Asia’s strategic triangle: China-India-Japan
RELATIONSHIP: The three Asian giants can transform Asia into an area
of peace by thinking creatively and cultivating relations based on
complementary interests and realistic expectations rather than the
deadweight of history or the baggage of naive idealism.
The destiny of Asia in this century will be shaped by the triangular
relationship between China, India, and Japan. The strategic footprint of
that triangle will cover the world. Cooperation between them will help
to anchor peace and prosperity in Asia.
Japan is the economic powerhouse that is slowly but surely shaking
off the shackles on the deployment of its military forces overseas in
the cause of international peace.
China and India, each nuclear armed and with a billion people, are
the heartland of the world. Their phenomenal growth over the last decade
in particular has acted as southern engines of growth for the whole
The historic trends sweeping across Asia along with most of the rest
of the world include democratisation (yes, even in China, especially at
the grassroots level), globalisation, intensified economic interactions,
and great power harmony.
The three Asian giants can transform Asia into an area of peace by
thinking creatively and cultivating relations based on complementary
interests and realistic expectations rather than the deadweight of
history or the baggage of naive idealism.
For all three, the bilateral U.S. relationship is more critical than
with either of the other two potential strategic partners. Washington is
the gateway to a huge pool of technology, credits, and markets.
Japan, the only U.S. ally of the three, neither would nor should
accept curtailment of its tried and tested security axis with Washington
as the price of good relations with as yet untested new friends.
Equally, though, no intra-Asian strategic triangle can be formed if
external security alliances are interpreted primarily as advancing the
strategic interests of outsiders at the expense of the legitimate
security needs and concerns of Asian neighbours.
Indeed in the past four years, China has skilfully exploited the U.S.
preoccupation with Iraq, and the calamitous collapse of U.S. reputation
because of Iraq, to expand its soft power reach and influence throughout
Since September 2001, the United States has presented an intense and
angry face to the world.
By contrast, China has usurped the traditional U.S. role of exporting
hope, optimism, and reassurance.
Asians welcomed the U.S. presence and role as their region’s security
and prosperity guarantor in the past not because they loved America the
most but because they feared America the least. Not any more.
India may be able to forgive but is unlikely to forget the 60-year
old history of active collaboration between China and Pakistan,
including with respect to the development of nuclear and missile
capabilities. And China does not have to forget in order to overcome as
an obstacle the 20th century history of Japanese imperialism in East
Relations between India and China, the world’s two most populous
countries, oscillate between indifference and rivalry. China and India
in conflict would be easy prey for the tactics of divide-and-rule for
neutralising any remaining pockets of opposition to one-power dominance.
Instead they should join forces to sculpt a multipolar world.
Both resist efforts to link international trade to stringent labour
and environmental standards. China’s WTO membership has enabled them to
cooperate in protecting the interests of developing countries, as is
clear in the stalled trade talks in the Doha round where they have
teamed up with Brazil and South Africa as the champions of the
They are united in opposition to fundamentalist religious and other
ethnic movements. Conflicts in Afghanistan and Central Asia involve
sects spread across several political frontiers and jeopardise the
stability of neighbouring countries, including China and India.
Both seem willing to maintain peace and tranquillity on the border
pending resolution of the territorial dispute - a problem left over from
history - through friendly and peaceful consultations.
In the meantime, they have begun several confidence-building
measures, including: placing a ceiling on troop deployments along the
border and agreements to clarify the line of control; providing advance
notifications of military movements and manoeuvres; holding periodic
meetings of force commanders; avoiding violations of each other’s
airspace; and refraining from the use of force to change existing border
positions. The two also launched a security dialogue some years ago.
India has a rugged and resilient democracy; China practises socialism
with Chinese characteristics. Historical and linguistic ties to the
West, economic policies of import-substitution and protectionism, and
political policies of close relations with Moscow kept India at a
distance from China and Japan.
The simultaneous improvement of Moscow’s relations with Beijing and
Washington dissipated the geostrategic community of interest between
Delhi and Moscow, threatened to leave India isolated, and spurred it
into searching for improved relations with China. Divergent interests
remain in respect to South Asia.
India views China as an intruder in the region; China believes it is
a legitimate ringside participant; The presence of 100,000 Tibetans in
India is another potential irritant in bilateral ties.
China and India are competitors for foreign investment, credits, and
markets. Trade between them has grown exponentially in the last few
years, but starting from an extremely low base. Japanese government and
businesses are now trying to react with some urgency to the fact that
China has overtaken Japan among India’s trade partners.
In the meantime, China has become Japan’s biggest market also,
surpassing even the U.S. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe just concluded a very
high profile visit to India. He has speculated in his book (Towards a
Beautiful Country, 2007) that in another decade Japan’s relations with
India could surpass those with China and the U.S.
This is hyperbole. In any case, mortally wounded by the disastrous
recent election results, Abe announced his resignation as Prime Minister
on Wednesday and his successor will be picked next week.
Some of the problem areas between China and India are potential
assets in India-Japan relations, for example, democratic governance.
While Japan has one of the world’s most rapidly aging populations, India
is expected to have the world’s largest working and consuming population
Japan’s presence in India, unlike China, is not constrained by
memories of wartime hostilities and atrocities. India has a wealth of
experience in U.N. peacekeeping operations, where Japan is a relative
The navies of the two countries could cooperate to mutual benefit to
protect vital sea lanes, assure energy security (all three of China,
India and Japan are major energy consumers and importers), and also to
combat piracy, terrorism and hijackings.
Both India and Japan are interested in permanent membership of the
U.N. Security Council. On most estimates, they are the two serious
candidates from Asia. With complementary credentials, both would add
value to the Security Council. While they competed against each other,
neither looked likely to succeed.
The prospects for both were greatly enhanced once they began to
cooperate and support each other, but China does not want its privileged
position as the only Asian permanent member diluted. There is supposedly
a Chinese saying that one mountain can accommodate only one tiger.
China, India, and Japan should join forces to construct an
architecture of regional order that fosters peace and promotes
prosperity across Asia and the world without cutting across existing
bilateral relations of any of the three.
Ramesh Thakur is distinguished fellow at the Centre for International
Governance Innovation and professor of political science at the
University of Waterloo.