| Pranab Mukherjee with Fukushiro Nukaga
It would be facile to suggest India must choose between China and Japan. Yet, in the next few weeks, Hu Jintao, China’s president, and Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, will present Manmohan Singh with alternative visions of the Asian dream. Of course, it won’t be as crudely put, but their overtures will amount to the same thing when Hu visits India later this month and Singh goes to Tokyo in December. Both occasions will provide the prime minister with opportunities of making clear — with matching delicacy — that India is a player, not a camp follower.
Pranab Mukherjee has already had a taste of the game and must know, as a consummate diplomat who learnt his skills at Indira Gandhi’s knee, how to resist blandishments. Though his recent tightrope-walking in Tokyo and Beijing may not have stressed this with sufficient vigour, some recent official measures regarding Chinese tenders and security clearance reflect appropriate wariness about a power whose intentions are far from clear. Also, perhaps, Mukherjee’s travels in June were not the right occasions for political plainspeaking since he was still defence minister, and had not yet assumed charge of external affairs.
Yet, a response that was described as engaging with all but aligning with none seemed to hark back to the Cold War era when non-alignment reflected the old aphorism that when elephants make love (or war) it’s the grass that gets trampled. Today’s Asian polarization and the position India has achieved make such circumspection unnecessary. Though Japan’s quarrels are not India’s, India can afford to respond more positively to expressions of Japanese concern about China’s spiralling military spending and lack of transparency.
Nor is there any need for India to continue to harp on the old and outworn cliché of the Indian Ocean being a zone of peace. It never has been and never will be. With Chinese surveillance facilities (at the very least) on the Cocos Island in the Andaman Sea, leased from a Myanmarese regime the full extent of whose dependence on China has not been plumbed, and the Chinese also entrenched in Gwadar on the Balochistan coast, the peace zone illusion only helps India’s adversaries. Given India’s strengthening ties with the United States of America with its Diego Garcia base, and its own commitment to a blue-water navy, the posture is not even credible. The sooner the pretence is abandoned the better.
This need not mean that India should at once jump into bed with Japan whose prime minister has thought up an ingenious and sophisticated plan for a quadrilateral dialogue — Japan-US-India-Australia — leading to a “new Asian order” based on shared democratic values. The emphasis on democracy and China’s pointed exclusion from the quadrangle, while including such non-Asian powers as the US and Australia, reflect Japan’s increasingly acrimonious relations with its larger and more populous neighbour. In the circumstances, even the Japanese ambassador in New Delhi, Yasukuni Enoki, will not any longer repeat his suggestion of India-Japan-China trilateral strategic cooperation. But whether or not the four-party dialogue takes off, Abe’s invitation will be very much on Hu’s mind when he lands in New Delhi in 16 days’ time. It is not in India’s interest to let him imagine that the prospect has been shelved. Diplomacy lies in choices and options, not certainties and lost opportunities.
It is easy enough to understand why India might baulk at any Japanese initiative that could offend China. One reason is the huge increase in Sino-Indian trade to $17.6 billion, threatening to catch up with $26.8 billion worth of Indo-US trade, while Indo-Japanese trade languishes at a mere $6.5 billion. The other is the dazzling prospect of a territorial settlement whose “political parameters and guiding principles” were agreed to during the visit over a year ago by Wen Jiabao, China’s prime minister. In between are a clutch of lollipops like the military exercises pact signed when Mukherjee was in Beijing, and the carrot of no fewer than 12 other such agreements being dangled for Hu’s visit. They will deal with matters of earth-shattering importance like student exchanges, investment protection and regional trade.
Undoubtedly, such arrangements matter in the social and economic life of a nation that should enjoy normal interaction with its neighbours. But ties with China are far from normal. This is not only because of the Aksai Chin plateau it has seized or the Kashmiri territory unlawfully gifted by Pakistan or the preposterous claim to Arunachal Pradesh. The most frightening aspect is the menace of not knowing. Even to someone who has travelled in China, the country at its highest policy-making level is “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” to quote Winston Churchill on the Soviet Union. In spite of an immensely long shared boundary, India has no idea of the number, strength or purpose of missiles located in Tibet and the improvement of strategic communications with the region. No one has a clue either about Chinese intentions with respect to Taiwan.
Japan’s complaint of a lack of transparency is something India should be able to understand. Some feel that if Japan is expected to apologize to China for wartime atrocities, China should also apologize to India for the Bomdila invasion. Why, others may ask, will Hu spend four days in India and seven in Pakistan on the same jaunt' The only plausible explanation is that China’s diplomatic and military/nuclear links with Pakistan are as strong as ever. This is not because of any support for Pervez Musharraf or sympathy for Pakistanis, but because Pakistani bellicosity remains the surest way of tying rising India down in the subcontinent.
There is no convergence of strategic interests between India and China at the global level. Regionally, interests are decidedly contrary. In Pakistan, in Myanmar, in Bangladesh, in the Indian Ocean, and now in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, China directly undermines Indian interests. In subtle ways, it resisted India’s entry into both the East Asia Summit and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The Middle Kingdom remains India’s “potential enemy number one,” quoting George Fernandes.
Ties with Japan are less complex. The Japanese stress that India overtook China in 2002 to become the largest recipient of Japanese Overseas Development Assistance. On the eve of taking office, Abe said in his book, Utsukushi Kunihe (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.” In his view, “It is of crucial importance to Japan’s national interest that we will further strengthen our ties with India.” This is a family tradition. His grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, visited India within months of becoming prime minister in 1957, and had expected a robust partnership with India supplying Japan’s need for coal.
The death of those hopes — why no Japanese premier thought India worth visiting for 23 years up to 1984 or Japan’s hysterical reaction to Pokhran II — need not detain us now. What matters is that Abe appears anxious to flesh out last year’s Eight-Fold Initiative, which gave a strategic dimension to the Global Partnership in the 21st Century agreed to three years earlier. This may be because he closely follows the US in recognizing India as “a growing world power with which we have common strategic interests”, to cite the 2002 US National Security Strategy report. Or because Japan feels Asian stability needs a counter-balance to China.
Either way, India cannot spurn the diplomatic potential of a democratic alliance. Nor can it not welcome Hu with enthusiasm, especially in this designated China-India Friendship Year. But there will be no real breakthrough unless Hu takes advantage of his trip to make a dramatic announcement on the border dispute. Meanwhile, he should not be allowed to forget that Japan, like Barkis, is willin’.