Prime minister Narendra Modi’s five-day visit to Japan from August 30 will boost ties in trade, defence and civil nuclear cooperation, but it is also consequential for the rapidly shifting balance of power in Asia. Across several centuries, history has opened its arms only for a few nations—Italy, Spain, France, Britain and the US—to stride the global centrestage. Modi’s visit, before a seminal trip to Washington, comes as major powers are open to India assuming a role concomitant to its growing status. In history’s path, India is placed well to acquire new power.
Altering Asia’s balance of power is China’s rise, which is spawning two conflicting trends. First, Beijing’s bilateral trade with several countries has risen rapidly. With the US, it rose to $559 billion in 2013 from $5 billion in 1981. With India, it grew nine times from 2004 to $65 billion. With South Korea, it rose 36-fold from 1992 to $229 billion. With Vietnam, it was $50 billion, up from $27 billion in 2010. With Australia, it doubled to $151 billion from 2008. With Japan, it was $345 billion, rising from $184 billion in 2005. With Indonesia, it grew 16 times to $66 billion in 2012.
Second, this growing trade is not engendering pleasant ties between Beijing and its neighbours. Chinese military is poking many countries—on land, in space, on seas. Here is an ordinary person’s guide to international relations: in a village, those who acquire new wealth do not behave as they used to; with new resources comes power; with new power comes muscle-flexing. In 2007, China demonstrated its military capabilities in space by exploding a satellite; the US blew up a satellite to demonstrate it can respond. Recently, a Chinese jet performed acrobatics, demonstrating China’s muscle-flexing, within metres of a US anti-submarine plane.
Chinese ships are causing tensions with Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan. Based on ancient maps, China claims new territories. It seized the Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines and has prevented the Philippine ships from reaching the Second Thomas Shoal.
A conflict is emerging with Indonesia over the Natuna Islands. In May, China sent its oil rig into Vietnam’s lawful economic zone and eyes a military facility on the Johnson South Reef it wrested from Vietnam. With Japan, China is stoking maritime conflicts; it is taunting the US military often.
China’s behaviour with a comprehensively peaceful India is no different. Its military incursions into Ladakh occur frequently. China is building intelligence and military links through ports in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Bangladesh and Myanmar. It is encircling India as part of a “string-of-pearls” strategy in the Indian Ocean. It built railways through Tibet near Sikkim—to transfer military logistics to India’s border. It is strengthening military rulers in Thailand and Myanmar, though the latter is open to accommodating India’s interests.
“Everybody has a plan till they get punched in the mouth,” American boxer Mike Tyson is quoted as saying by British military historian Lawrence Freedman in his book, Strategy.
Freedman defines strategy as “the art of creating power” for nations not powerful. “Having a strategy suggests an ability to look up from the short term and the trivial to view the long term and the essential, to address causes rather than symptoms,” says Freedman, noting that a strategy is meant “for expressing attempts to think about actions in advance, in the light of our goals and our capabilities”. Fortunately, geopolitics is not a boxing ring in which only two players can enter, nor is it a fight in which only one player must win.
India and many countries are being forced to secure their interests. Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe reinterpreted his country’s constitution, allowing Japanese troops to aid allies. Tokyo gave six vessels to Vietnam to boost its maritime patrol. External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj visited Vietnam this week to bolster ties; president Pranab Mukherjee will visit next. She visited Myanmar recently for a multilateral meet; Modi is due in November. The US and Australia are encouraging a broader role for India, with Washington naming the region as Indo-Pacific. Also, India has held multilateral military exercises with Singapore, Japan, Australia and the US—potential allies.
Some thinkers have urged India to evolve “middle power” coalitions in the Indo-Pacific without involving China and the US. This was exactly the “non-alignment” policy that India pursued for half a century, spawning India’s overall economic decay. “Middle power” coalitions without military and diplomatic backbone cannot moderate China’s behaviour, and could become another SAARC or ASEAN. As an emerging power, India needs to build a capable alliance, a combination of NATO and UN. The fall of the Berlin Wall unshackled the Indian mind from the subjugation of non-alignment. India must not shrink back into it.
Building alliances is not to rush into a military fight, much like producing nuclear weapons is not to use them on first opportunity but to deter a menacing enemy. Asia’s people have enjoyed peace for a long period. A new alliance will ensure that they continue to enjoy peace. Alliances serve wider purposes: they aid peoples of member-states to think positively about each other; they enable the public to grasp their place in the world and understand where they are headed for; they create new power for member-states and engender economic prosperity. Vitally, they prevent wars. Evolving an alliance is not to fight China; it is stitching an umbrella of peace, hoping it doesn’t rain.
“We can look in the eye of the world because we are a democracy,” Modi said in January. An open society like India cannot instinctively trust closed systems like China. India must act from strength. It must bolster economic ties with China and engage democracies in its neighbourhood. Among non-democracies, it can engage Myanmar in concert with the US and it isn’t bargaining hard with Washington to contain Pakistan. Sadly, India’s strength is undermined, not by China, but by people who engineer riots, indulge in rapes and torment India in other ways.
Tufail Ahmad is director of South Asia Studies Project at the Middle East Media Research
Institute, Washington DC. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org