China, India, Japan and the US: Ties That Bind but Don't Constrain
Sunanda Kisor Datta-Ray (Commentator based in India)
Ironically, Manmohan Singh might not have been invited to address Japan's Diet last week - the first Indian prime minister to be so honoured - if it had not been for India's nuclear deal with the US.
The burgeoning Indo-Japanese partnership is not the only development that testifies to the strength of America's presence in Asia. It is evident even in Chinese affairs: looking past the most obvious arguments and acrimony in the Sino-US relationship, one can see the causes and compulsions that motivate two major nations that need each other.
US President George W. Bush is the midwife at India's birth as a recognised nuclear power. So it cannot have been mere guesswork when Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns made the assurance that China would not obstruct the nuclear deal.
Japan also implied tacit consent with its promise - as a key member of the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group - to take a "constructive approach" after India concludes a safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency.
This is a landmark development for Tokyo because of Japanese memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, mounting squeamishness over 50,000 US troops on its soil and the quest for a new post-war identity to reconcile economic might with military status. Japan was cool to India until Dr Singh liberalised the economy in 1991. Tokyo would not have welcomed him so warmly had Washington not endorsed India's booming economy - 9.2 per cent growth in this year's second quarter - and global aspirations.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe inaugurated a Festival of India in Tokyo, launched the India-Japan Friendship Year 2007 and renewed Japan's commitment to "the strategic orientation of their relationship". A proposed comprehensive economic partnership agreement between the two countries will cover almost everything under the sun - trade and investment, science and technology, co-operation in space, security, and cultural and educational exchanges.
There is even a provision for civilian nuclear co-operation, a hitherto unthinkable possibility. Dr Singh helped by playing on his hosts' nationalist sentiments. Diet members were delighted with his laudatory references to India's Judge Radha Benode Pal, the only member of the Tokyo war crimes tribunal to dismiss the trial as "victor's justice" - and to exonerate all the defendants. Dr Singh also referred to the 1952 Indo-Japanese peace treaty, which did not mention the second world war or Japan's defeat, and waived reparation claims.
Yet, it would be premature to imagine that a harping on "shared values", or Mr Abe's plans for a quadrilateral Japan- India-US-Australia dialogue, will lead to an axis against China.
Ultimately, Japan has too much at stake in its huge eastern neighbour - trade worth US$184 billion, and investment in 20,000 China-based companies - to risk serious estrangement. With trade booming across the Himalayas, India, which seeks a settlement of the Sino-Indian border dispute, has already declared that it wants no part of a containment strategy.
Even the Americans cannot wish to kill a goose that lays golden eggs. What matters more than mutual grumbles and grievances is that complaints did not deter US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Vice-Premier Wu Yi from initiating an unprecedented strategic economic dialogue last week. China showed that the wooing is not one-sided, by providing sweeteners: a crackdown on pirated DVDs, CDs and software, and substantial deals with four blue-chip American companies.
While huge imports of Chinese shoes, clothing, electronics and other domestic goods saddled the US with a US$190.6 billion deficit in the first 10 months of this year, American consumerism would have cost even more without inexpensive Chinese merchandise. China and the US also know they cannot afford not to co-operate over North Korea's nuclear programme.
India needs the US for nuclear legitimacy, supplies of nuclear technology and equipment, investment and expertise. And New Delhi feels that the US alone can pressure Pakistani elements that it claims are promoting cross-border terrorism.
There are hitches in all three bilateral relationships with the US. India complains of the continuing flow of sophisticated American hardware to Pakistan. Some Japanese say US troops are in their country not so much to defend as to watch it. And western schizophrenia is best illustrated by the European Union's decision to promote China to the level of "strategic partner" without lifting the 1989 arms embargo.
We know that problems suggest their own solutions. This is confirmed by the recent US-Japan troop reduction plan, which includes missile-defence shields, joint military bases and a bigger role for Japanese troops in international missions.
President Hu Jintao might follow up his recent visit to India by going to Japan. Having hosted Dr Singh in Tokyo, Mr Abe has invited Prime Minister Wen Jiabao . This hectic diplomacy should not create the impression of exclusively Asian initiatives in defiance of the US. In different ways, China, Japan and India are all moving towards greater interdependence among themselves and with the US. Their interlocking interests are likely to ensure that, despite anti-American outbursts and periodic spats, if a concert of Asia does emerge, it will not clash with long-term American interests in the region.
(Originally appeared in the December 20, 2006 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, reproduced here with permission.)