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China and Japan are duking it out over hearts and minds in South Asia

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (L) talks with Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Reuters/Dinuka Liyanawatte
Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (L) talks with Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
By Lily Kuo
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

The rivalry between China and Japan is has reached a new corner of the the world. On Monday, Japanese prime minister wrapped up a tour of Bangladesh and Sri Lanka—the first Japanese leader to Bangladesh in 14 years and the first to visit Sri Lanka in almost a quarter of a century—just weeks before Chinese leader Xi Jinping plans to visit the region.

South Asia is one of several regions where Chinese and Japanese diplomatic rivalry is playing out. In July, Abe traveled through Central and South America for nine days, about a week after Xi wrapped up his own visit to Latin America. As we’ve pointed out, other regions where the two countries have been making diplomatic inroads include Central Asia, Africa, and Southeast Asia. Abe has so far visited 49 countries, the most of any Japanese prime minister.

What’s to be gained in South Asia? Sri Lanka provides a foothold along one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. This weekend, Abe announced that Japan would be sending patrol ships to Sri Lanka to help boost maritime security, and Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa asked Japan to help the country build more ports and harbors. Japan is also providing Sri Lanka with a $330 million loan to build a passenger terminal at its airport, while China is helping build a $500 million port terminal in Colombo.

Reuters/Dinuka Liyanawatte
Abe’s offerings to Sri Lanka.

The real prize in South Asia for Abe and Xi is India. Both China and Japan desperately want to have the Asian super power, which under Modi is expected to be a more active regional player, on their side. Abe’s visit to India’s backyard comes just after Modi visited Tokyo, receiving pledges of some $34 billion of Japanese investment into India. Xi postponed a trip to Pakistan because of anti-government protests in Islamabad, but still plans to visit India next week.

Diplomatically, it seems Japan so far has the upper hand. China and India have never been extremely cozy allies and India is one of the few countries with which China has ever had a border war, in 1962. In contrast, Modi and Abe have been close since Modi’s days as the chief minister of Gujarat and have been engaged in something of a bromance since 2012. Japan is a major investor in infrastructure projects like the $90 billion Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor that runs through Gujarat.

During Modi’s visit to Tokyo earlier this month, the two countries agreed to elevate ties to a “special level” and Modi took a not-so-veiled swipe at China by saying, “Everywhere around us, we see an 18th-century expansionist mind-set: encroaching on another country, intruding in others’ waters, invading other countries and capturing territory.”

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