ensure territorial integrity.

That imposes compulsions arising from one stark fact: two states already occupy substantial parts of our territory and claim more. Our differences certainly need not erupt in major violence; we should keep trying for a relationship, with both our neighbours, in which a realisation of the benefits of peaceful cooperation outweighs any calculations of gains from conflict. But the surest way to preclude conflict is to manifest capabilities which make it too costly. If miscalculation or mischance should nevertheless cause eruption, nobody will help us: we would have to cope alone. We are nowhere near equipped for that, on the ground or, even more importantly, in our thinking. Japan’s interest in us should at least be a stimulus for the thinking part, as well as leading potentially to improving our ground position.

Uncertainty about the intentions and will power of the America so many criticise but rely upon to limit any Chinese hegemonism makes all affected countries rethink how to safeguard their interests. We Indians are often accused of not overcoming our neighbours’ animosities towards us, but China’s are not exactly in love with it. Unlike us, however, China enjoys a respect that shapes its neighbours’ behaviour towards it. A distinguished ASEAN diplomat once remarked that, when deliberating some issue his Foreign Office “no longer ask themselves first what Washington might be thinking, but what Beijing might.” He added: “we hope we can soon also ask what Delhi might think.” That hope has kept fading, thanks entirely to us, but is still there; Japan has emerged as one country that looks actively to its realisation.

Why our political leaders refuse to see such obvious reality is incomprehensible and self-damaging. That nobody is about to attack you tomorrow does not mean there is no ‘clear and present danger’ demanding preparation for tomorrow. Enhancing our capacity to ensure our territorial integrity brooks no slacking. It has already suffered because our opposing parties would rather gather sticks to beat each other than agree not to play cheap politics on even a handful of issues of vital national importance. They have let our defence procurement become an inadequate patchwork, ignored both the essentiality of developing a strategic-thinking defence apparatus and the disturbingly unhappy civil-military relations and, not least, not allowed India to function as a serious player in the increasingly complex and demanding international arena.

One simple question can be a surprisingly useful pointer in working out our international relationships: which countries welcome a rise of India, and which dislike it? Most countries wouldn’t care; two definitely do not wish us well; a few view a strong India as an asset to their own interests. Often, we don’t recognise some of these, much less take advantage of the opportunities they offer. Japan is clearly wishing us well, as we wish it for them. There is no point in pretending that China does not drive us both more than our bilateral hopes might do otherwise, but there is no harm in that reality. We can both honestly say we are not building relations in hostility against China; but it is right and proper for us to examine what to do if China acts in hostility against us.

Long dependent solely on its alliance with America for its national security, Japan is now looking for the best ways to rely more on itself, and play a greater role in the search for Asian stability. In our totally changed world, we ourselves have evolved to cooperate strategically with the U.S. Doing so with Japan is no less important. Just how reliable a partner Japan might consider us depends on our future functioning. That functioning is stifled by political bickering — and the dysfunction of our instruments of state. Not one vote will be changed in elections by the issues affected, but with elections approaching no improvement is conceivable for who knows how long. Fortunately, most political parties can be expected to welcome cooperation with Japan.

In translating into policies his striking devotion to his country’s greatness, Prime Minister Abe has somehow included a special liking for India. It is also to our government’s — especially our Prime Minister’s — credit that our relationship has reached such a promising stage. Once before, in the 1950s, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Premier Nobusuke Kishi had similar hopes for a special relationship. The realities of today’s strategic flux in Asia should encourage us to pick up the threads with Mr. Kishi’s grandson.

(The writer is Chairman, Delhi Policy Group, former Ambassador to Pakistan, China and the U.S., and Secretary, External Affairs Ministry)

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How many of our politicians actually know what is going on, how would they be intrested about the country apart from hoarding their assets. That apart while we have some brilliant thinkers on the strategic front, enough has not happened eg: Inclusion of our Defence forces in the thinking, role of Nuclear Sciences or space technology for that matter even economics intrepretation towards utilisation of resources have not been synergised. Consider Colin Powell or Anthony Zinni, their roles have been large in shaping the US Strategic intrests world wide. I guess we should have a vision 2050 in mind to start developing ourselves as a power house. Compelling foresight and a clear doctrine would definitely define where we can go from here and the best way is to clearly build a set of bridges that can bring together a large poise of countries to support India at every step of the way.

from:  Kuttappa
Posted on: Jan 28, 2014 at 16:24 IST

India should not only align with Japan but also with other ASEAN members plus Vietnam.But where did Mr.Bajpay has gone when he was in office.What has he done?All retired bureaucrats are writing only articles after their retirement.They did nothing during their service and showing their guts after retirement.

from:  kumar
Posted on: Jan 27, 2014 at 21:29 IST

A very good article timely published. The author has the benefit of having exercised great responsibility. He has therefore an overview of power relations in the part of the world treated in the article. He calls a spade a spade. He is not in the process, which considers India as a weak state, especially towards its northern neighbor . Regret, however, perhaps the author should have included the following reflection, which underlies his analysis. Indian officials instead of seeking strategic partnerships on other continents , far from ASIA, should have privileged partnering with its immediate neighbors, notably with Japan and other South Asian States. From this side we can estimate that there has been a great weakness on the part of Indian thinkers and especially those who are in charge of the elite of the country. Finally, it is hoped that the author of this article should have the opportunity to lead the high office of Minister for Foreign Affairs of the country.

from:  Mayoura Sougoumar
Posted on: Jan 27, 2014 at 21:16 IST

Every body knows that some day China will attack India and will try to annex Arunachal Pradesh and Bhutan . Nepal is marching already half way towards China. Indian resources may be just enough to resist the advances from Pakistan . Dividing the resources between Pakistan and China fronts whether India can defend effectively is very doubtful. We should have cooperated with USA in the fight in Afghanistan to divide Pakistan's resources between two fronts and we failed . Now every body is worrying how to contain the terrorists in Afghanistan when USA withdraw its forces from there. .we should take the help of Japan to indigenously produce armaments without wasting anymore time . We cannot afford to continue to import even trucks for army.

from:  sbalaraman
Posted on: Jan 27, 2014 at 20:57 IST

Japan, USA, Russia are highly nuclearised countries. India is a nuclearising country like China and Pak apart from the UK and France. Lamenting about the loss of the cold war era is perverse. Where are the reparations for the millions of Indian infants killed by this? Japan is a decoy for the USA or even an ally because of the nuclear energy tangle. And now Japan is shamelessly polluting the world aided by the policies of other nuke nations. Simultaneously policies should address the consequences of nuclearisation, whether Japan, the US or China or the EU. Then they must renounce nuclearisation recognising the suicidal nature of the cumulative destruction by modern civilization. The sooner Abe and other chelas of nuclearisation recoginse the extreme dangers of progressive deterioration of the gene pool of all life by nukes and in a statesmanlike manner stop nuclearisation willingly, the true parameters of external affairs would be set for a long lasting security environment. Pehle AAP!

from:  R. Ashok Kumar
Posted on: Jan 27, 2014 at 18:32 IST

True to his reputation, Mr. Bajpai has, in one single article summed
up the overall picture of our country's status and prospects in the
emerging world order. It is only fair of him to give full credit to
our Prime Minister, Mr. Manmohan Singh, for his singular achievement
in bringing Indo-Japanese relations to its present level. The thrust
of his argument could not be missed that what is expected from us by
the Japanese and the reality that we are not only unaware but unready
for accepting our new role. In the cacophony of approaching general
election, the gravity of the hegemonic posture of our mighty neighbor
is conveniently forgotten. But we shall not be able to push the dust
of debacles under the carpet of 'Chak De India' for long. Day may come
sooner when we will have to grapple with the reality of asphyxiating
encirclement by this mighty neighbor. The author's words could well be
prophetic, but sadly unheeded by the foolish leadership and
intoxicated masses.

from:  Sanjay Barot Rakhdoo
Posted on: Jan 27, 2014 at 17:33 IST

A crisp and practical version of Hans J. Morgenthau(Politics Among Nations).
But why such erudite analytic misses to reach our policy makers and those that counter, as well ?, at least, in this case, where the author has knowledge, ability, duty and reach of the corridors of power ?
Present spokesperson of Ext.Affairs- Mr.Akbar and I were ably taught power politics,once, by Prof.RVR. At least he should exert, as a tribute to RVR.

from:  Shivkumar Poolla
Posted on: Jan 27, 2014 at 14:41 IST

Policies and past actions of China compel both India and Japan to come
together. Present article deals with situation in well manner. We would
not create the situation but we must be ready to react with full of
force to any of our enemy step down.

from:  Dr. Prashant Kumar Jha
Posted on: Jan 27, 2014 at 09:32 IST

Breath-taking and accurate analysis by the author who has anchored his arguments on solid geopolitical and geostrategic developments. The demise of the Cold War by 1990 left most nations in the lurch. India lost its greatest benefactor, the USSR and was left to face an uncertain world dominated by the remaining powers that have been traditionally unfriendly to us. Coupled with our own economic mess of the early 1990s, the future looked the dimmest since Independence. This forced us to liberalize economy and Look East. The decreasing strategic space compelled us to become a nuclear weapon state. It is in this context that we have to see the current state of the India-Japan relationship. Within a matter of fifteen years after the crippling sanctions, the relationship today is truly deep as it should always have been between two natural allies. As we get closer, one hopes that the decisiveness with which Abe has been handling the Chinese affairs rubs on our political powers too.

from:  Subramanyam Sridharan
Posted on: Jan 27, 2014 at 08:38 IST

If, as mentioned, the term 'strategic partners' has lost meaning, an upgrade is always
possible. I have noted, for example, that India and US are 'indispensible partners' now.

from:  Rajan Mahadevan
Posted on: Jan 27, 2014 at 08:36 IST

Great analysis indeed. The writer has done great service by laying
down the facts with China as the formidable player, with intense sense
of arrogance and territorial aggressiveness.

There are only handful of great powers and powers-to-be, and India
being in the latter category at present(though fully capable of
joining the former in not so far future), has to understand the
strategic equation, the international gameboard and various alliances
on multiple fronts......and to do so with with energetic unleashing of
its internal levers and strengths.

India should and must fully leverage its very long coastline and the
naval strength to commensurate with dangers and the benefits, but it
should NEVER forget that its soft underbelly has always been the north
and the northwestern frontiers..mostly because of the attitudes
stemming from historical contexts and perceptions.

Again, a great dialogue and an opportunity to introspect and act upon
some difficult options in very rough neighborhood

from:  Dinesh Sampat
Posted on: Jan 27, 2014 at 05:44 IST

Certainly it is heartenig to see that Japan attaches such importance as demonstrated by the visit of their imperial majesties, defence minister and prime minister in a span of two months. India has reciprocated by having Abe as chief guest for the republic day celebrations and extended invitation to Japan to join the malabar naval exercises ignoring the sensitivities of China. All these are not happening without a purpose. Japan clearly knows the capabilities or incapabilities of India, but they are serious in helping India to rise because they see that India could be a great power and a great friend not only historically but also in future. There shall be no doubt that U.S is encouraging this partnership. The long term objective for the U.S. is to prevent conflicts between China and the neighbouring countries. The prevention of conflict is based on making the conflict prohibitively expensive to China and U.S. may not want to ruffle the feathers but surely knows how to clip the wings.

from:  KVRao
Posted on: Jan 27, 2014 at 04:06 IST

Very good article and astute observations by Bajpai. Indian foreign policy is hamstrung by a lack of strategic culture, where the strategic options open to India, their risks, pitfalls and benefits are discussed. The discussion need to be done by the foreign policy experts, academics and those who steer Indian foreign policy. I hope this article can contribute in that direction

from:  V.C.Vijayaraghavan
Posted on: Jan 27, 2014 at 04:01 IST

Thanks to The Hindu for this thought provoking and frank assessment of
India's predicament and vulnerability in Asian arena. However building
up capabilities on the ground costs money which India doesn't have a lot
of. I think most important way to buttress India's position is to
improve economic performance which garners respect in the international
arena and also provides the money to improve defence capabilities. Just
look at China's example.

from:  Suvojit Dutta
Posted on: Jan 27, 2014 at 01:53 IST
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