It need not be Japan or China for India

For two countries that so distrust each other, they sure do a lot of business together
Mohan Guruswamy Delhi

The Prime Minister is now in Japan, having what is evidently a good visit. His Japanese counterpart, Shinzo Abe, has left no stone unturned to make Narendra Modi feel most welcome. Later this month the Chinese President, Xi Jinping will call on Narendra Modi and make a determined effort to take India-China relations to a new level.  After an economic and political drift lasting a few years, it would seem that India is once again seen as the economic opportunity not to miss and the political friend to have.

In recent months there has been a determined effort by Japan, and its many friends resident in India to bring these two Asian giants closer, to close ranks against the third and increasingly assertive giant. There is however a big difference. While China and Japan can afford to be fierce Kabuki warriors, their conflict is still mostly theater. A deep sea separates them and the USA’s great military presence ensures that Japan’s security is assured.

India on the other hand has over a quarter of a million heavily armed troops and a huge and modern air force deployed against an equally powerful PLA. At many places the forces are eyeball to eyeball. War is a hair trigger away and this is no Kabuki play. The big question for India is whether it wants any part in this drama?

The scars that blight Japan and China relations are old and deep ones, and even they’re being close economic partners have not erased them. India will do well to skirt away from this conflict and focus on serving its own interest.

It took a climactic ending of WW2 to force change upon Japan and make it a near pacifist country almost entirely dependent on the USA for its security. It was the USA that brought China out of its isolation to create a new flank against the Soviet Union. It was the US’s economic engagement with China that turned it into an economic power.

But as China’s assertiveness rises and the USA gradually has to withdraw from its self-assumed role as the world’s policeman and with global interests, Japan is beginning to bear the brunt of this assertiveness. Japan is hence seeking new friends and emphasizing common interests’ as India alone in Asia has the heft and size to balance Chinese power.

In 2010 China’s GDP went past Japan, but Japan’s per capita GDP is ten times more than Japan’s and China’s population is ten times greater than Japan’s. In 2013 India’s PPP GDP also surpassed that of Japan, but like China, India too is many times poorer than Japan in per capita terms. While Japan seems to have reached the limits of GDP growth with an aging population and a concomitant decrease in consumption, Japan needs to make investments abroad to ensure an income stream. Much like a retiree lives on pension fund incomes. It is thus actively seeking investments that will pay to sustain its high living standard. At the core of Japanese soft power are its need and the ability to invest and to provide technology to India, like it did in China a few decades ago.