Much has been achieved during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s just-concluded visit to Japan. He wanted some solid results to emerge from his postponed journey. Pragmatic thinking on his part won over the symbolism of which country he would first visit bilaterally. The time gained has produced more results, compensating for any earlier disappointment.
The Japan-China rivalry over who should receive the first handshake from Modi has also got deftly side-stepped by the prime minister receiving the Chinese foreign minister before any other foreign dignitary on Indian soil and preceding his Japan visit by meeting Chinese President Xi Jingping on foreign soil in a multilateral setting. The Japanese were very keen that Modi’s first bilateral visit abroad should be to Japan. That bid has succeeded in spirit, in that the prime minister’s first bilateral visit outside the neighbourhood is to Japan.
These are not mere diplomatic games of temporary importance. The sharp deterioration of China-Japan relations has given India cards to play in the triangular strategic geometry now increasingly defining the relationships between these three Asian powers. Japan, allied to the US, has the protective shield of American power, but the intensity of US-China financial and economic ties and the US’ reluctance to openly confront China, makes Japan less confident about relying on a single country, however powerful, to manage the emerging China threat. It is logical for it to work with India strategically to build political and security firewalls against an assertive China, with which India too has concerns that parallel those of Japan.
Modi’s several overtures to China, including the early invitation to the Chinese President to visit India earlier than initially planned, is another instance of his pragmatic approach to foreign policy that seeks to shift the focus away from bilateral political differences to economic cooperation so that gains for India and its partners can be maximised through increased trade, investment and technology transfers.
India does not have to choose sides. It can work with Japan in areas of shared concern about China, while working with China in areas that yield mutual benefits and preserving space for ‘strategic’ cooperation with China on international issues of trade, energy, reforms of the international financial and political institutions, terrorism etc. China’s alliance-like relationship with Pakistan with its strong anti-India strategic dimension does not entitle it to complain about India-Japan strategic understandings that bolster Abe’s robust external policies.
In this broad context, the announcement of an India-Japan Special Strategic and Global Partnership is meaningful. India has strategic partnerships with several countries. Russia was singled out for a ‘Special and Privileged Partnership’ to underline traditionally strong India-Russia ties and geopolitical views we largely share. Japan is an American ally, which conditions its view on global affairs and limits its choices. This reality underscores further the political significance of forging a special strategic and global partnership with it.
Flowing from this, we have agreed to a ‘regularisation’ of Japanese participation in India-US Malabar naval exercises, which the Japanese desired for long. While expressing satisfaction with the trilateral India-US-Japan dialogue “to advance shared interests” we have agreed to explore raising it to foreign ministers-level.
The decision to involve Japan in the development and enhanced connectivity of our North-East, with links to Southeast Asia, acquires meaning in the context of the Chinese Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar corridor proposal and the special attention that Myanmar is now receiving from Japan.
In the broader regional context, taking steps to forge closer defence ties with Abe’s Japan, accused of revived militarism by China, has significance too. An MoU on defence cooperation and exchanges has been signed. Six Indian space and defence related entities have been removed from Japan’s sanctions list during the prime minister’s visit, furthering opening doors for working out the intended agreement on collaboration in defence technologies. The already existing Joint Working Group will process the Japanese US 2 aircraft sale to India. While for defence-constrained Japan to sell this as a ‘civilian’ plan is a major political decision, for India the political symbolism is less important than acquiring the US 2 as a military aircraft. Expediting the signing of the delayed commercial contract for manufacturing rare earth chlorides in India is important in the context of China controlling 80% of global supplies of these strategic minerals.
In other ways too, Modi has politically backed Abe by supporting ‘Japan’s initiative to contribute to peace and stability in the region’. Phrases such as the two sides “engaging with other countries in the region to address the region’s challenges… ” are pregnant with meaning too. Modi’s deprecation of policies of “encroaching on a country, entering into the sea somewhere, entering a country and occupying territory” and reference to “witnessing today the expansionism that prevailed in the 18th century”, which, in his view, cannot “do good to the world in the 21st century” was blunter.
The vital economic agenda of the visit was the easiest to handle. Abe’s announcement of Japan’s readiness to invest $35 billion in India in the next five years, and Modi’s decision to set up a PMO team with two Japanese nominees to facilitate processing boost the objective of upgrading bilateral relationship decisively.
The failure to sign the much delayed civilian nuclear deal is a notable disappointment. A genuine ‘special and global’ strategic India-Japan partnership sits ill with Japanese hesitations to resolve this outstanding strategic issue, which gives advantage to China. Japan should end this ‘strategic inequality’ between us rapidly.
Modi, clearly enthused by Abe’s extraordinary gestures, has voiced his “confidence, excitement and optimism” about India-Japan relations. The current has surely passed between the two leaders.
Kanwal Sibal is a former foreign secretary, Government of India The views expressed by the author are personal.