As China’s growing military assertiveness raised regional tensions following near-collision of US and Chinese warships in South China Sea and the unilateral declaration of air defence identification zone (ADIZ) covering disputed Islands in the East China Sea by Beijing, South Asian countries on Saturday joined Japan in calling for freedom of the air and sea. The near-miss between a US guided missile cruiser, USS Cowpens, and a Chinese warship operating near China’s only aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, last week was the most significant US-China maritime incident in the South China Sea since 2009. It has raised fears that if China continues to challenge the presence of foreign naval ships in the South China Sea, it is only a question of time before a serious and potentially deadly incident occurs.
The Japan-Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) summit is the centrepiece of a three-day regional gathering officially billed as celebrating 40 years of diplomatic ties. Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe and leaders of Asean have agreed at a summit in Tokyo on the need for freedom of the high seas and skies and peaceful resolution of disputes. Sino-Japanese tensions have risen over the past year in a long-running dispute over Japanese-controlled islands in the East China Sea that are also claimed by Beijing. China and several Asean nations have competing territorial claims in the energy-rich South China Sea.
As the geopolitical go has been unfolding since Beijing’s declaration of ADIZ, it is becoming clear that the whole drama is far from being just about a few islets and rocks that China calls Diaoyu and Japan Senkaku, or the crucial access to the precious waters that surround them, harbouring untold riches in oil and natural gas; it concerns no less than the future of China as a sea power rivalling the US.
The US has raised the incident at a “high level” with China, according to a state department official quoted by the US military’s Stars and Stripes newspaper. Beijing has yet to comment, but China’s often-nationalistic online platforms were filling with debate about the near-miss. One poster demanded the Chinese navy follow up by blazing an “independent sea lane” to Hawaii. Beijing routinely objects to US military surveillance operations within its exclusive economic zone, while Washington insists the US and other nations have the right to conduct routine operations in international waters.
India is directly affected by these developments. The new ADIZ has brought added tension to one of China’s several current territorial disputes. An article published in Shanghai-based news-blog The Shanghaiist.com and a strident pro-government local newspaper, Weweipo describes the “Six Wars China Is Sure to Fight In the Next 50 Years”. The article predicts that most of China’s current border disputes will eventually lead to war.
The article expects China to be engaged in war over six issues as per a scheduled timeline. After the Taiwanese unification (2020-2025) and South China Sea islands (2025-2030, the “Southern Tibet” (2035-2040) is the main point of contention between India and China. The article suggests that “the best strategy for China is to incite the disintegration of India” by dividing the nation into several smaller countries so “India will have no power to cope with China”.
The commonality of interests, therefore, provides an ideal opportunity for India to endorse the Japanese stand on ADIZ. India is important to Japan because of its geopolitical position and economic potential. The recent visit to India of Japanese Emperor Akihito and his wife Machiko was not only a symbolic journey down the memory lane but a clear signal from the Japanese government that India is a vital ally to Japan on strategic, diplomatic and economic fronts. The royal couple decided to visit India on a pressing request from Abe, even as there were over 50 nations whose invitations to the duo were pending. This clearly shows Abe is upbeat on India-Japan ties. Abe is expected to be the chief guest at India’s Republic Day celebrations.
There are various factors that have improved economic and diplomatic relations between the two countries. These include the rise of China as an economic power. This rise in the last decade has also led to increased military spending by China, creating one of the most sophisticated armed forces in the world. Consequently, China has used its military and economic power to assert its dominance in Asia. It has also shored up military presence in its territorial border with India. It is natural, therefore, that Beijing’s challenge should bring India and Japan closer.
Abe had laid foundations of a special relationship with India to contain an ambitious and arrogant China back in 2006 when he had declared that India-Japan ties had the potential to overtake even Japan-US relations. Again, during his visit to India in 2011, he told a gathering at the Indian Council World Affairs that “India’s success is in Japan’s best interests and Japan’s success is in the best interests of India”.
During prime minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Tokyo both countries have agreed to strengthen their co-operation in security. Japan’s Maritime Self-Defence Force and the Indian Navy are scheduled to conduct their second joint drill by year-end.
As Japan and India pursue co-operation on security matters, they have made it clear that the deepening in bilateral ties should not be viewed as a challenge to others. But, it is clear that China’s dominance in the region has challenged Japan’s post-War pacifism. Japan and India agreed to resume talks to conclude a pact that would allow Japanese firms to export nuclear power-generation technologies and equipment to India. Japan is also pushing talks with India with a view to export the ShinMaywa US-2 search and rescue flying boat used by Japan’s Maritime Self-Defence Force at a time when the Abe administration is trying to loosen Japan’s traditional ban on weapons exports.
India has also shown signs of playing along with Japan. When the Chinese troops remained stationed on the Indian side of the LAC for weeks this may, Manmohan Singh chose to get his own back by extending his visit to Tokyo by a day.
(The author is a former professor of political science, Allahabad University; Email: email@example.com)