US, China, India and Japan: Maritime Powers in the Indian and Pacific Oceans
Photo Credit: Hindustan Times
By Tai Wei Lim

US, China, India and Japan: Maritime Powers in the Indian and Pacific Oceans

Nov. 14, 2017  |     |  0 comments

There are four maritime powers in the Indian Ocean Basin and the Pacific Ocean: the US, China, India and Japan. All four have powerful blue water navies and have contributed to peace and security in the region.


The US has effectively been the world’s global policeman keeping the sea lanes of communication (SLOCs) open, making global trade possible. China, Japan, and India are beneficiaries of the US role in keeping global geopolitics stable and safe:China has been practicing a peaceful rise and currently aspires to make a contribution to humanity as espoused in President Xi Jinping’s speech at the 19th Party Congress, India has been a non-aligned power resisting hegemony, and Japan has been a fiercely pacifist power since WWII and has been engaged in a US-Japan alliance since the 1960s.


China has clear blue water naval ambitions beyond its current capabilities. Currently, there is only one overseas Chinese military base in the global maritime trading system and that is in Djibouti. It also has other offshore facilities in Iran and Pakistan. The Chinese are practicing a patient, careful and cautious strategy, youhao (friendly) diplomacy and the incremental strengthening of its military capability. It does not want to be entangled in unnecessary warfare and does not believe in alliances, nor does it want to pose a threat to others. China’s Belt and Road Initiative is designed to help others in Asia achieve their connectivity capabilities to benefit from trade. China’s connectivity initiatives and its multilateral Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) are highly welcomed by the vast majority of stakeholders in infrastructure development.


In the 20th century, India chose a path of non-alignment from the Bandung conference onwards and became an independent third world power. It was the world’s largest democracy and drew closer to the Soviet Union in military and strategic exchanges, coming to terms with pre-WWII colonial powers and maintained a non-alignment stance with other great Asian powers like Indonesia and China. India crafted its global image as a third axis in a bipolar world during the Cold War. It had its own independent streak and worldview, beholden to no one and generally friendly to all major powers. It is now enjoying close and warm relations with the US. In his recent visit, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson promised to sell advanced technologies to India, showing the level of trust between the two countries.


Japan has a reactive foreign diplomacy style and seldom beats its chest on the international stage. Instead, it prefers to be in concurrence with the US and its networked allies’ interests, and introduces changes only when there is strong gaiatsu (foreign pressure). In military and security matters, Japan has been engaged in a core alliance with the US since the 1960s. Under the US nuclear umbrella in line with the Yoshida Doctrine, Japan’s policy was to concentrate resources on economic development instead of military adventures and expenditures. As Japan rose from the ashes of WWII and restored its economy, its first foreign aid provision was given to other Asian countries to help them develop. Its economy qualified for the OECD (Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development) in the 1960s and became a leading economy in the 1970s. Japan then became the number two economy in the world after the US in the 1980s and became a net global investor in the developing world. Its manufacturing industry was especially sought after as foreign direct investment by many Asian developing states.

At the central core of Asian diplomacy, international relations, and regionalism is the US, and it remains interested in seeking closeness and friendship with all three Asian powers.

There are many complementarities amongst these four major powers for them to work with one another.


Diplomatically, Japan and India are strong advocates for the status quo in the current world order and are comfortable with a rules-based normative world order. Demographically, Japan faces a shrinking and aging population compared to India’s growing youthful population. Therefore, there is complementarity between the two in terms of manpower needs. Japanese capital can mobilize India’s manpower resources for production and manufacturing activities. Japan can also capture the strength of the Indian economy which is in the services sector, while Japanese advantages are found in the manufacturing sector.


Japanese investments in India have increasingly clustered together to exploit economies of scale in specially negotiated zones. These special zones are designed to bypass difficulties and challenges faced by individual companies in penetrating the important and highly significant Indian consumer market while tapping into the still youthful Indian workforce. They have been proven to be successful models which can be replicated elsewhere in India.


China shows desire for harmonious relations and a readiness to reach out to other Asian powers that are nervous about China’s rise. There is space for Japan, India and the US to work with China on issues of common interests — issues which these three countries have common worldviews and interests not too distant from those of the Chinese. In some ways, India and China have some economic stakes in each other’s developmental plans and economic diplomacy. Bilaterally, China is India’s largest trading partner in goods and India is a founding member of the AIIB and BRICS New Development Bank.


Currently, China and India operate naval activities independently of each other, using ships to implement escort duties for civilian ships, rescue operations, and to tackle smugglers. In April 2016, China dispatched its 20th naval escort task force to the Gulf of Aden, while India stopped 40 piracy incidents and set up an online service for merchants to request for Indian naval escorts. There is potential for these two Asian powers to work together with the US and other stakeholders to combat piracy. In another example, the search and rescue operations for Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 that disappeared in March 2014 involved 26 states including Japan, the US, China and India. Also, in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami disaster, states including India, Japan, the US, and China contributed to the aid efforts.


At the central core of Asian diplomacy, international relations, and regionalism is the US, and it remains interested in seeking closeness and friendship with all three Asian powers. Just as it is important to engage China on regional issues, it is impossible to maintain the Pacific and Asian continental order without the participation of a global power like the US. There are issues and common challenges in which all Asian powers can enlist the strength and influence of the US for resolution. The US has also been a strong defender of interests for small and medium sized states in the regional order. These states form the quantitative majority of the regional order in terms of representation in the UN.


An Asian regional order without the participation of the US, which is a major Pacific power as well as a global power, is weak and inward-looking. No other country has shown either willingness and/or the capabilities to displace the US and its post-WWII Bretton Woods as well as Washington Consensus-based world order. Even China does not want to displace the US in the current world order that is still trying to find its equilibrium amongst the major powers jostling for greater influence.

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