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The Unfolding ‘Great Game’ In South Asia

The Unfolding ‘Great Game’ In South Asia

By Sanjay Upadhya

South Asia’s growing geo-strategic profile is being raised several notches by another global player. Japan plans to create a special South Asia department in its Foreign Ministry, designed to coordinate diplomacy with India and monitor China's regional influence, the Japanese daily Sankei Shimbun reported April 5. The new department will also be responsible for focusing greater attention on Pakistan and other South Asian nations, the newspaper said.

During the Cold War, ideological inhibitions and the insularity of South Asian economies had pushed the region to the margins of Japanese diplomacy. Although Tokyo saw South Asia as strategically important, especially in view of the sea-lanes vital to its oil imports from the Middle East, development cooperation with the region took precedence over everything else. As South Asian nations began liberalizing their economies and opening their doors to foreign investment in the early 1990s, Japan's economic involvement in the region grew substantially.

The timing of Japan’s latest effort to step up engagement with South Asia is significant; it comes weeks after the Bush administration merged the State Department’s South Asian and Central Asian bureaus into a single unit. Afghanistan, which is set to officially join the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) as a full member later this year, is seen as the vital bridge between the two volatile regions of Asia. The United States and South Korea have applied for observer status at SAARC, a position China and Japan have been granted.

Geopolitical Shift

The geopolitical locus of South Asia underwent a dramatic shift last November when Nepal successfully tied Afghanistan’s SAARC membership to observer status for China. New Delhi’s strong initial opposition to the linkage crumbled as Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka backed Nepal.

Clearly, the simultaneous inclusion of Japan – a traditional rival of China to which India has been warming up in recent years -- was intended to mollify New Delhi. For Tokyo, a formal foothold in South Asia comes amid a resurgence of popular opinion in favor of a more vigorous international role.

A recent poll by the Yomiuri Shimbun found 71 percent of Japanese want the country's constitution to "clarify the existence of the Self-Defense Force." Fifty-six percent said the constitution should be modified to take the SDF into consideration. The poll also put the number of those who want the pacifist Article 9 of the constitution revised at 39 percent - the highest percent in five years.

Ever since coming to office in 2000, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has argued the need for Japan to come out of the humiliation of its defeat in the Second World War and consider itself as a regional, if not global, power. In Beijing’s view, Tokyo has already embarked on assertive internationalism, especially in view of its deployments in Iraq, joint development of anti-missile systems, in-air refueling capabilities and interoperability among the various branches of service. China, which opposes Japan’s and India’s bids to become permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, is anxious to offset a Tokyo-New Delhi alignment in South Asia.

Asian Giants’ Rivalry

To be sure, relations between India and China have come a long way since their brief but bitter border war in 1962. The upturn has been spurred in large part by the two Asian giants’ booming economic ties. China is set to replace the United States as India's leading trade partner in the near future. New Delhi and Beijing, which recently held their second "strategic dialogue," have declared 2006 as a friendship year. They have agreed to cooperate, rather than compete, for global energy resources vital to fueling their growing economies.

Overall relations, however, are still inherently fragile. Contrasting cultures, disparate international outlooks, divergent political systems, and competing geostrategic interests, among other things, have left India-China ties vulnerable to sudden deterioration.

The U.S.-India nuclear deal, which aims to recognize New Delhi as the sixth nuclear power as well as open up civilian nuclear supplies, despite India’s refusal sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, is only one of several contentious areas. Beijing believes the deal, signed during President George W. Bush’s visit to India early last month, would have a negative impact on the global nuclear order. The official Chinese media have been less reticent in voicing their concern; editorial writers and opinion columnists warn that if Washington made a nuclear exception for New Delhi, other powers could do the same with their allies.

Two other developments have forced Indians to sit up and ponder. Last November, New Delhi was taken aback by the emergence of a pro-China bloc comprising Pakistan, Nepal, and Bangladesh at the 13th SAARC summit in Dhaka. A month later, at the first East Asia Summit in Kuala Lumpur, China largely succeeded in confining India to the periphery of a future East Asia Community.

Chinese Strategic Contours

The strategic contours of China’s South Asia policy are becoming clearer. After Pakistan and Myanmar, Beijing is skillfully employing economic and military means to draw India’s other smaller neighbors into its own sphere of influence. The People’s Liberation Army’s recent incursions and road construction in Bhutanese territory are aimed at pressuring the tiny Himalayan kingdom to end its protectorate ties with India.

China has been steadily enhancing cooperation with Nepal, where King Gyanendra’s takeover of full executive powers last year prompted widespread international condemnation and arms embargos from traditional suppliers India, Britain and the United States. Spurning Indian pleas not to step into the vacuum, Beijing has supplied arms to King Gyanendra’s government, which – ironically enough -- is fighting a vicious Maoist insurgency.

Amid a downturn in India’s relations with Bangladesh, over such issues as illegal immigration, Islamist terrorism and trade, China has gained naval access to the Chittagong port. Through a road link with Bangladesh via Myanmar, China hopes to access Bangladesh’s vast natural gas reserves. China, the major arms supplier to Bangladesh, recently offered to provide Dhaka with nuclear reactor technology, heightening Indian anxieties.

China's growing regional assertiveness has had its impact on bilateral relations with India. During the last round of border talks in September, Indian analysts detected a hardening of Beijing stance on their long-running territorial dispute. Moreover, China, which finally seemed to have come around to recognizing India’s 1975 annexation of the former Himalayan kingdom of Sikkim, now appears to be going slow on formalizing that position.

U.S. Written All Over

Beijing’s fears that Washington was using New Delhi and Tokyo as part of a broader campaign to contain China were further enflamed in February by the publication of the U.S. Department of Defense's Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR). The Chinese Foreign Ministry criticized Washington for attempting to play up a “non-existent Chinese military threat.”

Chinese analysts see the QDR’s designation of their country as a “strategic threat,” along with the U.S. focus on enhancing its Pacific military assets and increasing its long-range strike capability, as clear preparations for a future conflict. The full implications of a U.S.-led China-containment strategy in South Asia are yet to emerge. In an already volatile region, perceptions have a dangerous way of defining reality.


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