Opportunities and threats: India faces a tricky diplomacy challenge in Japan

Updated on Aug 31, 2014 03:07 PM IST

Narendra Modi’s visit to Japan will be the most important of a succession of Asian great power meetings. Played correctly, India could be a major beneficiary. A wrong step and the results could be disastrous.

Hindustan Times | ByPramit Pal Chaudhuri

Humiliation is a subtle art in East Asia.

“The Japanese are brilliant at mastering a skill,” explained a retired American diplomat. “They seek to be the best in the world at anything. So they have chefs who have learnt to make Chinese food better than the Chinese. When a Chinese leader comes to Tokyo, he is given Chinese food. He suffers a huge loss of face when he realises it’s better than what he gets at home.”

It doesn’t end there. When the Japanese leader visits China, Beijing faces a dilemma. “What do they feed him? No one can make Japanese food better than the Japanese. So they end up giving the Japanese visitor the local cuisine. And here’s the twist: the Chinese food they serve is worse than the Chinese food served at the high table in Tokyo. This is a double loss of face.”

No surprise that though the Japanese and Chinese bow and smile at each other, the latter at least are swearing revenge inside.

Narendra Modi is the latest Indian prime minister to fly into what is the most potent faultline in Asian geopolitics. One almost matched by similar cracks between China and the easternmost countries of Southeast Asia and a well-armed line of occasional contention with India.

At the heart of Asia’s security dilemma is the fact that China is too powerful to contain but may be self-interested enough to be tamed. No one believes Beijing can be put in a place where it doesn’t want to be. Everyone makes a lot of money from trading and investing with China.

But Beijing’s behaviour is unpredictable: generous and magnanimous one season, bullying and militaristic the next. China is at least consistent in its hostility towards Japan. But President Xi Jinping is all sweetness and light towards India these days — and will be visiting Modi the middle of next month with many economic promises. There is just enough reasonableness about Beijing for each Asian capital to think: perhaps the dragon will sheathe its claws; it just needs time.

This uncertainty is why Modi and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will heighten military cooperation while insisting they are not interested in containing China.

Modi will return to India just hours before Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott will land in India with suggestions for an India-Japan-Australia trilateral arrangement that will have China at its centre.

However, Canberra reflects the dilemma facing so many countries: the Oz economy floats on Chinese orders and, as one Australian diplomat said, "We would prefer not to have to make a choice between China and the United States."

What is happening in Asia is not a textbook example of power balancing. India and Japan each have more economic ties with China than they do with each other. Neither is militarily strong enough to help the other in case of a conflict with a China. Both receive flak from Beijing when they do anything militarily together.

Each country, instead, woos each other to send messages to China. Sometimes Beijing listens and softens its tone. Says Srikanth Kondapalli of Jawaharlal Nehru University, “China’s effort is to break any coming together of two or more established powers in its vicinity.” If Modi and Abe bond too much, he expects more high-level Chinese visits to New Delhi and much talk of “Panchsheel”.

What makes the Indo-Japanese relationship different from, say, Australia talking with Indonesia or South Korea consulting Vietnam is that it could actually result in a tectonic geopolitical shift.

Prime Minister Abe’s vision is to revive Japan economically and militarily. And one way to do that is to also transform India’s still struggling economy into something more globally competitive. Over time, a billion-strong nation with a $ 10 billion GDP would give Asia some real ballast against Chinese preponderance. “This trip will see a significant expansion of Japanese support for manufacturing in India, expanding Tokyo’s efforts to build infrastructure to India’s eastern seaboard and north east,” says Hemant Singh, former Indian ambassador to Japan.

Every country has a different idea of how to manage China. The Philippines, faced with a brewing island dispute with Beijing, has gone to the World Court. Vietnam has sought external players to involve themselves in the South China Sea. Australia under Abbott, says Rory Medcalf of the Sydney-based Lowy Institute, wants “a new geometry of strategy in Asia to augment US alliances and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.” Japan and India are increasing their military capacities, trying to spark their economies and, in the case of Modi, also trying to widen trade and investment with China.

Because Beijing is a black box as to what it wants and how it plans to achieve its ambitions, the result is hedging on a global scale. Things are little helped by the ambivalence of Washington. The only country China sees as its peer blows hot and cold about the Middle Kingdom. Kondapalli warns that “hedging has yet to become a successful strategy against China given the weakness of such responses.”

The Arc of Anxiety that stretches across East Asia is probably India’s toughest diplomatic challenge. Modi will be meeting, in quick succession, the leaders of Japan, Australia, China and the United States. They will all wonder what he thinks of Asian security in general and, specifically, whether he can put some oomph back in India. “Much will depend on how serious are the intentions of Modi’s India as a security actor in East Asia. So India’s new engagement with Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia and Australia, among others, bears watching,” says Medcalf.

Modi has shown himself a master of isolating and marginalising domestic players in India. The global stage, however, will be much more difficult.

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