Rising Powers Initiative - Sigur Center for Asian Studies
Policy Alert #156 - January 19, 2018
Looking Back on 2017: A Rising Powers Story You May Have Missed
While China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) grabbed international headlines last year, another major infrastructure plan floated by two other key Asian countries hardly got much overseas coverage. Indian
Prime Minister Narendra Modi's announcement of India and Japan's
Asia-Africa Growth Corridor
(AAGC) at the African Development Bank Meeting in May 2017 represented the culmination of Indo-Japanese efforts for meaningful, bilateral action in the Indo-Pacific region. But it also symbolized an attempt to promote an attractive alternative to the BRI, with the two countries emphasizing the AACG's commitment to development cooperation, quality infrastructure and institutional connectivity, and people-to-people partnership. The AAGC's primary goals are to promote sustainable projects and growth and to coordinate the development priorities among countries and sub-regions of Asia and Africa.
The AAGC provides Japan and India a platform from which to emphasize the importance of the freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific region as well. Prime Minister Abe has talked about the need for a
maritime security "diamond"
of democracies between Japan, India, Australia, and the United States.
Japan's military base in Djibouti
was completed in 2011 as part of its anti-piracy campaign around the Horn of Africa, and Indo-Japanese security cooperation has strengthened over the past year. Thus, the close alignment between Japan and India's strategic and economic interests could provide a solid foundation for the AAGC as a new type of regional political and economic architecture for the 21st century.
Commentary below from India and Japan show mixed reviews for the AAGC despite the enthusiastic push by Abe and Modi. Chinese opinion is uniformly negative, citing various reasons.
After openly opposing the BRI in May 2017, Indian Foreign Minister Jaishankar explained India's rationale for pursuing a quadrilateral partnership with Japan, the US, and Australia instead, "
Many of the concerns we articulated in the summer have become broader international concerns. We hear it in Japan, US and Europe ... India has been a pioneer of connectivity in many ways [...] We have more ownership of Silk Road than anyone else.
" At a consultative meeting before Abe's visit to India in September 2017, Jaishankar pointed out that a defining characteristic of the AAGC was "
a strong sense of local ownership
Our activities must fully conform to balanced ecological and environmental protection and preservation standards. And, I am compelled to add, respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity
he added, highlighting India's frustration with the BRI's inclusion of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) without India's consultation.
In the joint statement during Abe's visit to India, Prime Ministers Modi and Abe promised to "work together to enhance connectivity in India and other countries in the Indo-Pacific region, including Africa," and "
underlined the importance of all countries ensuring the development and use of connectivity infrastructure in an open, transparent and non-exclusive manner based on international standards and responsible debt financing practices, while ensuring respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, the rule of law, and the environment
." This was a clear rebuke to China's BRI which has been widely criticized for its lack of transparency and financial practices.
- Times of India coverage of the AAGC featured a criticism of an article published by the Chinese Global Times that advocated for India to align its African development strategies with BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), rather than the AAGC. The Times of India urged the country to stay strong in the AAGC, arguing that in working through BRICS, India's influence would "get diluted." Indrani Bagchi, diplomatic editor of the Times, added that, "China's aggressive march towards becoming a 21st century totalitarian power should not go uncontested."
- Former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran called on India to step up its game in the AAGC and suggested that "In order to make an impact, India will need to revamp its delivery system, ensure quick implementation and match Japanese efficiency in every aspect."
- Rakesh Sood, a former diplomat and Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, echoed these sentiments in an op-ed for The Hindu, encouraging India "to change its style of implementing projects abroad, most of which have been plagued by cost and time over-runs" in order to make the AAGC beneficial to the Indo-Japanese relationship.
- C. Raja Mohan, Director of Carnegie India, similarly analyzed the strengthening relationship between India and Japan in the Indian Express. On the AAGC, Mohan points out that "[w]hile all this is impressive, skeptics will argue that without a significant defence relationship, the talk of an alliance between India and Japan remains meaningless."
- In its comparisons of the joint statement issued during Abe's 2017 visit and the one from the prior year, the Indian Express noted that discussion of the AAGC refocused the effort to Africa, even though Middle Eastern countries had been given prominence the previous year.
- The Economic Times asserted that the AAGC "is fast finding favour in resource-rich Africa, where China's push, ostensibly for capacity building, is receiving bad press for being hard and exploitative," and featured commentary on China's alleged exploitative activities in Africa, including treatment of workers as "slaves" and rampant overfishing by Chinese companies. The newspaper ran another op-ed on Abe's 2017 lower house election win as a victory for Modi as well, explaining, "Apart from China's increasing military presence in Indian Ocean, another worry for Modi is China's One Belt One Road (OBOR) project which gives it economic and strategic footholds across Asia. With Abe with him, Modi can counter China."
- Rajesh Basrur and Sumitha Narayanan Kutty, professor and associate researcher, respectively, at the S. Rajaratnam School for International Studies, Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, argue that "Japan [...] is becoming [India's] primary collaborator in developing its economic sinews and for building a geostrategic network that offers Indian Ocean states an alternative to dependence on China."
- The Hindu offered words of caution on India's rush to collaborate in partnerships that primarily serve to "counter" Chinese influence: "While India has objections to the BRI, it wouldn't be ideal to bracket the country in a counter camp, but rather it should balance its outreach in accordance to national interests and its own terms. After all, the very countries which are pushing India into alliances are deeply intertwined with China in terms of trade. Excessive dependence on multilateral frameworks to fulfil national objectives may seem lucrative in the short term but could prove to be a costly mistake in the long term and comprise Indian sovereignty."
Although there has been no formal statement on the Chinese government's position regarding the AAGC, commentary in state-owned and state-directed media outlets are generally critical of the AAGC as it provides competition to China's BRI and efforts to include African countries through BRICS-Plus, which China introduced as host of last year's BRICS Summit.
- Global Times reporter Wang Jiamei predicted that the AAGC would likely fail as the Sino-Japanese relationship is more important to Japan, both politically and economically, than its ties with India. "Countries like India are indeed big partners to the Japanese economy, but the importance of the Sino-Japan economic relationship is incomparable. Economic interests will eventually lead Japan to make the right choice." Hu Weijia, another Global Times correspondent, made vague allusions to India's partnership with Japan while calling for the need for BRICS member states to "work in unison in their engagement with African countries."
- Liu Dian an assistant research fellow at the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China asserts that "the 'stress-inspired' union" between India, Japan, the US, and Australia to counter China's influence through the BRI may "prematurely end" due to the dynamics between the four partners. On India and Japan's roles, Liu explains, "India's non-aligned tradition and longstanding strategic autonomy make it hard for this country to participate deeply in the team. Japan, the most passionate participant of the union, will ultimately fail to accomplish anything if it lacks strong support from the other three nations."
- Long Xingchun, a senior research fellow at the Charhar Institute, and director of the Center for Indian Studies at China West Normal University, urged India to "be wary of being misled by Japan in confronting China, while Tokyo benefits from New Delhi's face-off with Beijing," noting that Japan "benefited" by participating in Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in May while India boycotted the event.
- China Daily criticized India's "mixed signals" following the end of the territorial standoff at Doklam by aligning itself with Japan diplomatically and engaging in joint military exercises with the US despite China's "sincerity" in maintaining strong relations. The Daily encouraged India to "learn from the standoff, and help China to build sound bilateral ties" rather than play into the "US-Japan game."