Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr | Will Japan’s rearmament impact India’s China ties?

The Asian Age.  | Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr

Opinion, Columnists

Japan’s decision to strengthen its military will have definite implications for the Quad -- comprising the US, Japan, Aus & India

This file photo taken on October 14, 2018 shows soldiers from the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force taking part in a military review at the Ground Self-Defence Force's Asaka training ground in Asaka, Saitama prefecture. - Japan announced on December 16, 2022 its biggest defence overhaul in decades, hiking spending, reshaping its military command and acquiring new missiles to tackle the threat from China. (Photo: AFP)

The East Asia scenario has got a lot more complex with Japan’s decision to rearm itself for the first time in 77 years with a whopping five-year $320 billion military budget, and soon to catapult itself to the position of the third largest defence budget, after the United States and China. The Indian government and the country’s strategic experts must have taken note of the development, though there has been silence over it. Japan has made it explicit that its response is to China posing a major security threat to Taiwan and the sea lanes, which could disrupt its supply chain of the import of semiconductors, crucial for Japanese industry. Japan is also apprehensive of the direct nuclear threat posed by North Korea’s totalitarian Communist regime.

It might appear that India has no interest in what Japan does in its own sphere, and that Japan-China or Japan-North Korea equations fall beyond the strategic concern of India, and that India wants a peaceful and stable situation anywhere in the world, and especially so in the East Asian neighbourhood. This was indeed the benign Indian position some decades ago, and as critics would point out it was the opium-effect of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). The new strategic thinking, especially on the part of the new generation militant wonks, however wants India to flex its muscle of growing economy in the world and seek advantages against India’s rivals, especially Pakistan and China.

While India’s right-wing politicians are always keen to score those brownie points against Pakistan, the attitude towards China has been a little more nuanced. There is the recognition that China is not only a large entity but also a powerful one. The right-wing BJP had always felt drawn towards Japan because of its culture of fierce nationalism, which has a special appeal for the Hindutva politicians and thinkers. It should not be surprising then that the Indian right-wingers would be cheering the Japanese decision to build up its military strength, and might feel comforted that there is a country at the far end of Asia which is armed against China.

Japan’s decision to strengthen its military will have definite implications for the new formation of the Quad -- comprising the United States, Japan, Australia and India. External affairs minister S. Jaishankar has time and again denied that the Quad was an “Asian Nato”, and said the group was meant to strengthen economic and trade ties. But it is evident that the Quad is meant to counterbalance the influence and presence, not always friendly, of China in the Indo-Pacific region. The Americans have pulled in India into the Indo-Pacific with the intention of building a counter-China strategy in mind. It is a fact acknowledged implicitly in India, though the Americans policymakers are quite vocal about it. India’s economic interests lie with the Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), and it could be argued so does its limits of strategic neighbourhood. India is a dialogue partner in the Asean Regional Forum (ARF), and so are China, Japan, the European Union, Russia and the US, among others, which engage with the security aspects of this part of Asia. But the Americans expect India to play a larger role and many Indian experts too believe that as India becomes a big economic power it must take upon itself the responsibilities of a big power.

With Japan stepping up its defence spending in a dramatic fashion -- the idea was on the anvil for more than a decade, and former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was one of the proponents of the theme -- India too may have to rethink its position. The joint military exercises of the Quad are an indication that there is a defence component to the group’s strategic vision. India would not want to be a passive player in the strategic planning for the Indo-Pacific. The question cannot be evaded whether the Quad is part of the “encirclement of China” policy, though even the Americans deny it is so. And Japan’s rearmament can be explained as a legitimate national programme, and that it is not directed against any other country, including China and North Korea.

It might be tempting for India to take comfort in the fact that with a challenge emerging on its eastern front, through Japan’s revived militarisation, China may not be as aggressive as it is now on its western, India-China front. It is a possibility. But in reality, China remains on the defensive on both fronts. Beijing is worried about Tibet and Xinjiang on the west as it is about Taiwan in the east. The aggression on the Indian border in Arunachal Pradesh and in Ladakh is a symptom of its anxiety over these two troubled spots. Whatever its domestic compulsions, India cannot but check the Chinese in Arunachal Pradesh and in Ladakh, and it can only be a military response. As a matter of fact, there is no reason for China to worry about India because New Delhi had never questioned China’s sovereignty over Tibet, and that was the stance evolved by Jawaharlal Nehru, and the Jan Sangh of the time (the predecessor of the BJP) had opposed it. In 2005, the Chinese accepted Sikkim as a part of India. That is why the trading post at Nathu La was opened in 2006.

The hard stance taken by China’s President Xi Jinping, both internally and externally, could be making things complicated, and the Americans, it seems, are waiting for China to walk into the trap of being a hostile big brother in the region, and how only America can be a foil. The ideal solution for Asia would be a friendly India-China-Japan axis, a throwback to Nehru’s Asian dream, and before him Rabindranath Tagore. That would effectively keep out the US in the region. Neither India nor Japan are ideological hardliners as America is. New Delhi and Tokyo are not too worried by human rights violations in Tibet and Xinjiang. Of course, such a possibility should be ruled out for some more time.

There is also the problem of whether three strong economies like China, Japan and India can ever be aligned because each country would seek a dominant and favourable position and to extend its sphere of influence. There will, therefore, be an inevitable clash of interests.