In the past week, the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore and the Asia-Pacific Roundtable in Kuala Lumpur have focused on the future geopolitics of the Asia Pacific.
Not surprisingly, the key discussions have centered on the rising tensions between Asia’s has-been power, Japan, and rising power China. This is a rivalry poisoned by history, and it is threatening the peace of a region which is the engine of the world’s economic growth.
In the past five years, China has been flexing its muscles in the South and East China Seas raising the hackles of its neighbours. Not only is Beijing undertaking a massive military build up, but the Communist Party of China under the leadership, of Xi Jinping, is taking an active role in promoting a proactive national security posture.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said that when Indian PM Narendra Modi visits Japan, the two sides will work to make the Japan-India cooperation peaceful and prosperous. Pic/AFP
A consequence of this has been the US decision to ‘rebalance’ itself towards Asia to reassure key allies like South Korea, Japan and the Philippines. But perhaps more dramatic, and in its own way worrisome, has been the ‘return’ of Japan to the high-stakes table.
This has been evident in the platform of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the foundations of whose policy is an economic revival of Japan based on the ‘three arrows’ of Abenomics: A bold monetary policy with a view of easing monetary conditions to encourage an inflation rate of 2 per cent; a flexible fiscal policy which includes an economic stimulus package and fiscal consolidation; and finally a growth strategy dependent on promoting private investment, targeting new markets and working out new trade agreements, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Equally significant has been Japan’s new diplomacy which has sought to, first and foremost, strengthen the US-Japan alliance. A subset of this is the push to work out a modus vivendi with South Korea which retains historical suspicions of Japan.
The second pillar of Japanese diplomacy involves promoting links with the ASEAN, Australia and India. The third is to deepen ties with EU and Russia and finally, take a more active role in global issues such as climate change, millennium development goals etc.
But the most dramatic changes are likely to show up in Tokyo’s security policy, which is based on deep reform of its security infrastructure. In December 2013 Japan set up a National Security Council and within weeks, came up with a new National Security Strategy which sees Japan as a ‘proactive contributor to peace based on the principle of international cooperation’.
This means redefining what self-defence is all about and enhancing the Japanese contribution to it, through stronger ties with the US, strengthening the Japanese military and sharpening its technological edge. The Abe government wants to re-interpret self-defence to mean the ability of Japanese forces to come to the aid of allies, even if Japan itself is not attacked. This is opposed by China, South Korea and by some in Japan.
They are afraid that it could put Japan back on the path of militarisation that led to the catastrophe of World War II. India has been the beneficiary of China-Japan tensions. Prior to the anti-Japanese demonstrations in China in 2005, Tokyo largely ignored New Delhi. China was the foremost recipient of Japanese Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) in the 1980 and 1990s. By 2000, Japan had provided China with some $25 billion in soft loans and grants which went a long way in developing China’s infrastructure. In the 1958-2000 period, Japan’s ODA to India was around $7 billion.
Since then, India has become its largest recipient for successive years and since 2000, it has got some $30 billion worth of ODA. In addition, Japan’s private sector, long leery of India has begun hedging its Chinese bets by investing in India. Among the Japanese projects are long-range ones like the Delhi-Mumbai freight corridor along which there are plans to build new cities and economic zones.
India could also benefit from Tokyo’s shifting stance on exports relating to defence equipment. In April, Japan tweaked its export policy by coming up with a new set of ‘Three Principles’ on defence equipment transfer. But, already, it has offered New Delhi the ShinMaywa US 2 amphibian aircraft for use by the Coast Guard and other non-military agencies.
The rise, if you want to call it that, of another Asian power on the flanks of China, one which also has difficulties with Beijing, is to India’s advantage. New Delhi is not unaware of the geopolitical benefits. For this reason, Abe was the chief guest at the Republic Day parade this year. India and Japan began bilateral naval exercises in 2012, and during the Abe visit, it was announced that Japan would join this year’s Malabar Exercise involving India and the US again.
In his speech at the Shangri-La dialogue, Abe had hailed Modi’s election as Prime Minister and said that when the Indian PM visited Japan, the two sides would confirm that “Japan-India cooperation, as well as trilateral cooperation including our two countries, will make the ‘confluence of the two seas’, that is the Pacific and Indian Oceans, peaceful and more prosperous.” These are public declarations, deliberately couched in generalities, but containing within a host of geopolitical possibilities.
The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi