Emperor Akihito will be visiting India this month after a hiatus of 40 years. The significance of his trip cannot be overstated; the Emperor in Japan represents more than just the state – he embodies the essence of the Japanese people. The addition of Japan as a genuine ally of India will be helpful in giving our country greater leverage in the emerging new international order.
In the rivalry between the US and China, India should ideally be a “swing” state, navigating between and around these two powers for its own advantage. Embedded within and an inextricable part of the US alliance system, including against China, is Japan. However, the Japanese position need not come in the way of yet another alliance, an “alliance of convenience” between India and Japan. Indeed, now that Shinzo Abe has taken charge in Tokyo, that seems to be taking place.
The two countries are finally beginning to coordinate their positions on an increasing number of issues. The collaboration first began in 2005,when Tokyo and Delhi decided to work jointly towards permanent membership of the UN Security Council, along with Berlin and Brasilia. That initiative seems to have no future, particularly as France, the least consequential player within the Permanent 5 in the UNSC, is wary of having to yield the spotlight to larger players and will join hands with China to stall any meaningful reform of the UNSC. This will render the Tokyo-Delhi-Berlin-Brasila bids for permanent membership futile.
That reason has been overtaken by a more recent and compelling case for a Tokyo-Delhi alliance: the fusion of the Indian Ocean with the Pacific, more popularly called the “Indo-Pacific.” Given the economic and security linkages between countries in both the Indian Ocean as well as the Pacific Ocean rim, it has become essential to regard this vast expanse of water as a single entity, in need of a common strategy on the part of key countries across the common rim. These will include, from west to east, Oman,the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Kenya, Tanzania, India, Indonesia,Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan.
The size and power of both China and the U.S. ensures them an independence of action in the global arena. Hence these two countries must be viewed separately from other, less consequential powers whose smaller heft mandates their need for alliances to be counted. Any talk of India being in the same league as China is still unrealistic. We are, at best, a middle power. Poor policy, imperfectly implemented, has kept us that way despite the immense advantages of location and vibrant human capital.
But Delhi now has a unique opportunity to play the keystone role, together with Japan, in crafting the architecture of a partnership in a natural triangle of prosperity within the Indian Ocean. The three sides of this new Indian Ocean construct will be the west coast of India, the east coast of Africa and the Gulf Cooperation Council. India can facilitate Japan’s participation in this new strategic space, Japan can reciprocate the favour to India in the Pacific.
For Japan, the Indian Ocean states triumvirate provides both a market and an arena for cooperation in security and finance – the beginning, perhaps, of new financial architectures outside of the dominant Western systems. Such an architecture will be substantially strengthened if Taipei and Seoul are included. As for the GCC, it has thus far seen itself only from the lens of the Persian Gulf, whereas the financial power of the grouping and the potential of its youthful population requires it to be not just part of the Gulf waters, but of the entire Indian Ocean – and through these lanes, into the Pacific. The goal is to increase prosperity in the region. The GCC has the capital, east Africa the resources and west India the technology to ensure a Triangle of Prosperity, a breakout from poverty, all within a single generation of partnership.
Consequently, the GCC must be brought into fora dealing with the Indian Ocean Rim (IOR). This task can be appropriately performed by India, a country with historical trading and other ties to each of its members. Indeed, a formal grouping of these three sides (of East Africa-GCC-West India) is to be desired. Abu Dhabi will be an ideal location for the headquarters of this new Indian Ocean grouping, just as Kuwait has the potential of hosting the as-yet-nascent Asia Cooperation Dialogue.
That only western India – specifically the sea coast – and the east African coastal states are included does not mean that the rest of India or the other countries in Africa will be outside the operational purview of the proposed IOR Triangle of Prosperity. Western India will serve as the gateway for the rest of the country, just as eastern Africa can for the rest of that continent. Under the new architecture, east Africa and western India can partner together on a host of trading and maritime enterprises, through which the rest of their continents can participate. This is a more workable engagement, than the existing IOR-ORC institution that is currently too diffuse and diverse to be operationally useful or strategically meaningful.
For the GCC, the benefits are also clear: Kuwait, Oman and the UAE, all sitting in the shadow of the West Asian upheavals, will be able to diversify not only their financial investments but also their geopolitical interests beyond the NATO block. The proposed triangle will accomplish that goal by simplifying procedures for investment and fast-tracking interaction – in the case of India, with the full participation of the central authorities. The intellectual underpinning of the proposed IOR Triangle of Prosperity will be India’s contribution.
This brings us back to the India-Japan alliance, which can now be viewed anew through this Indo-Pacific prism. The goal: to make the Tokyo-Delhi axis the centre of gravity in the Indo-Pacific.
The proposed IOR Triangle of Prosperity is but a single brick in the possible superstructure of an overall Indo-Pacific vision. In the Pacific, the IOR triangle will be replicated – but expanded to link Hanoi, Jakarta, Taipei and Manila with Tokyo in the Pacific. Like Delhi will draw Tokyo into the Indian Ocean, so will Tokyo draw Delhi into the Pacific grouping, connecting Delhi and Tokyo with Hanoi, Jakarta and Manila.
This panoramic view will allow India to look deeper both East and West, and favour Japan’s comprehensive integration into the West Asian and east African economies – a position now dominated by the West and by China. The gravitational pull of an India-Japan alliance will provide the Indo-Pacific countries a third strategic choice – and a more balanced security and economic global architecture.
M. D. Nalapat is vice-chair of Manipal Advanced Research Group and UNESCO peace chair, and professor of geopolitics at Manipal University, India.
This article was written exclusively for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can find more exclusive features here.
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