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Prime Minister Modi’s Japan Visit and Thereafter

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by Bhaskar Roy
Published on September 8th, 2014

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to Japan (July 31-Aug. 02) was a high point in the new Indian government’s foreign policy efforts. Having won the general elections with an unexpected mandate, the government is in a position to pursue its policies largely unhindered. These policies are not radical but an extension of time tested foreign policy.

The regional and global environment have not been static, and hence adjustments are periodically required in foreign policy. There is also the question of personality.  Dr. Manmohan Singh and Mr. Narendra Modi are two very different people. Tomohiko Taniguchi, Special Advisor to the Cabinet of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe put this difference very succinctly to an Indian daily: “Singh was an accomplished leader. Without his intellectual guidance, India would not have come far. Modi is also an accomplished leader, but only at a regional level. He is an aspirational leader. To fulfil his aspirations, he has chosen Japan as a partner. He wants to put India on a level, so he needs Japan”.

Well, that may be Mr. Taniguchi’s view, but Mr. Modi left the impression in Japan that he is determined to seek development for India, and the sooner the better. Mr. Modi, in his own inimitable style, appeared to have felt at ease in democratic Japan when ancient traditions are still practiced.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was the quiet master of ceremonies, going out of the way to give Mr. Modi a rare high degree of welcome starting from receiving him in Kyoto and in the well publicised tea ceremony.

After taking office, Japan was going to be Mr. Modi’s first foreign bilateral visit at the invitation of Mr. Abe. He has a special liking for Japan and its technological advancement, and the absence of any frictions with India. But situations intervened. He had to visit Bhutan and Nepal, and then to the BRICS summit where he met Chinese President Xi Jinping. The Japanese hold that the BRICS meeting was a multilateral show and Mr. Modi’s first bilateral visit out of the South Asian subcontinent was to Japan.

The Chinese see this differently. The official Global Times (August 1) tried to project the delay in the Japan visit as India’s vision of the balance of power in its subtle design of big power diplomacy. This was telling Japan that India well understood the importance of a powerful China which was also a neighbor, and would not give too much importance to Japan which was at odds with China currently. 

The take-aways from Japan were not too many, but seeds were planted for a much better future including lifting of Japanese sanctions on six Indian companies involved in India’s nuclear programme. This was no small step for future peaceful nuclear collaboration.  In his joint press statement along with Mr. Shinzo Abe (Tokyo, Sept. 01), Mr. Modi briefly summed up his success.

First was the elevation of ‘Strategic and Global Partnership’ to ‘Special Strategic and Global Partnership’. This is not a show, but has serous intentions for greater transparency, trust and cooperation. This should be the platform to build relations in multiple directions.

The immediate hard take-away was the agreement for Japan to release US $ 35 billion for public and private investment in India over the next five years.
It is the future for which seeds have been sowed by Mr. Modi that need to be nurtured. A civil nuclear deal is being worked upon and was not realistically expected to be signed. Nuclear cooperation is a very sensitive issue in Japan’s national psyche. India is a nuclear power which has refused to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) on principle. The cooperation is being discussed and is very much alive. India will have to provide some concrete assurances that Japanese supplied technology will not be used to bolster India’s nuclear weapons programme.

For the time being, however, the two prime ministers committed to work together for India’s full membership of four important international export control regimes: Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), Missile Technology Control Regime, Wassenaar Arrangement, and the Australia Group.
This is a significant movement forward, especially when the aim is to prove India is not a proliferator of WMD. China has stood steadfastly against India’s inclusion in the NSG and other regimes. The efforts are not going to meet with immediate success, but the platform of support is growing from member states of these regimes.

In the area of defence, the talks are on the right track. Japan supplies defence equipment to the U.S., the UK, France and Australia -- democratic countries which are on the same page with Japan in many areas. This is an old policy manifestation without publicity. The India-Japan Joint Working Group (JWG) is also working for the transfer of US-2 amphibian aircraft and technology to India.

Agreement and understanding has been reached for cooperation on a wide range of security issues including the “2+2” (Foreign Ministry + Defence Ministry) dialogues. This would facilitate the two sides  sealing agreements smoothly and quickly. The “2+2” is not a normal agreement between countries, and elevates bilateral relations substantially at least in its vision, while also  making a statement to the region.

It was obvious that China would keep a close eye on Mr. Modi’s visit to Japan. Beijing does not want any country to get involved in the China-Japan acrimony on territorial issues which would encourage Japan to counter China even more strongly. They have warned the U.S repeatedly on the issue, though Washington has gone ahead upgrading defence relations with Tokyo and supporting Mr. Abe’s expansion of Japan’s defence activities beyond the constitutional provision. This amendment gives Japan space to collaborate with other countries on defence issues.

Given China’s strong position on its territorial claims in East China Sea and South China Sea, it was interesting to note the rather restricted reaction to the following two remarks from India:

• Mr. Modi’s off the cuff remark during a speech to business leaders in Tokyo,
 “Everywhere around us, we see an 18th century expansionist mind-set: encroaching on another country, intruding in other’s waters, invading other countries and capturing territory”

• The Chinese official media quoted Japanese and western public opinion saying the remark was a clear reference to China. It ascribed the remarks to Mr. Modi’s nationalist character and need for some media hype.

In paragraph 8 of the Joint Declaration, the two sides reaffirmed their “shared commitment to maritime security, freedom of navigation and overflight, civil aviation safety, unimpeded lawful commerce, in accordance to international law”. This could be a general observation or be pointed at China, but initially the Chinese official media decided to ignore it. However this does not mean that they have missed it.

There were some comments in China’s official Global Times that require close examination in term of Indian foreign policy and India-China-Japan relations. These are as follows:

• “It is South Asia where New Delhi has to make its presence felt. However, China is a neighbour it (India) cannot move away from. Sino-India ties cannot be counterbalanced by the Japan – India friendship.

• “If Japan attempts to form a united front centred on India, it will be a crazy fantasy generated by Tokyo’s anxiety of facing a rising Beijing”.

• “The positive India – China relationship has (also) created conditions for rapport between India and Pakistan”.

India’s independent foreign policy and role as a balancer of the region was frequently mentioned in the official Chinese media.

Three successive Chinese Party General Secretaries and Presidents Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao, and Xi Jinping presented their respective ideological inputs to develop the nation. The most important for external effect were “peaceful development of China”, “harmonious relationship”, both attributed to Hu, and “rejuvenation of China” spearheaded by Xi Jinping. The first two stood by Deng Xiaoping’s line of “hide your strength, bide your time”. The aim was not to raise anxiety in the neighbourhood and the world on Beijing’s interactions. The third is openly aggressive, casting aside Deng’s policy. This is creating a disturbing if not an unstable situation.
The developing new Cold War may not have taken a distinct shape yet, but it is certainly emanating from Xi Jinping’s ambitious vision of a giant China commanding regions around it and excluding outside powers from contesting in the region.

China’s relation with Japan has been historically antagonistic. Though small in size and population, Japan has always been a powerful country married intrinsically to technology. There are no questions about the fact that the Japanese army committed unacceptable atrocities againts Chinese and other citizens during the war. The question also arises for how long Japan can be denied its full rights as a nation. This may be a controversial issue, but cannot be excluded when discussing Japan.

Japan’s security is guaranteed by the U.S. But how long can this situation continue? Sections of policymakers in the U.S. increasingly feel that Tokyo must take more responsibility for its security and defence. This is becoming more urgent as territorial disputes arise with China. Mr. Xi Jinping has made it clear that China will continue to build a strong and modernized armed forces and that China will get back its territories, even if it has to resort to war. To send its message sharply it is unveiling new types of weapons and equipment.

At the same time, most of China’s territorial claims are not backed by evidence, but by propaganda. It also abides very selectively by UN regimes to which it is a signatory. A peaceful resolution through discussions with China is, therefore, virtually impossible. Such intangible differences could have been posted to posterity. But Chinese leaders feel that in such a situation China will never be able to retrieve its claims.

Somehow, Mr. Xi Jinping and his advisors feel that the next two decades present an opportune time period to proceed on their plans aggressively. In some of China’s calculations the U.S. is weakening. China holds $ 1.5 trillion of American bonds. The U.S. public is war-weary. In trade, the U.S. is stuck with China. So is Japan.

But that may not be the whole story. The U.S. is still about 50 years ahead of China in military power and technology. Its economy is also not as fragile as before. Finally, irrespective of the U.S. “Asia Pivot’s” weakness, the U.S. has invested so much men and material in the region since World WarII that it is almost like a conjoined extension of America. But its Achilles’ heel is its foreign policy fickleness. Yet unlike Iraq and Afghanistan, the Asia Pacific region has seen sustained U.S. interest and presence.

China’s interest is that the U.S. and European Union (EU) should leave this region, but not necessarily withdraw economically and commercially.

Unfortunately, for the past 50 years Indian politicians, bureaucrats, and even the armed forces, sought appeasement with China. While India has not been able to understand its own potential and build on it, the Chinese, especially the military, are far more cautious. Unfortunately in India, there is no serious connection between the armed forces, intelligence, strategic analysts’ community and the political elite. This is a major lacuna that must be rectified post haste.

China used to rely on the disconnect/distrust between India and the U.S. in its India policy. The change in India-U.S. relations is viewed by Beijing as a threat -- especially since the 2008 nuclear deal, joint military exercises, and arms and technology deals,.

An India-US-Japan close relationship will become a greater concern for China. Now with the signing of the peaceful nuclear agreement (Aug. 5) between India and Australia, giving India access to Australian uranium, Mr. Abe’s vision of a “democratic security diamond” (U.S., Japan, India, Australia), may be possible. Beijing knows this is unlikely and even the new Indian government has not given any indication of a policy change. But Beijing’s propaganda machinery keeps repeating these lines.

Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Japan revealed that China’s old policy of encircling and boxing India inside South Asia is still very much alive. This will impact India’s ‘Look East’ policy, including overland linkage into South-East Asia arriving on the shores of the Pacific Ocean through Vietnam. Countries which will lose economic development include Nepal, Bhutan, and Bangladesh along with India to start with.

The other warning is that any improvement in India’s relations with Pakistan is controlled by China. This is well known but hardly admitted by China.

China hopes India would have read these warnings and will reassure the Chinese accordingly when President Xi Jinping arrives in India later in September. If China is very annoyed will Mr. Xi postpone or cancel his visit? And raise the heat on the borders?

Note: The writer, an expert on China and Asia, is a New Delhi based strategic analyst and former senior Indian Government national security official. A version of this paper was first published by the South Asia Group on 8 September 2014.

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