Thursday, Japanese Prime Minster Shinzo Abe met his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, in Gandhinagar, the capital of Modi’s home state of Gujarat. The meeting highlighted how Asia’s second-largest and third-largest economies anchor the ends of an arc encircling the continent’s first-largest.
Beijing is upset at the emerging tie-up between Tokyo and New Delhi, but there is nothing the Chinese can do. And, undercutting their own interests, they seem determined to give Abe and Modi every incentive to work together.
Abe’s made his two-day visit to increase Japanese investment in road and electricity infrastructure in India’s northeastern states.
Those states are under pressure from an aggressive China, which claims one of them, Arunachal Pradesh, as its own. Beijing calls Arunachal, in the northeast corner of India’s northeast, “South Tibet.”
Beijing also threatens the other northeastern states because they are connected to the main portion of India by the Siliguri Corridor, a narrow strip of land also known as “the chicken’s neck.” The corridor is 11 miles wide at its narrowest point.
China is keenly aware of India’s geographic vulnerability. On June 16, Indian troops stopped a Chinese construction crew, guarded by soldiers, from building a road in Doklam. The crew was in an area disputed by China and Bhutan, a sovereign state tucked away in the Himalayas.
The contested area, close to the strategic “tri-junction” where Bhutan, China, and India meet, is just north of the chicken’s neck.
During the standoff, the most serious in over three decades, Chinese and Indian troops took positions just 120 meters apart. After an August 28 agreement between Beijing and New Delhi, troops on both sides pulled back. They are now 150 meters from each other.
Significantly, Japan is the only country other than Bhutan to support India in public over the Doklam incident.
And outside support is crucial because just about nobody thinks the Chinese are going to let the Indians live in peace in their northeast. Modi’s strategy is to bolster New Delhi’s hold there through economic development.
Enter the Japanese. Modi and Abe have been close in general, and Japan’s leader was glad to help out his pal in New Delhi. At their Thursday meeting, the pair announced the Act East Forum.
The forum’s name reveals Modi’s strategy. New Delhi had announced a “Look East” policy in 1991, but the initiative was not seriously pursued. India had viewed the policy merely as outreach to the member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Then, it was not a tactic to oppose China.
In the interim, Beijing has provoked the Indian state, so Modi took Look East and gave it substance. “My government,” he said in November 2014 at the East Asian Summit in Naypyidaw, “has moved with a great sense of priority and speed to turn our ‘Look East Policy’ into ‘Act East Policy.’ ”
Moreover, New Delhi’s concept of “East” has broadened as Indian officials are now looking eastward beyond the ASEAN states to countries like Japan.
Japan, at the same time, has looked west with its “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy,” formulated last year. The Japanese and Indian prime ministers on Thursday agreed to enhance “connectivity in the wider Indo-Pacific region,” which means aligning Modi’s “Act East” with Japan’s new initiative.
Although neither Abe nor Modi would say so, they plan to counter China’s outreach to the region, perhaps best represented by President Xi Jinping’s “One Belt, One Road” projects. There is the “Silk Road Economic Belt,” announced in September 2013, which seeks to build a trade route through Central Asia, and the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road,” unveiled the following month and designed to connect China’s coastal cities to Africa, the Middle East, and Europe.
The Belt and Road—OBOR for short—flows around, and therefor potentially constricts, India. India, as we have seen, has friends of its own. And as New Delhi and Tokyo have molded their initiatives together, China has become irritated, and even alarmed, although the Indian and Japanese plans are not meant to directly challenge Xi’s OBOR.
China should have nothing to fear from Japan and India, but the Chinese foreign ministry has nonetheless expressed concern about their cooperation in northeast India. “Now China and India are working on seeking a fair and reasonable settlement which can be accepted by both sides through negotiations,” said spokeswoman Hua Chunying on Friday at the ministry’s regular press briefing, after mentioning that China had claims on territory India now controls. “Under such circumstances, we believe that any third party should respect the efforts made by China and India to settle the disputes through negotiations and any third party should not meddle in the disputes between China and India over territorial sovereignty in any form.”
Hua’s words are a clear violation of the bedrock of Chinese foreign policy, the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, which call for nations to stay out of the internal affairs of others. Chinese officials disrespect Indians in general, and so it is no surprise that Hua felt comfortable in making unwarranted pronouncements about economic development in India. And as she did so, she pushed India and Japan together, not, as she hoped, kept them apart.
The great rivalry in Asia at the moment is not China and the U.S., as many assume. The U.S., which feels a responsibility for maintaining peace and stability in the region, is acting more like a neutral party than competitor for influence.
China’s competitors, rather, are Japan and India, and Beijing’s forceful tactics against both of them are making Tokyo and New Delhi all-but-declared adversaries of Beijing.
Abe and Modi were careful not to put “China” in their joint statement last week. Yet they did not have to. By merely getting together, they made it clear they will integrate their initiatives to counter Beijing’s all-encompassing challenges to them.
By Gordon G. Chang