According to recent reports, some Japanese officials are attracted by the idea of an alignment with India against China. India, they say, occupies an important position astride Japan’s sea routes to the Persian Gulf. They note that India is the world’s largest democracy, so Japan can work with it on matters of common interest. And, they say, India’s growing middle class and high-tech companies are attractive for Japan. Some scope may exist for limited Japanese defense cooperation with India. But it’s folly to think that the enemy of my enemy is necessarily my friend. The risks of alignment with India outweigh the advantages.
Japan is feeling growing Chinese strategic pressure on its sea lanes, vital for its energy imports from the Middle East. It is disturbed by China’s attempts to intimidate Taiwan, an island just south of Japan. But in the Indian Ocean, India has its own ambitions that could one day threaten Japan’s sea routes. For decades, India has hatched arms-control schemes in the Indian Ocean targeted at the island of Diego Garcia, vital for U.S. strategy in the Gulf. Because of Japan’s need for maritime security, Diego Garcia is as strategically important for Japan as islands that are much closer to home, such as Taiwan. India, if it were able to plant its foot on Japan’s jugular in the Indian Ocean, would be tempted to apply pressure.
If it aligned with India, Japan would risk entanglement in the messy religious-based hostilities of the subcontinent, including Kashmir. An India-Japan alignment would also help push Pakistan further into the arms of Beijing, and fuel tensions among the two nuclear-armed states of the subcontinent, which have already fought three wars.
India has the trappings of democracy, but that has its limits in a country ruled by its higher castes. Most of India’s 1 billion people remain poor and illiterate. Like other immature democracies, India can be swept by nationalism, as Japan was in the 1920s. In 1998, many Japanese were dismayed by the fervor in India after it tested nuclear weapons. India now sees nuclear weapons as the path to great power status. Those pretensions encompass permanent membership of the U.N. Security Council, which Japan also wants. But Japan’s main claim to membership is its advocacy of nuclear disarmament. Would Japan wish to see India rewarded for its new nuclear status by permanent membership of the Security Council?
Now that its nuclear weapons have made it invulnerable to Chinese nuclear intimidation, India has become more assertive. It is flexing its muscles in the South China Sea, announcing that it will conduct exercises there with Vietnam. That is throwing down the gauntlet to China, whose territorial claims in the South China Sea are so extensive that they press on the vital Strait of Malacca that connects the Indian and Pacific Oceans. China also has a strategic foothold at the western end of the strait, in Myanmar, on India’s doorstep.
An alignment among Japan, India and Vietnam might seem a logical response to China’s ambitions in the South China Sea. Vietnam seeks leverage against China, which attacked Vietnam in 1979 after Vietnam invaded Cambodia (China’s ally at the time) in search of hegemony over Indochina. That was done with Soviet backing and to cheers from New Delhi. China and Vietnam have conflicting claims in the South China Sea, and in 1988 they clashed in the Spratlys. But alignment with India could be dangerous for Vietnam — especially if Hanoi were to give India access to the naval base at Cam Ranh Bay on the South China Sea. India cannot protect Vietnam against China, but its involvement there would raise tensions. Why would Japan wish to allow India to drag it into Vietnam’s mostly self-inflicted problems with Beijing?
India’s ambitions in the South China Sea will also worry the core states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. They distrust India, which they see as a bully in its own region. ASEAN’s promotion of the Southeast Asian Nuclear Weapons Free Zone, which seeks to keep the region insulated from nuclear competition, is aimed as much at India as China. ASEAN’s current weakness will make it even more alarmed at the prospect of Sino-Indian competition in the Strait of Malacca and South China Sea. Even some of the founding members of ASEAN are squabbling among themselves, while Indonesia, the largest of them, remains in turmoil.
The United States is the only great power with an unambiguous interest in Japan’s maritime and nuclear security. That’s why the U.S. is Japan’s natural ally — even though some in Japan who are attracted by the idea of “Asia for the Asians” may not see it that way.
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