By Apoorva Mandhani
Nearly two months after the tense standoff between the Chinese and Indian troops at Doklam, a deal was reportedly put in place on 28 August to bring an end to it. Given the sensitivity of the matter, most of the international reactions have been neutral indicating that no one is willing to overtly support either China or India. For instance, the United States’ State Department Spokesman Heather Nauert suggested a resolution of the stand-off through “direct dialogue”, while Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop had stated that both India and China should resolve the dispute peacefully and without any escalation.
Speaking the unsaid
Almost two months after continued tensions, Japanese Ambassador to India Kenji Hiramatsu supported India’s position on the issue in the first clear show of backing from a major power. Mr Hiramatsu opined that no “unilateral force should be used to change the status quo on ground”. Calling for a “peaceful” resolution of the dispute, the Japanese Ambassador explicitly acknowledged India’s stance by stating that “India is involved in this incident based on its bilateral agreement with Bhutan”. While the statement may have had a neutral wording, a close appraisal of the statement reveals how Japan has spoken the unsaid by explicitly supporting India on the Doklam tension.
In contrast to the cautious approach adopted by other countries, Japan seems to be quite eloquent and bold in its support for India’s stance, thereby calling for a deeper understanding of the various narratives attached to its support.
Preventing a dangerous precedent?
China has reacted sharply to Mr Hiramatsu’s comments, criticising Tokyo for trying to mobilise international support over the disputed Senkaku and Diaoyudao Islands in the East China Sea through this strategy. It has further alleged that Japan lent its support to India with the hope of shifting China’s focus from the South China Sea to the border dispute with India. This would suggestively relieve the pressure on Japan, which has been building up its influence in the South China Sea, the most widely contested body of water in Asia, to curb Chinese expansion. An editorial in Global Times, a daily controlled by the Chinese government, has touted Japan’s support as an attempt to put on a show for the US. The reason for China’s condemnation is straightforward; both India and Japan are major powers at the two ends of the western Pacific and the Indian Ocean that China needs to tame in order to meet the US’ challenge for supremacy in the two oceans.
Analysts have viewed Japan’s statement of support as significant, especially coming after the US proposal for both sides to talk and resolve the crisis. Besides, it has been suggested that another reason for Japan’s backing is that Beijing has laid claim over its islands. In May this year, Japan scrambled its warplanes after four Chinese ships and a drone aircraft entered the Senkaku Islands. Tokyo made similar claims at that time, alleging that China was escalating the situation unilaterally in an unacceptable way. Japan, therefore, understands that if China is allowed to have its say in Doklam, it may set a dangerous precedent for Senkaku in the East China Sea.
Gearing up for a strategic embrace
It is believed that the Japanese Ambassador’s statement holds potential for India-Japan cooperation. His stand indicates that Tokyo takes an immense strategic interest in India’s Northeast provinces. Japanese strategic experts having explained their willingness to work on defence technology with India. According to them, India is a strong naval power; it is trustworthy and can fill the vacuum left by the US in the Indian Ocean region. Japan needs India to stabilise the region and restrict China’s expansionist ambitions.
Moreover, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to India in September would be an opportunity to discuss India’s approach to Japan’s intentions, especially since India has, as of now, refused to react to the Japanese Ambassador’s comments. In the light of all such factors, it has therefore been asserted that Japan’s support for India has other narratives attached to it. It is these narratives that India needs to read carefully, in order to nurture its relationship with Japan in times to come, especially when Japan is seemingly eyeing a strategic embrace.
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