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Why Japan supports India and not China on Doklam

The confrontation took place on the north bank of Pangong Lake in Ladakh, media reports said. Photograph: (Zee News Network)

New Delhi, Delhi, India Aug 18, 2017, 12.46 PM (IST) Jagannath P. Panda

International reactions on the current Doklam tension have been quite cautious. Many major countries, including the United States and Australia have reacted to India-China border stand-off that involves Bhutan. The United States State Department Spokesman Heather Nauert had stated earlier to resolve the Doklam border stand-off through “direct dialogue” while Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop had stated that both India and China should resolve the dispute peacefully without any escalation. Given the sensitivity of the matter, much of these reactions, however, have taken a neutral stance indicating to the fact that none of these countries overtly wants to support either China or India. 

In contrast to these cautious international reactions, Japan seems to be quite eloquent and bold. Though Japan was quite late in commenting on the Doklam border tension, the Japanese Ambassador to India who also holds the Ambassadorship to Bhutan concurrently, Kenji Hiramatsu, recently stated that it is important for the ‘parties involved in the Doklam border tension to not resort to unilateral attempts to change the status quo by force’. Calling for a ‘peaceful’ resolution to the long-standing India-China stand-off in Doklam, the Japanese Ambassador explicitly acknowledged India’s stance by stating that ‘India is involved in this incident based on its bilateral agreement with Bhutan’. This statement may have neutral wordings, but a close appraisal of this statement reveals how Japan has spoken the unsaid, by explicitly supporting India on the Doklam tension. 

The statement by the Japanese Ambassador, undoubtedly, was a pro-India statement, supporting New Delhi on the matter.

The statement by the Japanese Ambassador, undoubtedly, was a pro-India statement, supporting New Delhi on the matter. This statement clearly points out to the strategic understanding both New Delhi and Tokyo are currently sharing with each other on sensitive matters. The Japanese stance further explains a number of issues that should not be missed out in the broader context of Japan, India and their bilateral relations. 

First, the Japanese stance on Doklam reveals the significance of preserving the ‘status-quo’ on territorial disputes that have implications for Japan and the region. The Japanese attempt of touching the issue of ‘status-quo’ is certainly an exclusive one since none of these major countries, such as the United States and Australia have commented on the ‘status-quo’ issue while reacting on the Doklam border tension. India must appreciate this perspective by the Japanese on Doklam. 

This perspective, however, is derivative of Tokyo’s increasing concern over the Chinese maritime law enforcement agency's (CMLEA) involvement in the Senkaku islands in the East China Sea as well as China’s attempt at changing the facts on the ground in the South China Sea. These actions are seen by Japan as gradually disturbing the ‘status-quo’ existing in the region. 

Chinese naval vessels have frequently been visiting the Japanese territorial waters and that has troubled Tokyo for some time. Through its newly released 2017 Defense White Paper, Tokyo reportedly outlines how China is gradually trying to 'change the status quo by coercion in the East and the South China Sea dispute. All this while, Japan has tried to garner international support on the matter, including an attempt to develop a shared understanding with India. A positive statement on Doklam and touching the sensitive issue of ‘status-quo’ unveils the Japanese intention of exposing China’s aggressive attempt at changing the ‘status-quo’ in relation to land and maritime territorial disputes. Therefore, this Japanese stance calls for a greater India-Japan dialogue, mainly in developing a shared perspective on land and maritime disputes, locally and regionally. 

A positive statement on Doklam and touching the sensitive issue of ‘status-quo’ unveils the Japanese intention of exposing China’s aggressive attempt.

Second, the Japanese statement that ‘India is involved in the incident based on the bilateral agreement with Bhutan’ describes the country's resolve to support India diplomatically. Further, Japan has stated that it appreciates a ‘peaceful resolution’ to the matter, referring to India’s External Affairs Minister’s approach. Clearly, Japan wants to passively underline the aggressive stance taken by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in contrast to India’s persistent effort for a ‘peaceful resolution’ through diplomatic channels. Also, Japan intends to support India which Bhutan must take a serious note of. 

The Japanese Ambassador’s statement has a greater context for India-Japan cooperation. His statement indicates that Tokyo takes an immense strategic interest in India’s Northeast provinces as well as in India’s neighbours where Japan wants to emerge as a partner for development. Clubbing India and Bhutan together in the statement explains how Japan wants to make its presence noticed smartly as a power promoting ‘peace’ and development both for India and its neighbouring countries. 

Though the statement by the Japanese Ambassador is not a direct statement on Bhutan but it has to be also seen in the context of Japan-Bhutan bilateral relationship. For long, Japan is trying to boost its relationship with Bhutan, not only through the donor and recipient mode but also through trade and investment cooperation. 

Kenji Hiramatsu’s statement has a domestic narrative attached to it where the emphasis is again on ‘peace’’. The term “Proactive contribution to peace” has been the catchphrase of Japan’s approach to regional security matters, including its maritime disputes with China. In fact, in this context, Japan wants to acknowledge India for promoting peace, not aggression as a resolution to the Doklam tension. Both Narendra Modi and Shinzo Abe had, in fact, agreed to have a shared understanding on cooperation between India and Japan in promoting ‘peace and prosperity’. The Joint Statement of November 11, 2016, released during Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Tokyo, bears testimony to the fact. 

Both India and Japan need to translate their growing strategic interests to an action-oriented partnership, both in bilateral and regional contexts.

Japan’s stance on the Doklam tension might appear to be a symbolic gesture of support towards India, but it has other narratives attached to it to which India must read carefully and nurture its relationship with Japan accordingly in times to come. The bold Japanese stance on Doklam is essentially a reflection of its changing security and diplomatic outlook. 

 Japan under Shinzo Abe is debating on a new constitution by 2020. It wants to revise its age-old pacifist Constitution, which prohibits Japan to maintain an active armed force, limiting it to just maintain a self-defense force (SDF). The main debates in Japan surround over Article 9 of the Japanese pacifist Constitution and its fading relevance. Seen as a relic of the Cold War period, the growing voice in Japan is that Article 9 is unable to help the country to meet the emerging security and defence challenges of the post-Cold war period.  

Hence, Japan wants to have a ‘proactive pacifist’ constitution to meet new security challenges arising not only from China and North Korea but it also wants to be able to “proactively” contribute to peace in and around the neighborhood region. Japanese statement on Doklam may not directly be linked to this Japanese initiative to change the Constitution, but it undoubtedly derives from this changing security mindset that India must prepare to take a strong cognisance of. 

Both India and Japan need to translate their growing strategic interests to an action-oriented partnership, both in bilateral and regional contexts. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s forthcoming visit to India must encourage both sides to have a careful and in-depth discussion on security matters that are local as well as regional in nature. On India’s part, New Delhi must exhibit the character of a greater power in East Asia which should complement Japan’s “Proactive Pacifist” security thinking. Further, India needs to gradually emerge as a greater security provider in the region which will complement the Japanese changing security outlook. 

Jagannath P. Panda

Jagannath Panda Coordinator of the East Asia Centre in IDSA. He is the author of India-China Relations: Politics of Resources, Identity and Authority in a Multipolar World Order

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