Middle powers do not shape global orders. But under the right circumstances they can affect them. The unfolding strategic face-off between the US and China is pulling Japan and India back into Asian and global politics after decades of absence.

After its devastating defeat in World War II, Japan was forced to internalise a view of itself as drawn-in, docile and leaving its protection to the very power that had defeated it: the United States. Time has imprinted this view on the societal psyche in Japan.

But the bigger impact was that of prosperity. In its peaceful and isolated resignation, Japan became rich beyond anything it had achieved when it was an aggressive empire. The primacy that Japan had sought by the sword, and which ultimately led to humiliation and colossal suffering, came as admiration and emulation from almost the whole of East Asia in the wake of Japan’s development in the second half of the 20th century.

Some, especially within Japan’s leading families, many of which have passed on their power and wealth for generations, have always longed for the assertiveness of old. But for the vast majority of Japan’s power structure, abdicating international politics for economics was a highly profitable bargain. As a result, Japan remained content for decades with being distant from Asia, a continent that half a century earlier it had considered its imperial domain.

India has had a different experience, although the result was not markedly different. After four decades of political struggles both near and far away under the Nehru dynasty, India entered the early 1990s tired and struggling with a fundamental dilemma: it is the world’s largest democracy, yet it has shocking social inequality and a devastating level of poverty. This led to a subtle but unmistakable prioritisation of economic development over all external political projects from the previous decades.

Ideas about non-alignment and partnering with liberation movements in Africa and Asia retreated into the shadows. In their place, a new image of India emerged – that of a technological powerhouse on a par with the very best of technology developers the world over. Wealth began to accumulate, but there was also a yield in national security. India’s economy, technological prowess and standing advanced miles ahead of its decades-long enemy Pakistan. As was the case with Japan, India found in economic development the power and prestige that politics – at least in the previous half century – had never afforded it.

Yet, as has also been the case with Japan, wealth and prestige came with strings attached. India became entangled in many of the features of US power, most notably US economic and financial markets and industrial value chains. Some in India, particularly in its sophisticated foreign affairs establishment, felt uncomfortable with this new reality. But the nectar of wealth and economic development outweighed the pull of nostalgia for older positions. India’s eyes were looking away from the country’s immediate neighbourhood in Asia towards Wall Street, the major universities on the US East Coast, and California’s Silicon Valley.

But then came China, which in Japanese and Indian history has always been the “other” – geographically close, but culturally often a competitor, occasionally an opponent, and in various episodes, a nemesis. Even in philosophy and religion, although China was for both India and Japan the incubator in which foundational ideas were refined and found their most marvelous expressions, it remained a feared dragon, seen as best chained, and if not chained, then best distracted and tired.

It is for this reason that China’s rapid expansion over the past decade from out of its borders and into its immediate neighbourhood has imposed a dilemma on both Japan and India. Not only is politics back, demanding that attention be given to what is taking place around these two countries, but geo-politics is also presenting each of them with a serious challenge.

Both Japan and India have considered reaching out for their historical playbooks. Both have fought China repeatedly, including in the past 150 years. But today’s China is vastly different from at any time in the 19th or 20th centuries. Facing off against today’s China is not on the table for either of these two countries.

This is why both Japan and India have aligned themselves with the US as it begins to contain China’s expansion. Both have joined the Quad group of countries, which also includes Australia, since this is a primary US strategic vehicle to encircle China. Both have enhanced their military cooperation with the US. And both are increasingly linking key logistical networks in their economies with US infrastructure.

Their choices have consequences, however.

First, the two countries joining the US camp imposes on China arguably the most difficult test it will face in the medium term. No one – not even the US, as argued in the first article in this series – will really challenge China’s expansion in East Asia. The US will attempt to delay and raise the cost of establishing a Pax Sinica over the region, but ultimately China’s primacy there is a forgone conclusion.

The question then is will China stop? Or will it seek to extend its influence to encompass Japan and India? The importance of this decision is that it will determine whether China will be content with being a mega (regional) power, or whether it will be bent on becoming a superpower with dominion over the whole of Asia and beyond? The former means respecting Japan’s and India’s special positions. The latter means fighting them.

The second implication of Japan and India entering the new great game between the US and China is that they will underscore the economic and technological side of the confrontation. One of the interesting features of the US-China relationship is the many intricate links between the two countries’ economies – which, as presented in the first article in this series, has been a reason why a powerful lobby in the US had argued, predictably in vain, for the unreasonableness of the confrontation.

Of course, Japan and India have many connections to the Chinese economy. But there is neither co-dependency nor inextricable links. On the contrary, there are major competitive dynamics between each of them and China. Not only will the US leverage on those dynamics, but almost certainly we will see in the coming years an escalation of economic rivalry, if not contestation, between China and Japan and India.

Technology will be the main theatre of this rivalry. The world is on the verge of a transformational change in industry, finance and ways of living. Artificial intelligence, quantum computing and biological engineering will open doors to new and today unthinkable innovations. And whilst the US is at the forefront of the research and development of these technologies, followed by China and a select group of European countries, both Japan and India are notable centres of scientific excellence. Their primary contribution to US efforts in its strategic confrontation with China will likely be in such transformative technological changes.

There is also a more subtle, but equally important, contribution that Japan and India can bring to the US-China face-off. Japan and India are democracies in which individual rights and property are respected. The socio-political system of each country is unique and reflects each country’s own historical experience. However, the two countries are Asian. As more and more Asians become middle class with assets to care about and increasingly rights to demand, the more the differences between the developmental model of China and the democratic ones of Japan and India will come into focus. Here, the image of prosperous and free Japanese and Indian societies might be a notable sore, and potentially a threat, to an expansionist China seeking respect across the whole of Asia.

Whereas the US can quite safely rely on Japan and India as allies in its confrontation with China, China looks to Russia as a potential partner or at least as a party in a mutually attractive transactional relationship. Russia’s calculus, however, is a complicated one, particularly as it faces a new global order dominated by the US and China. An assessment of Russia’s position will be given in the next article in this series.