In a first sign of nervousness over growing Japan-India relations, a prominent Communist Party newspaper in China has voiced the hopeful claim that India will not back Japan in the event of a military conflict breaking out between China and Japan over disputed islands in the South China Sea. In its article, The Global Times, which is known to be aggressively nationalistic and virulently anti-Japan, summarised the views of China’s noted India policy expert Wang Dehua. It said: “The bottom line is that if the dispute between China and Japan evolves into military clashes, which is very unlikely, India will not back up Japan.”
This reflects new thinking within the party and government that perhaps espouses a softer approach towards India for fear of driving it towards Japan. So far, The Global Times, which is owned by the Chinese Communist Party, has not been kind to India, but that is to be expected.
However, all foreign policy calculations tend to dissolve when it comes to China’s relations with Japan. Though China and Japan are cultural cousins, there is enormous animosity between them because of historical Japanese aggression and the brutal legacy of the Second World War. The recent visit to a Japanese war memorial by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has fanned these flames. As if lending credence to this distrust, The Global Times article appeared under the headline: “India uncertain as Abe looks for anti-China alliance.”
Tensions between China and Japan, which have long been simmering over ownership of a small group of islands under Japanese control, came to a boil in 2012. Both nations have ever since stoked tensions with military overflights and provocative statements.
The Japanese prime minister has been aggressively wooing India and other Southeast Asian countries. Since coming to power in 2012, Abe had toured all 10 countries comprising the regional bloc ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) in his first year in office. Several asean countries like the Philippines have been aggressively defending their claims in their own disputes with China over islands in the South China Sea after China published claims to 80 percent of all sea waters.
India, which has a large and well-regarded navy, uncharacteristically flexed its muscle in December 2012 with a press conference by its naval chief. Speaking in New Delhi, Admiral DK Joshi said India was ready to defend oil interests in the South China Sea and called China’s growing maritime strength a major concern.
Since then, Abe, an unapologetic nationalist, who has not acknowledged Japan’s wartime excesses, has wooed India enthusiastically. The Japan-India alliance has seemed to foster India’s special status as the bulwark against a China determined under President Xi Jinping to forcefully assert its sway in Asia.
Officially and privately, though, Indian officials are wont to dismiss such claims, made increasingly after US President Barack Obama’s call during a visit to New Delhi that India should play a more prominent role in Southeast Asia. “India is not beholden to another country’s view of what role we should play,” an official told this writer at the time.
The Global Times article makes a point of this so-called Indian neutrality. India has always adopted a diplomacy that helps it gain interests from all sides. “For instance, India used to have a good relationship with the Soviet Union, and after the Soviet collapse, India mainly imported weapons from Russia. But now, India is also seeking arms from the US and France, which can offer it more favourable conditions than Russia,” it says.
Noting that Japan has not made a secret of its rivalry with China, the paper paints Abe’s recent visit to India — following a visit by the Japanese sovereigns — as an attempt to enlist allies. It also mentions Japanese “involvement” in a $90 billion mega infrastructure project “connecting India’s political capital New Delhi with financial capital Mumbai”.
“Now, Japan is ready to fund the second industrial corridor between Chennai and Bangalore in India, where China has been pushing forward the Bangladesh- China-India-Myanmar economic corridor… All these show that Japan is determined to counter China both militarily and economically,” the article says.
It then takes appreciative note of India’s diplomacy, which “helps it gain interests from all sides”, unsubtly implying that India’s objective is nothing more than deriving economic benefit from Japan and that Japan should not expect any support in a military conflict over the island dispute in the South China Sea.
However, an analysis of past utterances by India expert Wang Dehua is illustrative. In 2012, he said India’s desire to dominate South Asia was causing instability in the region. In 2013, he said India was “taking advantage” of disputes between China and Japan to gain economic and technological benefits.
India’s strategic importance has not gone unnoticed in the West either. In an editorial last month, The New York Times opined: “Mr Abe should realise that India is not about to weigh in on Japan’s differences with China. He needs to coordinate his China policy with Washington, which sees little gain from confronting China.”
Meanwhile, tensions in the region rose even more as Australia scrambled an air force surveillance plane to monitor unannounced military exercises by China’s navy in waters between Indonesia and Australia earlier this month, The Straits Times in Singapore reported.