That India has little sense of geography and history was once again underlined by the scant national attention paid to President Pranab Mukherjee’s visit last week to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Mukherjee’s visit to the Andamans, as his trip to Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland a few weeks ago, was about alerting the Indian political classes about the geopolitical significance of its far-flung and neglected territories.
Even if New Delhi does not get it, the rest of the world is reminding us of the importance of space and time for the management of India’s national security. No one is going to do it more clearly than Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who arrives in Delhi this week as the chief guest at the Republic Day celebrations. Abe’s visit, coming amidst mounting Sino-Japanese tensions, should help us reflect on the intersection of the Sino-Japanese rivalry with India’s history and geography.
While the current uncertainty in Sino-US relations has generated considerable debate in Delhi, there is a lot less appreciation of the consequences of the fast-deteriorating relations between China and Japan. The military standoff between Beijing and Tokyo over the disputed islands in the East China Sea — called the Daioyu in China and Senkaku in Japan — is only the most visible expression of a deepening conflict between the world’s second- and third-largest economies. It has raised big questions about Asia’s contemporary history, the new nationalist passions in China and Japan, and the future of the Asian security order.
For many in India, the arguments between Beijing and Tokyo over Beijing’s historic claims over disputed maritime territories and Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni shrine that commemorates Japan’s war-dead seem abstract and distant. But as in the past, so in the future, the nature of the relationship between China and Japan is of enduring significance for India.
The rise of Japan at the turn of the 20th century and its victory over Russia in 1905 gave a big boost to Indian nationalism by demonstrating that Asia can indeed prevail over Western powers. But Japan’s occupation of China in the 1930s and World War II in Asia produced a diverse set of responses from India. The Indian National Congress extended its solidarity to the people of China against the Japanese occupation in the inter-war period. But the intensification of India’s own struggle against British colonialism generated serious complications.
When Chinese nationalist leader Chiang Kai Shek came to India in 1942, asking Gandhi to suspend the agitation against Britain and lend support to the Allies in the war against Japan, the Mahatma was reluctant. Yet, the war saw the full mobilisation by the British of Indian military manpower — 7,50,000 to be precise — to reverse Japanese aggression in Burma and Southeast Asia. continued…