Modi, Japan and Diplomatic Balancing

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Modi, Japan and Diplomatic Balancing

Fresh from an effusive visit to Japan, Modi now needs to balance New Delhi’s relations with Tokyo and Beijing.

Modi, Japan and Diplomatic Balancing
Credit: REUTERS/Shizuo Kambayashi/Pool

If photo-ops are considered to be vital part of conveying messages in diplomacy then the image of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe hugging each other last week should go down as a defining moment in India-Japan relations. Traditionally, the Japanese are not known to be demonstrative or even to encourage physical contact but if the enthusiastic reception accorded to Modi during his five-day trip to Japan – his first bilateral trip outside the Indian sub-continent – is any indication, New Delhi and Tokyo are all set to transform geo-politics in Asia.

The two prime ministers, also close personal friends, not only discussed a wide range of bilateral issues during an unusually long trip but also worked towards building a counterweight to an increasingly assertive China. Although the only reference – and an oblique one at that – to China came from Modi, the joint statement was dominated by plans to cooperate on security issues that will have far-reaching implications in Asia. “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,” Modi told his Japanese audience without mentioning China.

Even the joint statement by the two countries spoke about regional tensions and steps that they intend to take to control the situation. It said, in parts: “The two Prime Ministers affirmed their shared belief that at a time of growing turmoil, tensions and transitions in the world, a closer and stronger strategic partnership between India and Japan is indispensable for a prosperous future for their two countries and for advancing peace, stability and prosperity in the world, in particular, in the inter-connected Asia, Pacific and Indian Ocean Regions. Prime Minister Abe briefed Prime Minister Modi on Japan’s policy of ‘Proactive Contribution to Peace’ and Japan’s Cabinet Decision on development of seamless security legislation. Prime Minister Modi supported Japan’s initiative to contribute to peace and stability of the region and the world.”

The joint statement was labeled “Tokyo Declaration for India – Japan Special Strategic and Global Partnership,” a fact that would not have gone unnoticed in Beijing. While the fine print of various agreements will be known in due course, the larger message of Modi’s visit is loud and clear: For the first time India is willing to throw its lot in with Japan, a known U.S. ally. So far, New Delhi has refrained from an overt alliance with the U.S. but it has accepted a need to have closer defense cooperation with both Tokyo and Washington. One early manifestation of this was the recent trilateral naval cooperation Exercise Malabar held off the Japan coast in June. This was a significant departure from the recent past. Since 2007, Japan had kept away from Exercise Malabar after Beijing had protested in the wake of a five-nation exercise in the Indian Ocean. But under Abe’s leadership, Japan is turning many of its defensive policies on their head. The easing of Japan’s defense exports rules will allow Japanese defense firms to participate in India’s huge weapons market. An amphibious military aircraft is likely to be one of the first exports to India. A civil nuclear deal is also progressing well, although much against Modi’s wishes it could not be clinched during his visit. However, Japan’s commitment to invest around $34 billion in India’s key infrastructure projects over the next five years will boost the India-Japan partnership further.

Officially, there was no reaction by China but Modi’s breakthrough visit was certainly keenly watched in Chinese official media, where it drew some pointed comment. Global Times, the hardline voice of the Chinese establishment in China had two strident back-to-back editorials on the Modi-Abe tango. In the first, the paper commented: “The increasing intimacy between Tokyo and New Delhi will bring at most psychological comfort to the two countries. What is involved in China-India relations denotes much more than the display of the blossoming personal friendship between Modi and Abe. After all, Japan is located far from India. Abe’s harangue on the Indo-Pacific concept makes Indians comfortable. It is South Asia where New Delhi has to make its presence felt. However, China is a neighbour it can’t move away from. Sino-Indian ties can in no way be counterbalanced by the Japan-India friendship.” The second one attacked Japan directly in an editorial titled, ‘Tokyo lost the war, and must accept defeat,’ threatening Japan openly: “What we need is a rational Japan that behaves itself and stops serving as a pawn of the US to sabotage China’s strategic interests. We need to crush Japan’s will to constrain a rising Beijing and only in this way can Sino-Japanese friendship garner a fresh, solid foundation.”

It is instructive to note that Chinese criticism so far is muted as far as India is concerned. The reason is clear. In less than a fortnight after Modi ended his successful Japan trip, Chinese President Xi Jingping is expected in India. Xi has an ambitious agenda for his visit. China wants to take full advantage of a pro-business regime under the new prime minister and raise bilateral trade beyond 100 billion dollars. Economic partnerships apart, China would want to keep its negotiations on the contentious border issue going, if only to keep India interested since India is now being wooed by the world. The U.S. has already sent three of its cabinet secretaries to India, all before Modi has even visited America. That visit is due in late September, where he will hold a summit meeting with President Barack Obama. Clearly, Washington wants to reboot ties with New Delhi after a downslide in relationship over the past four years. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has left for Mumbai and New Delhi, and is expecting to sign a deal to supply uranium to India. Canberra has already indicated it wants much closer defense cooperation with India.

Modi’s foreign minister Sushma Swaraj has toured Vietnam – one of several of China’s neighbors that have territorial disputes with Beijing – and Bangladesh to re-establish India’s primacy in the region. The prime minister has himself decided to reach out to smaller but important nations in the Indian sub-continent by visiting Bhutan and Nepal, the two Himalayan countries wedged between India and China. His decision to call off talks with Pakistan also shows he is prepared to make a departure from conventional practice. Clearly, Modi is the international flavor of the season. His challenge will, however, be to balance competing interests between the U.S., Japan and China even as he pursues an independent Indian foreign policy based on national interest.