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India-Japan-China : Two’s company, three’s a crowd

, October 22, 2014, 0 Comments

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Friendship is blossoming between India and Japan, much to China’s chagrin. But needling Beijing is what’s behind it in the first place, says DW columnist Frank Sieren.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Japanese counterpart, Shinzo Abe, are the best of friends – at least, going by their Twitter accounts. In early September, Abe congratulated Modi on his 64th birthday and fondly recalled his state visit to Japan. Just a few days later, he turned 60 himself, and it was Modi’s turn to send best wishes.

Twitter provides the two leaders with a very public platform to celebrate their camaraderie. One reason behind it is to demonstrate to Beijing that the two countries can get by fine without China. This is also the reason behind a series of resolutions agreed upon during Modi’s state visit, aimed at further boosting cooperation.

For the time being, the annual trade volume between Japan and India amounts to $18 billion (14 billion euros); a target of $25 billion has been set for next year. Within the next five years, Japan is also planning to invest up to $35 billion in projects in India.

China remains economic heavyweight

There’s no reason why the second and third largest economies in Asia shouldn’t team up to reduce reliance on the uncontested number one, China. Competition raises everyone’s game. But they should be careful not to lose their sense of proportion.

In 2013, goods worth more than $312 billion were traded between Japan and China, with nearly one fifth of Japan’s exports headed for China. Bilateral trade with India, meanwhile, is only just gathering pace. Worth a paltry $5 billion in 2005, it was exceeding $66 billion by 2013 – in other words, twice as much as the trade volume which India and Japan are aiming for in 2015. The chances are relatively slim that their new friendship will ever have the same economic clout as the two countries’ respective relationships with China.

It nonetheless makes sense for Asian countries to form various alliances, both with and without China. Economic partnerships would only become fraught were they to be politically loaded. In terms of foreign policy, Abe and Modi are becoming more confrontational towards Beijing and are hoping to hold trilateral talks with the US before too long. Joint military maneuvers in the East China Sea are also planned, while the two countries’ foreign ministers have apparently agreed to meet more frequently.

Symbolism over substance

But these moves have mainly symbolic value. Given the current political climate, Beijing has little reason to fear a military partnership, however annoying this would be. It has enough trouble with India and Japan as it is. China argues constantly with India about their shared border, and Indian politicians are none too pleased by China’s close friendship with Pakistan. Relations with Japan are no easier, due mainly to a territorial row that’s been rumbling on for years about the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.

Then, only last week, Japanese politicians visited the Yasukuni Shrine to pay their respects to the country’s war dead, including convicted war criminals who took part in atrocities against China. Last December, Prime Minister Abe caused outrage in China and South Korea by accompanying them, and therefore opted this time to merely send along a ritual offering.

Beijing sees Abe’s gesture as a sign that Japan is still mulling just how far its relations with China should go. The reason is obvious: China and Japan are currently negotiating the terms of a meeting between Abe and Chinese leader Xi Jinping at the APEC summit in November near Beijing – when all the parties in question will be coming face to face.

Friendship is blossoming between India and Japan, much to China’s chagrin. But needling Beijing is what’s behind it in the first place, says DW columnist Frank Sieren.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Japanese counterpart, Shinzo Abe, are the best of friends – at least, going by their Twitter accounts. In early September, Abe congratulated Modi on his 64th birthday and fondly recalled his state visit to Japan. Just a few days later, he turned 60 himself, and it was Modi’s turn to send best wishes.

Twitter provides the two leaders with a very public platform to celebrate their camaraderie. One reason behind it is to demonstrate to Beijing that the two countries can get by fine without China. This is also the reason behind a series of resolutions agreed upon during Modi’s state visit, aimed at further boosting cooperation.

For the time being, the annual trade volume between Japan and India amounts to $18 billion (14 billion euros); a target of $25 billion has been set for next year. Within the next five years, Japan is also planning to invest up to $35 billion in projects in India.

China remains economic heavyweight

There’s no reason why the second and third largest economies in Asia shouldn’t team up to reduce reliance on the uncontested number one, China. Competition raises everyone’s game. But they should be careful not to lose their sense of proportion.

In 2013, goods worth more than $312 billion were traded between Japan and China, with nearly one fifth of Japan’s exports headed for China. Bilateral trade with India, meanwhile, is only just gathering pace. Worth a paltry $5 billion in 2005, it was exceeding $66 billion by 2013 – in other words, twice as much as the trade volume which India and Japan are aiming for in 2015. The chances are relatively slim that their new friendship will ever have the same economic clout as the two countries’ respective relationships with China.

It nonetheless makes sense for Asian countries to form various alliances, both with and without China. Economic partnerships would only become fraught were they to be politically loaded. In terms of foreign policy, Abe and Modi are becoming more confrontational towards Beijing and are hoping to hold trilateral talks with the US before too long. Joint military maneuvers in the East China Sea are also planned, while the two countries’ foreign ministers have apparently agreed to meet more frequently.

Symbolism over substance

But these moves have mainly symbolic value. Given the current political climate, Beijing has little reason to fear a military partnership, however annoying this would be. It has enough trouble with India and Japan as it is. China argues constantly with India about their shared border, and Indian politicians are none too pleased by China’s close friendship with Pakistan. Relations with Japan are no easier, due mainly to a territorial row that’s been rumbling on for years about the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.

Then, only last week, Japanese politicians visited the Yasukuni Shrine to pay their respects to the country’s war dead, including convicted war criminals who took part in atrocities against China. Last December, Prime Minister Abe caused outrage in China and South Korea by accompanying them, and therefore opted this time to merely send along a ritual offering.

Beijing sees Abe’s gesture as a sign that Japan is still mulling just how far its relations with China should go. The reason is obvious: China and Japan are currently negotiating the terms of a meeting between Abe and Chinese leader Xi Jinping at the APEC summit in November near Beijing – when all the parties in question will be coming face to face.

Irking China

Both Abe and Modi need to give careful consideration to the question as to just how much they can afford to needle China.

The Japanese economy relies heavily on China as a sales and production market. In India, meanwhile, Modi would like to oversee an economic boom on par with what China has undergone in the last 20 years. Unlike Japan, Chinese President Xi has already pledged support, earmarking funds in the two digit billions to be invested in the next few years in India’s infrastructure, the construction of industrial parks and to help jumpstart trade between the two countries.

Asia is in the midst of power struggles and right now, no country can get away with reckless foreign policy for the sake of scoring a few brownie points back home. The same applies, of course, to Beijing.