Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi greets Chinese President Xi Jinping in September 4, 2017 (Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)
  • Beijing's growing influence has concerned its neighbours — chief among them India and Japan.
  • To counter China, Tokyo is looking for a bigger role in the region, working with India to get it.
  • South Africa is getting caught in the middle, as China tries to push Japan Asia-Africa Growth Corridor

China's growing presence in the Indian Ocean region worries India, which has sought to counter Beijing's influence there. But India is not the only country in Asia looking to balance against a rising China.

Japan, which has long deferred to the US, is now pursuing a bigger role, expanding security partnerships in the region and boosting its involvement in infrastructure projects — many of which rival China's own projects.

In 2015, Tokyo announced plans to spend hundreds of billions on infrastructure projects in Asia, Oceania, and Africa in coming years, and since 2016, Japan has committed nearly $8 billion, or about R100 billion, to projects to develop ports and related infrastructure around the Indian Ocean.

"The scale of [Japan's] infrastructure investments in the region rivals, and sometimes exceeds, that of China," David Brewster, a specialist in South Asian and Indian Ocean strategic affairs at the Australian National University, wrote this week for the Lowy Institute's Interpreter.

Such projects are part of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) Strategy, meant to further connect Asia and Africa and the Pacific and Indian Oceans while promoting stability and prosperity.

FOIP projects currently under consideration include a joint project with India and Sri Lanka to expand an existing port at Trincomalee in Sri Lanka, a joint project with Myanmar and Thailand to build a new port and special economic zone around Dawei in Myanmar, and a project with Bangladesh to build a new port at Matabari to handle half that country's cargo volume.

Japan has started behind-the-scenes talks with those governments, and Japan's International Cooperation Agency has started drafting plans for those projects, according to Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun.

While China recently acquired a 99-year lease of a Sri Lankan port at Hambantota, which raised ire in India, The Yomiuri Shimbun reported that China failed to make progress on similar projects in Myanmar and Bangladesh due to Japan's development plans.

Delhi helped influence Bangladesh's decision to award the Matarbari project to Tokyo, and Japan and India could cooperate on future projects, including at Trincomalee and on Iran's Chabahar port, which India sees as a valuable link to central Asian markets (though that project could be affected by US sanctions on Iran.)

Japan's interest in a bigger regional role isn't new, but has grown in recent months, amid doubts about US policy in the region. But, Brewster writes, Japan's approach is in clear competition with China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

The BRI has been criticised as being unsustainable and lacking transparency, and China has been accused of using it to further "debt-trap diplomacy." US officials have warned that Beijing is "weaponizing capital" through the initiative, and the International Monetary Fund has warned China and its possible partners about deals that could create mounting debt.

The One Belt, One Road program. China in red, members of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in orange, the six corridors in black. (By Lommes, from Wikimedia Commons)

Japan has said its approach is distinct from the BRI in important ways, according to Brewster, including its emphasis on safety, reliability, social and environmental considerations, and on aligning with local development goals and a broader rules-based order. Japan also includes India as a partner and economic hub, whereas China's BRI avoids India.

India and Japan also announced the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor in May 2017 to further expand ties. It was supported by several African countries, including South Africa, and is poised to be another alternative to China's BRI. Beijing has tried to undercut it, pushing India and South Africa to merge the project with the BRICS platform, which would exclude Japan and dilute Delhi's influence.

There are doubts about whether Japan has the resources to compete with China's infrastructure push, and even though Japan has positioned its offerings as alternatives to China's, Tokyo hasn't precluded future cooperation — Japanese officials have even said the BRI could ultimately benefit the global economy, depending on how it's implemented.

But there is little doubt Tokyo and Delhi are have their eyes on countering their bigger neighbour.

"Japan is concerned about a rising Chinese profile beyond the Western Pacific, and India is equally concerned about the strategic implications of China’s commercial engagements in its neighborhood," Darshana Baruah, an analyst at Carnegie India, told Foreign Policy earlier this year. “These projects are aimed at creating an alternative to China's Belt and Road.

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