Big power relations and the evolving military and economic landscape

Updated On: Apr 20, 2007

The United StatesJapan and India conducted their first joint naval exercises off Japan with an aim to improve communications, coordination and interoperability.

While these were operational aims, the joint exercise also marked an escalation of military relations between Washington, its top ally Japan and their newfound partner and friend, India. Already formidable military powers individually, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants even stronger military cooperation, some call it a de facto alliance, between Japan, India, Australia and the US.

The central core of this group of democratic powers is the American. US military presence in the region is significant with 50,000 of its troops hosted by Japan and its Seventh Fleet permanently deployed 18 ships also in Japan. Nevertheless, while Washington, Tokyo and Canberra are already in tight embrace, India still wants to keep its autonomous position.  Hence, India will be joining the Chinese and Russian navies in joint drills after its parrying with the democratic partners. India wants to keep up its status and reputation as an independent power.

With this in mind, India recently tested its medium-range Agni III missile as a sign of its determination to forge an independent nuclear stance away from dependence on Washington’s nuclear shield.  India is also playing catch-up in nuclear parity with China.

While the missile tests are not aimed at anyone, some analysts argue that, because of the fact that the missile is capable of reaching more than 3000 km deep into China's heartland, it is India’s way of deterring aggressive moves from a much more powerful neighbour. Agni III is the first Indian missile that can reach major Chinese cities.  This has raised eyebrows and immediately after the test, a Chinese Foreign Office spokesman sounded a note of caution saying that Beijing expects India, 'as a country with an important influence in the region, can work to maintain and promote peace and stability in the region'. This note of caution was in stark contrast with Indian Defence Minister A.K. Antony’s chest-beating proclamation that Agni III 'confirmed' India's capability for nuclear deterrence.

A more benign view is that India's test was intended to show its new resolve in catching up with China in military hi-tech hardware, especially after its shock at Beijing's successful test of an anti-satellite weapon in space. India is aware of a yawning gap between its capabilities and China’s. After all, comparing both tests, China was successful at a land-launched test that reach out into space to blow up an obsolete satellite, analogous to finding a needle in the haystack while India is only beginning to test-fire much more rudimentary land-based missile systems after a rather embarrassing failed launch July 2006.

In addition, India’s arsenal is far from being a credible competitor to China. Besides lagging behind China in the size of its nuclear weapon stockpile and the sophistication of its delivery systems, China has 400 strategic and tactical nuclear warheads and the potential to assemble a lot more while India's atomic arsenal is estimated to be a few score, with a potential to assemble probably 100 more in the coming years. Beijing has nearly 600 tactical missiles targeted at Taiwan, intermediate-range missiles that can reach Japan, Russia and India, and at least two dozen intercontinental missiles that can reach the US while India's total inventory is reported to be a little over 100, most of which are short-range missiles directed at Pakistan.

India wants to leapfrog Beijing in the area of anti-missile shield. In December 2006, India conducted an impressive test in which one missile intercepted another and this system was designed by Indian engineers to a certain extent in coordination with a foreign-purchased advanced radar system called Green Pine acquired from Israel. This development is a significant shift away from joining Washington’s missile defence shield which was India’s original intention in 2001. The missile defence system is being tested in conjunction with a revamp of India’s space program through the institution of an integrated space command involving the three armed forces, which New Delhi is likely to approve soon.

India’s leapfrogging process is carried out as a pre-emptive measure against action and reaction in Asian military affairs. Some speculate that with Japan and Australia formally associating with the US missile defence shield in Asia, and the deployment of the first missile defence battery of advanced Patriot systems around Tokyo, Beijing may respond by significantly expanding its nuclear arsenal.  India wants to prepare for such an eventuality.  It is reacting to a realignment of power in Asia.   With perceptions of the relative decline of Washington and the rise of China and India coupled with a more assertive Japan, India may just want a place in the sun along with other big powers in the region without targeting China specifically.

Outside military maneuvers, another fight is round the horizon.

The 27-nation European Union declared its fight to open up markets in China, India and Russia, calling them "stubborn" nations which kept out European exports. Jumping onto the bandwagon with Washington, EU trade commissioner Peter Mandelson said the bloc could join US action against Beijing in the World Trade Organization (WTO). This is the first salvo fired by the Europeans against the emerging powers of Asia.

"I do not rule out initiating or joining action at the WTO if, in our view, China is failing to take its responsibilities seriously," Mandelson said. China had promised to protect foreign patents and trademarks, but protection of intellectual property rights remained "patchy and uneven" in the country, said Mandelson. "Europe's patience could wear thin if we do not see our dialogue with China delivering more change," Mandeslson threatened. If efforts at dialogue failed, "there are other instruments at our disposal including the initiation of WTO cases," the EU trade chief said. To prepare for the tough fight ahead, the EU trying to set up of EU "Market Access Teams" in foreign countries to monitor and identify trade barriers before they appear and tackle existing obstacles to trade.

If EU picks on China, India and Russia with the risk of its moves escalating into some sort of trade wars, what kind of potential alignment of interests in the trade area would appear? Would the three join forces to retaliate?  While this is not clear, it is certain that the strategic economic landscape is getting more complex with the rise of China and India.  (19 April 2007).


EU to fight China, India protectionism (Bangkok Post, 19 April 2007)

US, Japan, India hold joint naval drills (Straits Times, 16 April 2007)

India's AGNI III Missiles Test (Straits Times, 16 April 2007)