The benefits of a multipolar world

NEW VISTAS: Narendra Modi’s Japan visit has buttressed India’s position in an important triangle in Asia. Picture shows the Prime Minister with his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe in Toji Temple in Kyoto.

NEW VISTAS: Narendra Modi’s Japan visit has buttressed India’s position in an important triangle in Asia. Picture shows the Prime Minister with his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe in Toji Temple in Kyoto.  


Being wooed by both Tokyo and Beijing has opened new vistas for both India’s domestic transformation and its role in Asia and the world

It is a timeless maxim in international triangular politics that when one state has better bilateral ties than what the other two states have with each other, it is in a geopolitically advantageous position. Narendra Modi’s Japan visit has buttressed India’s position in an important triangle in Asia.

For decades, India has been at the wrong end of triangular politics. Whether it was the U.S.-Pakistan-India triangle, the India-China-Pakistan triangle, or the U.S.-China-India triangle, New Delhi was always in the unenviable position of managing simultaneously unfriendly dyads. To now being wooed by both Tokyo and Beijing, even as Japan-China relations remain sour, has opened new vistas for both India’s domestic transformation, and, its role in Asia and the world.

While it would be tempting to interpret Mr. Modi’s rendezvous with Shinzo¯ Abe in mostly geopolitical terms, it is actually more about development. As Mr. Modi said in one of his speeches in Japan, “As a Gujarati, commerce is in my blood.” He brought that spirit to Japan with Mr. Abe reciprocating with an earmarked $35 billion in direct finance or investment over the next five years, a process that would be overseen by a dedicated team in the Prime Minister’s Office to overcome any red tape.

Look East policy

Japan has finally begun a small step in diversifying its production base, which has high trade and investment exposure to China. Based on Japan External Trade Organization data, Japan’s cumulative foreign direct investment (FDI) in China was nearly U.S. $100 billion by end of 2013, accounting for over 30 per cent of Japan’s outward FDI stock in Asia. More than 20,000 Japanese-owned or affiliated ventures operate in China. (Japan’s FDI stock in India was $15 billion by end 2012.) To emulate China’s strategy, India has to address three pillars of its manufacturing ecosystem. One, the quality of its labour-intensive workforce since this is a variable driving Japanese capital away from the maturing production centres near coastal China. Second, the quality of its infrastructure sectors — power, transportation, ports and access to natural resources. Third, a policy framework that encourages export-orientation. Nevertheless, in Japan, India has found the most enthused G-7 economy with a potential to transform India’s industrial and technological base.

“If it plays its cards wisely, India can reap the benefits of a multipolar world”

While on the economy the challenge is ultimately one of local implementation, on foreign policy it is one of navigating Asia’s geopolitics.

Three factors should inform Mr. Modi’s Look East policy.

First, do not become a spoke in the hub: that is do not get roped into a collective security bloc with shared political and military commitments. In fact, the Tokyo Declaration emphasises more bilateral than multilateral security cooperation, which is consistent with India’s traditional preference for open and inclusive security architecture rather than a closed hierarchical system dominated by one or more states.

Second, recognise that the Pacific is an immensely complex theatre where old histories continue to cast their shadow over contemporary power politics. Conflicting identities — China-Japan, South Korea-Japan, North Korea-Japan, Russia-Japan, China-Vietnam, China and the South China Sea littorals — continue to animate East Asia’s international relations.

Both China and Japan have a complicated equation with their neighbours. For China’s neighbours, it is the prospect of reviving a “Middle Kingdom” suffocating nation states on its periphery that fuels insecurity. For Japan, it is an undiminished colonial history affecting the national identities of the Korean peninsula, China, and much of the Western Pacific. Japan’s quest to acquire the sinews of a normal state has only heightened the shadows of its past role in Asia.

In sum, both China and Japan are struggling to define a role that can carry the rest of Asia along with them. Ironically, and in a strange way, India legitimises both China’s and Japan’s role in Asia. For Japan, India is the only state without the stain of colonial oppression, and one that is eager for a larger Japanese role in Asia’s future.

A relatively stable neighbour

For China, India is a relatively stable neighbour in contrast to rising antagonisms with a U.S.-led Pacific bloc. India’s independent role and a relatively clean slate in Asia, despite an unresolved dispute with China, provide India with leverage and space if used sensibly.

Third, Russia and China have forged a mutually beneficial global partnership primarily to counteract the lingering unilateralist impulses of Washington. Whether it was the Iran nuclear issue, the Syrian civil war, or the tussle between Russia and the West over Ukraine’s alignment, Moscow and Beijing have been on virtually the same page. As one participant at the recent Stockholm China Forum reportedly remarked, “When China is confronted by U.S., we think Russia is with U.S. – and vice versa. It boosts us psychologically.” While the Kremlin is by no means misty-eyed about its partnership with Beijing, Washington’s policy of containment has left Russian President Vladimir Putin with few options but to seek strategic and economic depth with Russia’s largest neighbour.

This also has implications for Asia Pacific’s geopolitics. For example, the Russian media recently revealed that its military had “detected and stopped” a Japanese submarine “near the Russian-Japanese maritime boundary.” In May, during Mr. Putin’s China visit, in a gesture to Beijing, Russia conducted sophisticated naval exercises with China in the East China Sea as a deliberate signal to Washington that it could complicate America’s forward presence in the Western Pacific.

Suffice it to say, New Delhi must recognise these dynamics and avoid postures and policies that could involve India in larger power struggles in which it has no direct interests. If it plays its cards wisely, India can reap the benefits of a multipolar world.

(Zorawar Daulet Singh is a foreign affairs analyst and a research scholar at King’s College, London.)

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Printable version | Jul 19, 2019 11:19:19 AM |

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