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Japan, India and the balance of power

K. Shankar Bajpai
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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

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
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

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)

Japan’s cooperation, not indispensable for India’s economic growth, is vital for its national security


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