China is the world’s second-largest economy and one its major political powers. While it has not been tested in battle for some 40 years, it has the largest military in the world and the second-largest military budget. For nearly 70 years, the world’s most populous country has been ruled by a single political party – the Communist Party of China (CPC) – and so when it holds its once-in-five-years national congress, it is an important event that the rest of the world and especially neighbouring India would do well to watch closely and understand.
Originally published as Jabin T. Jacob, ‘Role of Major Powers in the Indo-Pacific Region’ in Gurpreet S Khurana and Antara Ghosal Singh (eds). India and China: Constructing A Peaceful Order in the Indo-Pacific (New Delhi: National Maritime Foundation, 2016), pp. 79-89.
The conversion of the ‘Asia-Pacific’ into the ‘Indo-Pacific’ – a construct of fairly recent vintage – is of somewhat varying legitimacy depending on the issues one is dealing with. From an economic perspective, the ‘Indo-Pacific’ makes sense given the long energy supply lines between West Asia and East Asia and also from a goods trade perspective. The ‘Indo-Pacific’ is also increasingly relevant on the basis of various new and specific themes such as climate change, theft of intellectual property, currency manipulation and cyber-security.
However, from a traditional security perspective, the new nomenclature appears rather contrived still even if energy security or nuclear proliferation – that link the Indian and Pacific Oceans – are major issues for the growing powers in Asia. This is so because it is only truly the United States that links the two geographies in terms of credible security capacity. Further, concerns of piracy in the Indian Ocean apart, it is the East Asian half of the Indo-Pacific that is the more critical region from a maritime security perspective given the various maritime disputes involving China and its neighbours, the nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula and the incipient great power competition between China and the United States. Keeping this context in mind, this essay will examine the role of three major powers in East Asia, namely, Japan, Russia and the United States, and their interactions with China as a way of understanding evolving dynamics in the Indo-Pacific.
As neighbours and sibling civilizations, China and Japan have been structurally oriented towards rivalry. China is unwilling to forgive or forget the humiliation by and depredations of the Japanese during WW II and the Japanese elites that matter are unwilling to fully and genuinely apologize or to let go of the chip on their shoulder from having bested and dominated their larger neighbor for however brief a period. The current Chinese territorial claims over the Senkakus are only a manifestation of this historical reality rather than the main problem.
The original of an interview published in the Maharashtra Times, Pune in Marathi on 31 July 2016.
1. Why is China so aggressive in the South China Sea case? Are there any chances of war between China and other parts of the world?
A: China has a strong sense of having suffered from Western and Japanese colonialism and of being wronged. The so-called ‘century of humiliation’ is something that every Chinese man, woman and child is familiar with and hence, they have a great attachment to territory as a sign of their historical greatness. Right now, Chinese leaders seem their country as being militarily more powerful than their neighbours and so think they can also claim the territory they want in the South China Sea. But this is not simply a case of China versus its ASEAN neighbours. China is in the main trying to keep the United States from exercising power and influence in China’s neighbourhood. Chances of all-out war are low. China is smart enough not to damage its chances of growth and prosperity by going to war.
2. China has tense relations with almost all ASEAN countries. But, their Maritime silk route vision includes Southeast Asia also. Both these things stand in contrast. How will they manage?
Contemporary Sino-Japanese relations have long crossed the line from foreign policy to becoming an active domestic issue, particularly in China and now increasingly so, also in Japan. China appears to believe both that nationalist passions can be controlled and that time and demography are on its side. The first assumption is questionable though evidence till now shows that Beijing has been successful while the second is correct. India will then have to manage its relationship with Japan keeping both realities in mind.
Given their long history of exchanges, it was always unlikely that the legacy of World War II would be forgotten or forgiven as in the European case but in both countries this past is now being used to rake up and create fresh reasons for discord and enmity. In China, the humiliation of being overrun and subject to the depredations of the Japanese was the worst of the ‘century of humiliations’ while for the Japanese, their brief dominance over China allowed them to finally emerge from the long historical and civilizational shadow of their larger neighbour.
One of the more striking images of the 2008 earthquake in China was of a Japanese destroyer steaming into a Chinese port as part of a relief mission, the first such instance since the end of World War II. The Chinese were quick to reciprocate with a similar offer of aid following the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. Disaster relief operations as an opportunity to engage in diplomacy is not a new phenomenon but seems certainly to have picked up pace in recent years, particularly in Asia, where disasters are frequent and more often than not are accompanied by heavy losses to life and property.