G Parthasarathy

Emerging balance of power in Asia

G Parthasarathy | Updated on November 28, 2018

Chinese ploy Invest heavily abroad to gain economic stronghold.   -  Getty images

A strong Indo-Japanese partnership can help counter China, which aspires to become a hegemonic power in the region

Ever since the assumption of power in the US by President Donald Trump and his advocacy of a radically new American approach to global policies, chanceries across Europe, Africa and Asia have appeared bewildered about how to deal with America. Trump has shocked the European Allies, by threatening a relook at Trans-Atlantic cooperation, unless European governments contributed more to NATO. He has imposed higher tariffs on selected European exports.

In brief, Trump has replaced American advocacy of globalisation, by an “America First” doctrine. He rejected a global approach to climate change and appeared to be to be more comfortable dealing with authoritarian “strongmen” than with liberal democrats, like France’s Macron and Germany’s Merkel. Europe itself appears to be headed towards becoming more insular, as the UK’s “Brexit” from the European Union indicates.

In Asia, Trump has dealt harshly with China’s mercantilist trade policies by imposing what could become destabilising tariffs, on Chinese exports. Even staunch ally Japan has felt the impact of new American tariffs on its exports. Trump has also withdrawn American participation in the “Trans-Pacific Partnership,” which aimed to link the US with a number of Asian economies, in a vast “Free Trade Area.”

India has also felt the heavy hand of Trump’s trade policies. New Delhi is now having bilateral negotiations with the US, to deal with the challenges it is facing from the Trump administration. Russia is facing the prospect of stringent American sanctions on its exports of petroleum products and arms. Moscow has a global partnership with China, despite mutual distrust about each other’s reliability. Russia’s global partnership with China to balance American power does not, however, materially affect Russia’s close relations with India.

Japan, a key partner

Amidst all this volatility in global power equations, India’s most important partner, across its Indian Ocean neighbourhood in the past decade, is Japan. Tokyo has now set aside the serious differences, in the years following the 1998 nuclear tests. It has overcome domestic opposition to promote nuclear energy cooperation with India. Both India and Japan have been challenged by Chinese territorial claims, actions and ambitions, together with China’s quest to become a hegemonic power in Asia. India and Japan also closely cooperate on their relationship with China, including on measures to see that tensions with China do not get out of control.

Prime Minister Modi and President Xi Jinping had met “one to one” for seven hours over two days in April in Wuhan. They decided that they would “issue strategic guidance to their respective militaries to strengthen communication to build trust and understanding, to implement various confidence-building measures, which have already been agreed upon, by the two sides”. This meeting has led to both militaries taking more measures to avoid tensions arising out of face-offs across disputed borders, like the prolonged military stand-off at Doklam, along the India-Bhutan-China border tri-junction.

Likewise, Prime Minister Abe and President Xi Jin Ping focussed on avoiding actions that could escalate tensions across disputed maritime boundaries in the East China Sea, during Abe’s visit to Beijing in October. China and Japan also agreed to cooperate on maritime search and rescue missions, to set up a military hotline and commence dialogue between their militaries. There has been a measure of congruence in the approach of India and Japan, to maintain peace and tranquillity across their respective land and maritime boundaries with China.

Japan, unlike India, has significant financial and technological resources to play a major role in developmental and infrastructure projects in Indo-Pacific countries. India is, therefore, working in close cooperation with Japan, on economic development projects across the Indian Ocean region, to ensure that countries in the region do not become overly dependent on China.

While India has gone ahead with processing defence deals with Russia, Abe has also shown a degree of readiness to settle Japan’s disputes with Russia over four Islands, seized by Russia, as the Second World War was drawing to an end. Japan and the Soviet Union agreed in 1956 that two of these Islands, Habomai and Shikotan, would be returned to Japan — something, which did not happen, because of continuing Cold War rivalries.

China’s messy diplomacy

The Indo-Japanese partnership can balance the vast resources that China is committing primarily for infrastructure development in India’s South Asian and Indian Ocean neighbourhood. China has also, in recent years, been bending backwards to cultivate leaders and political parties in this region. It is no secret that in countries like Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Maldives, China is supporting leaders and political parties known to be inimical to India, even during national elections.

The large amounts of money that China poured in to finance projects patronised by the discredited and authoritarian government of President Abdulla Yameen in Maldives and the efforts Beijing made to support him for re-election are widely acknowledged. Yameen’s electoral defeat has left the Chinese crestfallen. China will, however, inevitably use debt accumulated by projects financed during Yameen’s years, to virtually blackmail the newly elected government.

China also acted clumsily, by rushing to welcome Mahenda Rajapakse, as Prime Minister, soon after his appointment. This was even before Rajapakse obtained Parliamentary approval, which eventually, was not forthcoming. China has alienated significant sections of people in Sri Lanka by this clumsy action. On the other hand, western powers led by the US and Japan have expressed unhappiness at the hasty removal of the Ranil Wickremesinghe government and even frozen economic assistance to Sri Lanka.

Myanmar recently cut down the size of Chinese investment in the strategic Kyaukpyu port, worried about walking into a debt trap. Economists in Pakistan now quite openly express unhappiness at what they see as Chinese exploitation in the much-touted China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Malaysia has rejected Chinese offers of aid for a massive rail-road project. Similar sentiments are now being voiced about Chinese “aid” across Africa and Central Asia.

There are now indications the US and EU will not be averse to taking on China on its “debt trap” diplomacy in India’s neighbourhood, by offering investments on more acceptable terms. This is an opportunity for India to work with not only Japan, but also the US and EU, to imaginatively develop structures for multilateral investments in Asia and Africa, to ensure that China does not use “debt tap” diplomacy to secure military and economic advantage in countries across the India Ocean.

The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan.

Published on November 28, 2018

Follow us on Telegram, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Linkedin. You can also download our Android App or IOS App.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

You May Also Like