SaturdayFiled under Asia News, Southern Asia, Business & Politics, Featured
As Chinese and Japanese surveillance ships and aircrafts shadow each other around Senkaku/Diaoyu islands tension is rising. But both the powers are also engaged in smile diplomacy to woo India, creating diplomatic openings for the country. Preoccupied with territorial disputes with Japan and its Southeast Asian neighbours, and concerned about the US pivot China is showing unusual warmth towards India. Coincidentally, the newly-elected Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a long-time friend of India, has issued a thinly veiled call for an anti-China alliance. By steering a prudent course between competing suitors India could significantly improve its position in the region. Any misstep, however, could hurt India`s economic progress and endanger its long-term security.
In December, Liberal Democratic Party under Abe won a landslide victory fighting on a nationalist platform. Within weeks of becoming prime minister he published an unusually blunt editorial in which he charged that the South China Sea seems set to become “Lake Beijing”, where “the People’s Liberation Army’s navy [could] base their nuclear-powered attack submarines”. This development, he wrote, surpassed what he imagined in 2007 when he sought India`s friendship. “Anxious that such a development could arise, I spoke in India of the need for the Indian and Japanese governments to join together to shoulder more responsibility as guardians of navigational freedom across the Pacific and Indian oceans.” Abe now wants to put “greater emphasis” on India developing regular bilateral service-to-service military dialogues and start official trilateral talks that include the US. He praised India for signing an agreement to provide Japan with rare earth minerals — a key component of which China holds near monopoly, and stopped exporting to Japan following a marine incident.
China’s newly-elected party secretary general Xi Jinping, meanwhile, has written to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that China will “pay great importance to developing relations with India”. He said China “expects to carry out close cooperation with India to create a brighter future of their bilateral relations”. At the end of the recent defence dialogue in Beijing deputy chief of general staff of PLA Lt Gen Qi Jianguo was quoted as saying that “China sincerely hopes to become a strategic partner of India based on equality, mutual trust, mutual learning and cooperation. “There are indications that this is not just polite noise by a new leadership in China. Indian diplomatic sources say that in recent months China has been all sweet and honey, relieved that India has not joined American-led efforts against China. Despite entreaties by some Aseancountries to step up its presence in the region India has been cautious, letting the countries know to not count on India to fight China. By publicly supporting Asean, India wants to give the grouping a margin of manoeuvre without provoking China. The diplomats say that China is wary of Pakistan`s instability and its role in training Uighur militants. While Beijing would not change the low-cost policy of supporting Pakistan as a proxy to curb India`s regional power, China may be more appreciative of India`s stabilising role in Afghanistan. Though a border agreement with China is not for tomorrow, the fact of working towards the goal gives India breathing room.
The possibility of cooperation with China on international forums from Brics to climate change talks — and expanding economic ties could proceed while India strengthens cooperation with US and Japan. India`s growing military cooperation with the US and joint exercises with Japan, not to mention expanding economic ties with Japan, which is making significant investments, is as much for India`s growth as it is a hedge against China. But India would calibrate carefully its embrace of Japan so as to not fall into a de facto alliance against China.
The fact is that despite tough talk by Abe, Japan itself is ambivalent about how to deal with the Chinese challenge. Steady escalation of Chinese pressure on Japan over Senkaku seems designed to force Japan to acknowledge that the island is a disputed territory. The US is publicly and privately urging Japan to show restraint against Chinese provocation. Abe will also have to listen to Japan`s business community, which is anxious to not lose Chinese market and manufacturing platforms by slipping into a conflict. While India and Japan share an interest in freedom of navigation and curbing China`s ambition, India will have more clout by staking a middle ground rather than being seen as Japan`s ally.
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