India-Japan ties: Narendra Modi and Shinzo Abe show the way in ensuring regional stability, containing China challenge

Many of us have seen the picture that Narendra Modi tweeted during his recent trip to Japan. Relaxing at his host Shinzo Abe’s holiday home in the picturesque Yamanashi prefecture, both friends (who also happen to be prime ministers) appeared to be enjoying their time by the fireplace in a cozy, warm atmosphere where Abe taught Modi how to handle chopsticks the Japanese way.

We were told that there were just two Heads of State in the room when both leaders engaged in informal talks. That is a trifle misleading. When Modi sat down to chat with Abe, they had in their midst two more Heads of State. Donald Trump and Xi Jinping were as much a part of the talks as Modi and Abe were, and their invisible presence marked the bilateral agreements and vision statements that both leaders were to sign later Monday.

Narendra Modi and Shinzo Abe. Twitter/@narendramodi

Narendra Modi and Shinzo Abe. Twitter/@narendramodi

This wasn’t an episodic event, however. The ramifications of this complex quadrilateral relationship affect and shall continue to affect the interplay between these four key players (whether in bilateral or trilateral format) and in a lesser way their engagements with others.

It is easy to explain Xi’s presence in Modi and Abe’s informal talks. China’s neo-imperialism has heightened regional tension and its belligerent rise is reshaping the Eurasian landmass and Indo-Pacific theatre, turning even indifferent actors into close friends. This has resulted in a neat dovetailing of Japan and India’s concerns and interests. If Modi and Abe have doubled down on their respective ‘Act East’ and ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ (FOIP) policies and have sought to synergize the two into a coherent whole, China has provided the chief motivation for it.

The two countries are drawing closer not just in security and defense arenas, Modi and Abe have broad-based the partnership into economic cooperation where both are striving to provide and promote trans-border infrastructure through a more responsible and transparent debt-financing model. Here, India and Japan’s interests converge with that of the US and this trilateral matrix has been at work to thwart China’s aims of further its geopolitical agenda through predatory geo-economic tools such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

So far, according to a report in The New York Times that quotes a recent estimate by The China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission, Chinese banks have lent “$200 billion for 2,600 projects” around the world through Xi’s signature BRI programme, turning several smaller nations into Chinese satellites and expanding Beijing’s maritime ambition and geopolitical influence.

“Beijing has leveraged big credits to gain even military presence, as its first overseas naval base at Djibouti illustrates. Trapped in a debt crisis after borrowing billions of dollars, Djibouti was left with no choice but to lease land for the base to China for $20 million in annual rent,” writes geostrategist Brahma Chellaney in The Times of India.

To counter the Chinese debt-trap mechanism that is pushing infrastructure-hungry smaller nations into bankruptcy and compromising their sovereignty, both India and Japan have envisaged (jointly and individually) a slew of connectivity initiatives based on “universally recognised international norms, good governance, rule of law, openness, transparency and equality”. These may not be adequate, and progress is slow, but it is a start and a statement of intent.

India’s multimodal linkages with Myanmar and Bangladesh; Chabahar Port in Iran; International North South Transport Corridor in Central Asia and multiple connectivity corridors and infrastructure projects through land, air and sea with ASEAN nations are in response to China’s predatory BRI model that eventually creates unsustainable debt-burden for host nations — as Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Laos, Cambodia and Djibouti (to name a few) have discovered in the end.

Similarly, Japan is financing the Matarbari deep sea port in Bangladesh modelled on Japanese Kashima, Niigata ports, working with India on the Trincomalee port on Sri Lanka's eastern coast and the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor, etc.

The India-Japan vision statement, released after Monday's summit-level talks, opens “discussions for establishing the ‘Platform for Japan-India Business Cooperation in Asia-Africa Region’ to further enhance the exchanges between Japanese and Indian businesses toward developing industrial corridors and industrial network in the region.”

A separate fact sheet, also released Monday, lines up the infrastructure and capacity-building projects under India-Japan Development Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific and Africa. These include development of LNG-related infrastructure in Sri Lanka and housing, education and electrification projects in Myanmar’s Rakhine State.

Connectivity projects in Bangladesh, organising an SME development seminar in Kenya and seeking a possibility of a collaborative project in the area of health service such as developing a cancer hospital in Kenya, among others. Further, both nations pledged to enhance the exchanges between Indian and Japanese businesses toward developing industrial corridors and industrial network in the region and cited the Memorandum of Understanding between NEXI and ECGC, which is expected to promote development of joint business projects.

The greater strategic logic behind this joint collaboration lies in meeting the infrastructure needs and debt obligations of nations that are in urgent need of quality infrastructure and promoting democratic norms and rules-based system in a region where these are in short supply.

So, while Xi’s figurative presence during Modi-Abe talks is understandable, how may Trump have barged into talks? Before playing host to Modi, Abe was in China, trying to initiate Tokyo’s own “reset” with Beijing. In becoming the first Japanese prime minister to visit China in seven years, Abe was trying to set up a working relationship with Xi to take the edge off an adversarial relationship.

Abe’s motivation behind doing so was apparently to contain the risks in a crucial relationship, but it was equally an effort to come to terms with an altered reality foisted by Donald Trump’s US. Let’s elaborate upon the second point.

Trump’s transactionalism has injected uncertainty among its treaty allies, many of whom are unsure whether the US-led security umbrella will hold or whether Trump is convinced of the sanctity of these post World War-II arrangements. Japan, in particular, is apprehensive that a withdrawal of US troops from East Asia and Trump’s half-hearted attempts of denuclearising the Korean Peninsula will impose heavy security costs on Tokyo. Doubts have crept up in Japan on US security commitments, and one of the ways in which Abe is looking to mitigate the risk is by engineering a balancing act with China which holds the greatest strategic influence over North Korea.

In this context, US trade war has added another dimension. Once again, Trump’s protectionist policies have targeted friends (Japan) and foes (China) alike, and Abe and Xi have therefore found common cause in drawing closer. The recent bilateral summit reflected this changing dynamic. The biggest change is reflected in Japan’s position on BRI. Abe showed an interest in harnessing the BRI mechanism to create opportunities for Japanese companies, and in return, Xi gets to expand investments and dissipate some of the bad press around BRI.

As Shiro Armstrong writes in East Asia Forum, “For Japan it’s a pragmatic way to engage China. As Chinese policymakers search for ways to better deploy the country’s vast sums of capital abroad, Japan has experience of doing just that dating back to the 1970s — including of geopolitical pushback.”

The changing dynamic between China and Japan need not bother or constrain the India-Japan relationship. Not only is New Delhi-Tokyo tie based on sound strategic logic and dovetailing of interests, it is also fundamentally different from China-India or China-Japan ties that are fashioned more towards containing the inherent risks borne out of China’s revisionist policies. Moreover, while Abe’s China ‘pivot’ is centred around supplementing the US-Japan relationship, his ties with Modi is independent of such calculations.

India has tried its own pivot with China, but analysts are apprehensive that the rapprochement may not last. The Wuhan summit generated warm rhetoric but, as Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan notes in The Diplomat, already China is busy “deploying PLA Navy submarines in the Indian Ocean after a gap of more than a year” and “pushing into India’s sphere of influence in Bhutan.”  Notwithstanding India’s ‘reset’ with China, or Japan’s rebalancing with Beijing, containing the risks in this equation won’t be easy for New Delhi or Tokyo unless both nations engage with other maritime powers in the region.

This is where the Quad comes in, but not in the way it has been projected. We may see India and Japan, along with like-minded and regional allies such as US and Australia, give more meat to the idea of Quad not in terms of a military bloc of four countries against China, but what Brooking India fellow Dhruva Jaishankar calls “a matrix of trilateral and bilateral relationships” based on ever-increasing military engagement and interoperability between the four nations.

As both nations go about protecting their interests in a rough nighbourhood, bilateral ties will continue to remain a source of stability in the region.


Updated Date: Oct 30, 2018 21:04 PM

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