China, Japan Vie for Delhi's Favours
Sunanda Kisor Datta-Ray (Commentator based in India)
It would be facile to suggest that India must choose between China and Japan. Yet, in the next few weeks, President Hu Jintao and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will present Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with alternative visions of the Asian dream.
Mr Hu's visit to India comes near the end of China-India Friendship Year 2006, and Dr Singh's to Tokyo will allow India to make clear that it is a player, not a camp follower.
Indian policy is to engage with all but align with none, as External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee made clear in Tokyo and Beijing in June. He responded to Japanese concern about China's military spending and lack of transparency by saying China has always had a huge army. But, when he noted that the Indian Ocean should be a zone of peace, he was reflecting unease with China's naval presence on Coco Island, and facilities in Pakistan's Gwadar port.
Mr Abe's invitation to India to join a dialogue with Japan, the US and Australia - to create a "new Asian order" based on shared democratic values - has no doubt been made with these anxieties in mind. The Japanese have forgotten a proposal for India-Japan-China strategic co-operation that their ambassador in New Delhi, Yasukuni Enoki, once mooted.
For Indians, China is a conundrum. Sino-Indian trade has soared to US$17.6 billion while Indo-Japanese trade languishes at a mere US$6.5 billion. Commercial collaboration is burgeoning. In Beijing, Mr Mukherjee signed a pact on joint military exercises. Agreements on matters such as student exchanges, investment protection and regional trade will be finalised during Mr Hu's visit.
But this is not matched by political rapport. Territorial disputes partly explain Indian mistrust. Delhi is concerned about missiles reportedly located in Tibet and, even more, by Beijing's military and nuclear ties with Pakistan. Indian observers are convinced that the alliance's only purpose is to tie India down in the subcontinent. Mr Hu will spend seven days in Pakistan, four in India.
While there is no convergence of global strategic interests, regional interests are decidedly contrary. Former Indian defence minister George Fernandes' description of China as "potential enemy No1" may not have overstated matters. Beijing resisted India's entry into the East Asia Summit and the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation. When Pakistan and Bangladesh let China into the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation, India invited Japan.
Mr Abe says in his book, Utsukushii Kuni-e (Towards a Beautiful Country), that "it will not be surprising if, in another 10 years, Japan-India relations overtake Japan-US and Japan-China relations". He wrote: "It is of crucial importance to Japan's national interest that we will further strengthen our ties with India."
Mr Abe appears anxious to flesh out last year's India-Japan initiative to boost ties. It gave a strategic dimension to an effort to strengthen relations, called the Global Partnership in the 21st Century, which had been agreed to three years earlier. This closely follows the US, whose 2002 National Security Strategy report recognised India as "a growing world power with which we have common strategic interests". Japan is also seeking partners to counter China.
Many Indians suggest that if Japan is expected to apologise for wartime crimes, China should also apologise for invading India in 1962. Whatever the formula, there will be no Sino-Indian breakthrough unless Mr Hu makes a dramatic announcement on the border dispute. Whether or not Mr Hu does so, Mr Abe's invitation will be very much on his mind when he arrives in New Delhi next Monday. It would not be in India's interests to let him imagine that the proposal has been shelved.
(Originally appeared in the November 13, 2006 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, reproduced here with permission.)