As Prime Minister Narendra Modi heads to Tokyo for the annual India-Japan Summit, China is keeping a sharp watch on the visit. India and Japan are likely to sign a civil nuclear agreement which has been in the works for the last six-years. China's concern however, is not the nuclear deal but what it sees as India's interference in the South China Sea dispute by colluding with Japan.
It is also true that unlike in the past, India is much more articulate on the South China Sea. During US President Barack Obama's visit to India in 2015, a joint statement on the need to ensure the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea raised China’s ante. There has also been talk, mainly from the American military, of future joint patrolling of the South China Sea by US and Indian navies. New Delhi has however, turned down the suggestion.
Unlike the previous UPA government, which backed off when Japan was invited for the Malabar exercises between India and the US, Modi is not worried about offending China. This year’s naval exercises had Japan participating and it was further announced that Tokyo would from now on be a regular part of these exercises. China is, undoubtedly, not pleased with it.
India's growing friendship with Japan which got a boost during Manmohan Singh’s term is now being further cemented by Modi. Shinzo Abe, Japan's nationalist prime minister has often spoken of the need to counter China’s growing aggressive maneuvers in the South China Sea and the north Pacific. During his first term as PM, Abe tried to build a loose alliance of democratic nations: US, Australia, Japan and India to try and foil Chinese moves. That effort fizzled out, but Abe has not given up. China is privy to that.
Beijing views India and Japan's closeness as an attempt to challenge its growing military might. Since China blocked India’s entry to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and refused on technical grounds to place Pakistan’s Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar on UN terror watch list, New Delhi and Beijing have been having cold vibes.
Ahead of Modi’s visit, China’s state controlled media has warned India not to get involved in the South China Sea dispute. India should beware of the possibility that by becoming embroiled in the disputes, it might end up being a pawn of the US and suffer great losses, especially in terms of business and trade from China,” The Global Times said with typical flourish."India won’t benefit much by balancing China through Japan. It will only lead to more mistrust between New Delhi and Beijing," it said.
Neither Abe nor Modi will be deterred from closer cooperation in strategic, political and trade issues because of China's concerns. The long pending nuclear deal with Japan, which allow Tokyo to sell nuclear reactors to New Delhi, will be signed during the Modi's visit. India officially has, however not confirmed it. Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Vikas Swarup merely said, "The negotiations have dragged on for over six years since 2010. After the Fukushima radiation leak in 2011, the negotiations halted, but were taken up again when Abe came to power."
One reason for the delay was because public opinion in Japan is against nuclear agreement with a country which has not signed the Nuclear non-proliferation Treaty.(NPT). After India's 1998 nuclear tests, when Delhi’s move was criticised worldwide, the Indian government hit back at the P5 countries (China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, United States) for their double standards.
Japan’s criticism did not irk India because the Vajpayee government could understand the sentiments of the people who had experienced the deadly power of the atom bomb. The mood against civilian nuclear power is as much after the Fukushima disaster. But Shinzo Abe is hoping to push the deal. Japan Timesnoted that the nuclear deal"…will allow Japan to export nuclear power plants to India, giving a boost to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s push to promote infrastructure exports as a way of fueling economic growth."
It is not just nuclear reactors but India is also likely to order a dozen amphibious aircrafts from Japan for the Navy and the Coast Guard. A bullet train from Mumbai to Ahmedabad is already on the works. Modi will travel to Kobe by the Shinkansen bullet train. Shinzo Abe will accompany his guest. He will also visit the facility where the high speed rail is manufactured.
While trade and business ties beneficial to both the countries is high on the agenda, the political and strategic dialogue is of much more significance. The recent elections in the US will certainly be on the cards. No one yet knows what a Donald Trump presidency will be all about and whether he will continue Barack Obama’s policy of pivot to Asia. China will certainly loom large in the discussions. Japan is keen for India to be much more vocal about China’s role in the South China Sea and beyond. Whether Modi thinks the time is ripe for doing so is not yet known.