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. India also became the base from which America and Britain supported the Chinese war against Japan. Even as Indian resources helped China fight imperial Japan, a section of the nationalist movement, led by Subhas Chandra Bose, aligned with Tokyo to oust Britain from India. Another part of the national movement, the Communist Party of India, extended full support to the British war effort after the Soviet Union joined the Anglo-American alliance.
President Mukherjee’s recent visits to Nagaland and the Andamans captured India’s contradictory responses to World War II. In Kohima, Mukherjee remembered the brave Indian and British soldiers who decisively turned the tide against Japan’s advance into the subcontinent. In Port Blair, Mukherjee celebrated the arrival of Bose and the Indian National Army in the Andamans and the establishment of the Azad Hind government after the Japanese navy ousted the British from the islands. The national movement’s ambivalent response to the shifting great power dynamic in the run-up to World War II had a huge impact on the manner in which the subcontinent was partitioned. It also severely weakened India’s position in the postwar order that emerged in Asia and the world. A similar danger awaits India if it fails to correctly assess and respond effectively to the unfolding Sino-Japanese rivalry in Asia.
Two broad principles outlined by Jawaharlal Nehru at the dawn of India’s independence must guide Delhi’s current approach to the Asian power rivalry. One is to seek good relations with both China and Japan; it is a proposition that Delhi has upheld despite great difficulties with both in the postwar period. The other is Nehru’s insistence that postwar Japan should not be isolated or punished because of its imperial past. In renouncing reparations and demanding that Japan not be treated as an enemy state, Nehru understood that there could be no stability or security in Asia without Tokyo getting its due as a great power. This is the unambiguous message that Delhi must put out during Abe’s visit to India.
For nearly four decades, Japan and China have had closer relations with each other than with India. As they clash today, both attach considerable value to their relationship with India, which has the potential to alter the larger Asian context. Rising China’s interest is essentially a negative one, to keep the relationship with India tranquil as it confronts Japan in the east. Tokyo’s interest is positive, as it seeks to build a strong strategic partnership with Delhi to balance an increasingly assertive Beijing.
World War II — which brought the Sino-Japanese conflict to Delhi’s eastern frontiers in the Northeast, Burma, the Andamans and Southeast Asia — severely tested incipient India’s strategic coherence. Delhi needs to demonstrate a much better geopolitical aptitude in securing its interests as Sino-Japanese rivalry engulfs Asia.
The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’