By Swapan Dasgupta
Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has been judged harshly by his contemporaries for his unending failures to protect the integrity of his office. In plain English, he was too often a pushover, succumbing to pressures from the dynastic owners of the Congress Party and their unpalatable representatives. However, as one of his most trusted aides once revealed in an indiscreet moment some time ago, there were odd occasions when the economist-politician did take a stand—maybe because it didn’t involve the Gandhis.
The occasion was the choice of chief guest for the 2014 Republic Day functions, the final one of Singh’s long stint as Prime Minister. Singh, who had quite rightly detected the growing opportunities in Indo-Japan bilateral relations, wanted Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a known friend of India, to be the chief guest. This was bitterly opposed by a section of the foreign policy establishment. The opposition (or so I was informed) was very strongly articulated by the then National Security Adviser who was said to be a veteran China hand. In the context of India, a China expert didn’t translate as Sinologists; it implied a Sinophile. Menon, it was said, had an instinctive knack of second-guessing the mandarins in Beijing.
China, the battalion of Sinophiles in Delhi argued, would not be amused by the invitation to Abe. Apart from everything else, Abe had by then developed a formidable reputation as a nationalist who played the so-called anti-China card even more deftly than the enigmatic former Prime Minister Koizumi. Much of Beijing’s anger stemmed from Koizumi and Abe’s inability to grasp the “correct” history of Japanese militarism prior to 1945. China was particularly incensed over the presence of Japan’s top leadership at events to commemorate all Japanese war heroes since the Meiji Restoration at the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo. The shrine incorporated the spirits of all those (by name) who had died for the Emperor in battle. These included 18 Class A “war criminals” who had been convicted and executed by the International War Crimes Tribunal set up after Japan’s surrender on August 15, 1945.
It is to Singh’s credit that he overruled the objections and invited Abe for the Republic Day celebrations. In his final months Singh wasn’t able to achieve anything substantial but he at least laid the foundation of robust bilateral relations that Prime Minister Modi was able to build on during his recent, hugely successful visit to Japan.
China’s official reaction to Modi’s visit and his close personal rapport with Abe has been understandably guarded. With President Xi Jinping scheduled to visit India later this month, Beijing—which always understands the virtues of patience—is unwilling to say anything that will sour the mood in India. At the same time, the state-controlled media has not missed the opportunity to take pot shots at both Japan and India—and certainly not after Modi’s snide reference, in a response to a student’s question on China, to a 18th century “imperialist mindset” that still prevails. The state-run Global Times, for example, described Japan’s purported attempt to forge a united front against China as a “crazy fantasy”. An article suggested—perhaps not inaccurately—that “Modi is more intimate to Tokyo emotionally. Therefore…he embraces some nationalist sentiments against China.”
These may indicate China’s early misgivings of Modi’s foreign policy initiatives in Asia but they don’t as yet suggest that Beijing has decided to travel down a hostile path vis a vis Delhi. There may be a belief in Beijing that any leverage Japan might gain with its enhanced economic partnership with India can be neutralised by even more generous Chinese offerings. This buy-the-country approach has worked partially in Sri Lanka and large chunks of Africa but it is seen to be floundering in large parts of South-east Asia.
A section of Indian business may be attracted by the charms of cheap Chinese imports and very competitive financing offered by China but these are offset by the larger threats posed by China. In simple terms, China has not made any secret of its desire to be the hegemonic power in Asia. It may respect national sovereignty but that comes with a larger political cost: tacitly acknowledging China’s dominance in Asia. Japan has realised this to its cost, as have countries such as Singapore, Vietnam and Australia. Many of these countries now look up to India as an important countervailing force to China.
The real challenge for India is to balance a very legitimate and growing business relationship with China with wariness over its larger strategic designs. Japan has offered India defence collaboration and economic partnership for the sake of a loose alliance aimed at keeping Asia outside the control of a dominant power. In the coming days, the visiting Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot is likely to revive the old idea of a Australia-Japan-India trilateral arrangement, maybe as a return gift for a nuclear agreement and supply of uranium. Should India fall back on some mythical Non-Alignment-2 that translates into a policy of appeasement of China? Or should the Modi government also draw a few new red lines in its relationship with the great power across the Himalayas?
There are no simple answers. At present India has lost the capacity to make a meaningful decision that can withstand sustained pressure. Its economy is yet to go on full steam and its defence preparedness is non-existent. The Modi government’s main priority must be to enhance India’s national capacity, using all available opportunities at its disposal. This could even mean playing limited footsie with China and keeping uninhibited cohabitation with Japan and Australia for another day. Of course, the risk is that China won’t hesitate to encash its many IOUs in India to force Modi into acknowledging China’s titular supremacy. Recall how easily the CPI(M) teamed up with the Congress after the 1998 Pokhran-2 tests.
Some deft diplomacy is the order of the day. But let there be no confusion over the fact that a menacing China isn’t in India’s national interests. By comparison, neither Japan nor Australia has agendas inimical to India. On the contrary, with a weakened US, their friendship acquires greater meaning.
Asian Age, September 5, 2014