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.