Playing The East

If Prime Minister Narendra Modi plays his cards well with Japanese and Chinese leaders in the next few days, he can mobilise the world’s third- and second-largest economies in accelerating India’s development and make New Delhi an important player in the unfolding Great Game to the east.

Any reference to the “Great Game” turns our mind to the subcontinent’s northwestern frontiers, where Russia and the Raj jockeyed for influence through the 19th century. The context was Calcutta’s territorial expansion towards the Indus and beyond and Moscow’s march to the Caspian Sea and the Amu Darya. Managing the contested space in between was at the heart of the Great Game. But the Great Game was never limited to the northwest. From Calcutta’s perspective, the Great Game was about limiting the presence of other powers around the subcontinent. The Raj had its hands full securing the eastern flanks before and after the 19th century.

In establishing its primacy in India, Britain had to fend off the Dutch power in the 17th century and the French challenge at the end of the 18th century. After the Napoleonic wars in Europe, the Raj demarcated the spheres of influence with European powers in East Asia to Calcutta’s advantage.
Tranquillity to the east of the Raj was shattered by the rise of imperial Japan at the turn of the 20th century. Japan’s military advances in East Asia in World War II surprised the Raj that was ousted from Malaya and Burma. The Japanese armies also drove the French out of Indo-China and the Dutch from the East Indies (Indonesia). Soon after, they were closing in on the subcontinent’s northeastern frontiers and occupied the Andamans in the Bay of Bengal. It needed all of undivided India’s resources, military and economic, to defeat Japan.

Thanks to independent India’s reluctance to remember the history of World War II, Delhi’s political and bureaucratic classes as well as its strategic community have little sense of the complex dynamic of Asian geopolitics in the first half of the 20th century. Modi’s emerging opportunities with Japan and China can only be appreciated if there is some awareness of India’s decisive role in shaping the Asian balance of power in the first half of the 20th century.

India’s Role

In the inter-war period, the conflict between Indian nationalism and Britain sharpened steadily. But Asia’s new geopolitics was being defined by not just the anti-colonial movements but also the deepening contradictions within Asia. In Northeast Asia, Japanese nationalism was at odds with Chinese and Korean nationalisms. Elsewhere, sections of Asian nationalists saw imperial Japan as a liberator of the region from European colonialism.

The Indian national movement was, regrettably, divided in dealing with Japan’s rise. While there was strong nationalist opposition to Japan’s occupation of China, some like Subhas Chandra Bose saw the value of aligning with Japan to accelerate India’s independence.

While the Indian National Congress refused to support the British war effort against Japan, the Raj deployed nearly 750,000 Indian troops to push the Japanese out of Burma and Malaya. India also became the base for British and American support for the beleaguered Chinese nationalist government that was relocated to Chungking (Chongqing) in the face of Japanese occupation of eastern China.

Modi’s Moment

Seven decades later, tensions between China and Japan have once again become a critical feature of Asian geopolitics. As in the inter-war period, the West now appears listless in coping with the unfolding power shift in Asia. America, which has replaced Britain as the sole superpower, is finding it hard to manage the competing imperatives of engaging a rising China and reassuring a concerned Japan.

During World War II, the lack of agreement between Britain and the INC on one hand and divisions within the national movement on how to deal with the Asian geopolitics on the other significantly limited India’s political gains, despite its massive military contribution to the Allied victory in Asia.

India today is much better placed to deal with the emerging rivalry between Beijing and Tokyo. On the economic front, Modi should eagerly seek cooperation from both sides. Commercial competition between Tokyo and Beijing, for example on high-speed railways, should work to India’s advantage.

In the strategic domain, there can be no symmetry between India’s relations with Japan and China. If Beijing’s growing military capabilities pose difficult challenges to Delhi, security cooperation with Tokyo might help reduce India’s expanding power gap with China.

This article was originally published in the Indian Express.