Though it is a quarter of a planet away, the confrontation between China and Japan over the disputed Senkaku islands should be a matter of concern for New Delhi. Beijing’s escalation of the dispute with Tokyo on the 80th anniversary of the Mukden incident, which could be said to have triggered the Second World War, seems to be more than just a run-of-the-mill gesture to domestic nationalists. In the past few months, Beijing has also picked up a territorial fight with the Philippines and its running island squabble with Vietnam seems to have deteriorated. Beijing has pushed the envelope repeatedly, one reason it has seen the majority of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations members rallying behind the United States in taking tougher position on China’s claims to the South China Sea.
China has always played hardball when it comes to its territorial disputes — as India knows well. But in the past several years, it has been careful to calibrate its responses, keeping in mind unspoken red lines for both sides. In the case of Japan, these lines seems to be shifting. For example, China has increased both the number of ships and the distance they are prepared to travel into the waters it disputes with Japan. A similar hardening stance is being seen with Vietnam. One of the consequences is that in both countries one is seeing a rising anti-Chinese sentiment at the public level. In Japan, it has led to the launch of a new nationalist political party. In Vietnam, it is seeing growing isolation of the pro-China faction within the ruling communist party. This was the sort of political fallout that Beijing has in the past tried to avoid. A calculated moderation is what seems increasingly difficult to discern in Chinese foreign policy.
There will be some who will argue that this is not India’s concern. This would be an error given China has more extensive territorial disputes with India than any other country. New Delhi had its share of finger-wagging incidents in the past five years with Beijing. These have tailed off now. But China has conceded none of the underlying issues behind such problems as the Kashmir visas or talks on ‘South Tibet’. A benign view would be that China has decided India is too prickly a nettle to grasp. A more realistic view would be that Beijing has concluded it should not pick fights with everyone at the same time and that India can expect another round of problems a few years from now. Given the opacity of decision-making in China, no one can say which theory is right. It would be sensible then to prepare for the second scenario. And that would include keeping a close watch on Japan’s predicament.