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China, India and Japan—an emerging trilateral equation

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The growth in cordiality in India's relations with Japan was evident during Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's two-day visit to Japan in the last week of October, 2018. Their talks focused on working more closely in the Indo-Pacific region, where both countries have shared interests and also shared concerns on China's growing footprint in this region.

What made this two-day visit to Japan unusual was the fact that just before hosting Modi, Abe had travelled to China for an unprecedented three-day visit - the first bilateral visit in seven years. The Japanese Prime Minister's Beijing visit marked a remarkable turnaround in relations from where it had collapsed in 2012, when ties between the two countries had assumed critical proportions over the disputed East China Sea islands, called Senkaku by Japan and Diaoyu by China.

Analysts noted that relations at that time were so vitiated that anti-Japanese protests convulsed China, with hundreds marching to the Japanese Embassy in Beijing and vandals ransacking Japanese car showrooms and other businesses, so much so that many Japanese companies recalled many of their personnel, fearing for their safety. This bitterness in relations was also noted during Prime Minister Abe's meeting with President Xi Jinping when he was in Beijing for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit.

Seven years later, the optics was different with Abe being hosted first by Premier Li Keqiang, and then holding talks with Xi. It was apparent from their meetings that in the current political paradigm, according to Xi, China and Japan had not only become more reliant on each other but also globally, the two countries share more diverse mutual interests and mutual concern. Abe, on his side, assured Xi that their relationship was at a historic turning point.

CHINA AND JAPAN: Strategists have interpreted this as Japan having calibrated its position on China's One Belt, One Road initiative (OBOR). This was assertion of an evolving situation as Japan, along with India, had till then been critical of OBOR. It may be recalled in this regard that Modi and Abe had, a year ago, flagged off an Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC) plan, billed as an OBOR counter. One year on, however, the plan has appeared to slow down for taking off.

Japan now appears to have undertaken a move to strike a more practical position on OBOR. Japanese companies and entrepreneurs are probably thinking that this Chinese initiative will provide them with greater opportunities for jointly working with Chinese companies. Some Japanese firms have, according to media reports, already informally begun working with Chinese companies on OBOR-related projects. The major Japanese logistics firm Nissin, for example, has said it will work with Chinese logistics firm Sinotrans to open up a new sea-and-rail transport route to Europe for Japanese goods, which will be shipped across the East China Sea to the eastern Chinese port of Lianyungang, and then will travel by rail to Khorgos on the China-Kazakhstan border, and then onward to Hamburg. Some critics have pointed out that the cost of such a route would be three times that of the shipping route through the Indian Ocean, but Nissin has remarked that it not only expects this cost to come down but also such an arrangement would be a suitable alternative in any emerging situation where there might be a rise in geopolitical tensions in the Middle East.

There are also efforts between China and Japan in undertaking joint projects through the use of expertise that they already possess in the context of the China's high-speed rail system and Japan's Shinkansen.  They are particularly trying to use this potential in improving infrastructural connectivity in South-east Asia.

This rapprochement, according to Professor Wang Yiwei of Renmin University of Beijing, has been influenced by the perceived potential of OBOR. Japan's participation, according to Wang, would offer "an alternative path in globalisation and hedge against risks from America by accelerating economic cooperation with China." Ananth Krishnan of India Today has, however, noted that Wang has avoided mentioning perhaps what would be an even bigger benefit for China, with OBOR facing increasing questions on its credibility amid concerns on high debt related to Chinese projects and a lack of transparency. Partnering with Japan could soften such scrutiny. This also, according to him, appears to be the reason behind China's new keenness on what it calls "Plus-One" projects in the region, which began with the suggestion of a "China-India-Plus One" project in Afghanistan when Modi met Xi in Wuhan in April last year. Since then, media has reported that China has been working on similar "Plus One" projects with Singapore, and now with Japan.

The second factor that has persuaded China to think outside the regular ambit has been the uncertainty unleashed by Donald Trump, who has criticised not only China but also Japan for what he calls unfair trade practices and the trade surpluses they enjoy with America. This uncertainty about the future of free trade and globalisation appears to have pushed Beijing reaching out to both India and Japan, who have, for the same reason, been happy to reciprocate.

It may also be mentioned here that in the recent past China and Japan have also signed a currency swap deal for around $30 billion to boost trade. This would facilitate the People's Bank of China and the Bank of Japan to exchange up to 3.4 trillion yen for 200 billion Yuan over the next three years. Economists have observed that such a measure was a welcome step because this would provide some stability despite global fluctuations.

INDIA AND CHINA: Observers have also been closely watching India and China to see how the world's two most populous countries are pursuing economic development and modernisation in this era of globalisation. They have in particular focused attention on their conspicuous differences in political systems. This has prompted questions about how the simultaneous rise of a democratic India and an authoritarian China could have consequences for the future of democracy in parts of Asia.

This has assumed significance as India is quite concerned with the increasing influence of China's economic expansionism in the region -Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, the Maldives and Myanmar. Beijing's growing political activism alongside its economic activities, according to Delhi is creating potential risks that might undermine new democratic institutions and stability in India's regional neighbourhood.

There is general agreement that India's China policy is now being shaped increasingly by their perception of acute threat assessments, especially in South Asia. India appears to be worried because of lack of sufficient transparency and oversight with regard to China's massive infrastructure projects under the Belt and Road Initiative that are in some cases creating debt traps that might, according to Delhi, weaken good governance and undermine the rule of law in India's immediate periphery. Sri Lanka's Hambantota port is held up as an example.

Constantino Xavier, a fellow at Carnegie India in New Delhi, has also observed that Beijing is now beginning to flex its political muscle by seeking to shape public opinion, undermine critical voices, and influence electoral outcomes. China's modus operandi in South Asia is consequently being seen by Indian strategists as ranging between classic public diplomacy and aggressive influence operations. This, according to them, is   reflecting similar efforts undertaken by China already in Australia, Japan and in North America. Such Chinese efforts are also being closely monitored by certain western democratic forces (interested in India's economic and security interests) who are working with India towards reform across the region, including Bhutan and Myanmar and ushering in liberalisation and consolidation of democracy across South Asia.

However regional strategists have remarked that though India's role would be crucial, Delhi's focus should not be limited to a merely defensive approach where they will subvert Beijing's initiatives.  India, on the other hand, should undertake a more positive approach pertaining to South Asia and diversify its efforts to cooperate with neighbouring countries with regard to strengthening the rule of law, pluralist institutions, and good governance. This would help consolidate regional security, reduce chances of conflicts, and also promote developmental models that are inclusive, sustainable, and equitable in the future. Such an approach would also enable them to play a key role with regard to addressing and helping to overcome social, economic, and technological challenges through transparency, accountability, and principle of inclusiveness and the rule of law, within a democratic matrix.

This approach would also be effective in countering violence, extremism and radicalisation within the sub-region. This measure in turn would facilitate foreign direct investment and the creation of employment opportunities that could effectively address the issue of maximising the common advantage of the region's demographic dividend. 

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.

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