India and China’s Neighbours: Carefully Does It

(Published as जबिन टी. जेकब, “संबंधों में साहस और सतर्कता जरूरी,” Business Bhaskar, 24 January 2013, p. 4.)

The recent visits of Indian Vice-President Hamid Ansari and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Vietnam are signs of a growing convergence of concerns that these countries have about China. China’s rapid military modernization and its assertiveness in the last few years on various territorial disputes have belied the hope that China’s regional and global economic integration would also ensure a more peaceful China.

In China’s own view, its actions are reasonable and justified in the face of provocations from its neighbours. Leaving aside the veracity of China’s claims, the object here is to examine the strategic coming together of India, Vietnam and Japan vis-à-vis China.

There is certainly a case to be made for India and other countries that are at the receiving end of China’s assertiveness to make common cause. Thus, it is that India and Vietnam have since the end of colonialism always had a close relationship based on shared strategic concerns and the partnership has certainly gotten closer in recent years since Vietnam too started implementing economic reforms. Both countries have also improved their relationships with the United States thus further increasing their room for manoeuvre in the region.

India’s relationship with Japan meanwhile has been a bit of a paradox. There were strong connections during the independence struggle, between sections of the Indian political elite and right-wing Japanese politicians – the Indian National Army under Subhas Chandra Bose was one result of such linkages. Post-World War II, however, political relations declined even as the economic relationship gradually picked up pace with Japan becoming one of India’s most important investors even before the beginning of the latter’s economic reforms. It was only the last decade with Junichiro Koizumi and Shinzo Abe in his previous term as Japanese Prime Ministers that the political relationship has been revitalized.

But as in the case of Vietnam, India’s political ties with Japan are strongly dominated by the ‘China threat’. The question is if this is a good thing for India’s long-term interests.

Both Vietnam and Japan – including both their political elite and general public – have a far more intimate and complex history of political interactions and military conflict with China than India does. The 1962 conflict is a mere blip in comparison to the centuries-long conflicts and rivalry between China and its two neighbours in the east.

New Delhi therefore, needs to take a more nuanced view of its relationships with Hanoi and Tokyo when it comes to the political and military sphere.

Both Vietnam and Japan have significant domestic constituencies that seek better relations with China for reasons of self-interest. Besides the huge importance of bilateral trade and investment with China, there are also of course, capability issues. China’s rapid military modernization has further widened the gap with Vietnam and while Japan has technologically superior armed forces that can hold their own in certain conditions, it certainly does not have either the political stamina or the demography for a long-drawn conflict.

And in the current international context, neither Vietnam nor Japan has the luxury of relying on sustained outside support in the case of a long-drawn conflict or even diplomatic standoff with China.

India therefore has reasons to be modest in its expectations of these relationships in the strategic sphere. Still, there is also no reason to be too careful as India has been wont to be when it comes to dealing with China’s neighbours. For one, joint naval exercises under the Quadrilateral Initiative between India, Japan, the US and Australia must be revived. The Initiative had been scuppered a few years ago when Beijing raised objections. Bring in Indonesia and Vietnam too, or even leave out the US if necessary, for it is American involvement in its neighbourhood that really spooks China.

But if a host of nations without the US and including India find it necessary to band together in China’s neighbourhood, then it could well be an education for China’s leaders that it is not just the Americans interfering in the neighbourhood but some genuine concerns about China’s actions and intentions that are creating instability in the region.

Two, no strategic grouping can be sustainable without also developing linkages at multiple levels. There needs to be a range of issues besides those of military or economic concern that can keep partnerships sustainable for the long term. In addition to that between political leaders, bureaucracies, and defense establishments, there needs to be deeper engagement between businessmen, students and scientists among others. Further such engagement can also be solidified only on the basis of true cultural understanding including knowledge of each other’s history and languages.

Currently, India’s partnerships with Vietnam and Japan and many other important countries in Asia are elite-driven and have little by way of understanding among their peoples of each other’s culture and belief systems. Indeed, stereotypes rule in India in which a Vietnamese, Japanese and Chinese are all viewed through the same lens of racial prejudice and ignorance.

If India seeks leadership in the region, then this reality needs to change.

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