India-Japan summit: No aircraft or civil nuclear deal; is 'strategic autonomy' bane of New Delhi's foreign policy?
The conclusion of India-Japan's 13th summit meeting proved yet again how the Nehruvian template continues to define India's foreign policy.
Much as Prime Minister Narendra Modi tries to leave an indelible mark as the leader of 'New India', he is destined to shadow box against the legacy of independent India's first prime minister. The conclusion of India-Japan's 13th summit meeting proved yet again how the Nehruvian template continues to define India's foreign policy.
The more fashionable 'strategic autonomy' still smells disturbingly like old 'non-alignment'. The tenets demand that India may tilt towards one axis and away from another but the gradient will never be enough for the lean to become an alliance. Nearly everything about India and Japan indicates an unique dovetailing of interest — strategic compulsions, security risks and challenges, commonality of vision to roaring chemistry between two leaders. Yet, when it came to showing commitment to the relationship, India seemed to be suffering from hesitations of history.
The joint statement that emerged after delegate-level meeting on Thursday didn't match the rhetoric in terms of deliverables. The trajectory remained solid and forward-looking but there were no specifics. There's little to show except the Japanese soft loan for High Speed Rail project. During the inauguration ceremony prior to the summit meeting, Modi had called the terms of the loan "as good as free"! And it's hard to disagree. India need only finance a minuscule part of the Rs 1.08 lakh crore project over a 50-year period and the repayment of Rs 88,000 crore will begin only after 15 years at a negligible interest of 0.1 percent. Such a time period reduces the actual valuation to almost zero taking into account the inflation factor.
Whether or not the bullet train ushers in the 'Maruti moment' in India's public transport remains to be seen. There's no doubt, however, that both Modi and Abe spent a huge amount of personal capital to bring it to light. But did the 'natural allies' do enough to seize the moment, especially at a time when they are helmed by two leaders whose 'bromance' extends beyond their good offices?
As author and Carnegie India director C Raja Mohan has pointed out in The Indian Express, if the trajectory of the Indo-Japan bilateral ties now tilts towards an "alliance" from the antagonism during India's nuclear tests, it is largely due to Abe and Modi's personal push.
"During his brief first tenure as PM during 2006-07, Abe outlined the broad framework for a strong strategic partnership with India… He achieved the near impossible by getting the Japanese bureaucratic establishment to negotiate a civil nuclear cooperation agreement with India and the political class to approve it… On his part, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had put Japan at the very top of his foreign policy agenda."
However, and this is the operative part, there is hardly anything in the joint statement to show for all this goodwill. The purchase of 12 US-2i Japanese amphibious aircraft could have been a good start. Both countries have been discussing the deal since 2011, but despite a vigorous push from the Modi government, differences on pricing and technology transfer prevented a closure.
Reports emerged that former defence minister Arun Jaitley had finalised the deal during his recent Tokyo visit with makers ShinMaywa agreeing to cut the price. According to The Hindu Business Line, it was decided that a discount of 10-15 percent (over a cost of $100 million) would be offered for each of the 12 aircraft that India will buy "off the shelf". New Delhi, which plans to equip its Navy with better search-and-rescue capabilities in the Indian Ocean region, apparently planned to build 18 more through technology transfer under the Make in India programme. The deal was expected to be clinched during Abe's visit.
However, the joint statement included very little details except a cryptic "Japan's readiness to provide its state-of-the-art US-2 amphibian aircraft was appreciated as symbolising the high degree of trust between the two countries. The two governments decided to continue their discussions in this regard."
Not very different from the 2016 joint statement during Modi's visit to Japan, when it read: "Prime Minister Modi conveyed his appreciation for Japan's readiness to provide its state of the art defence platforms such as US-2 amphibian aircraft. It symbolises the high degree of trust between the two countries and the distance that Japan and India have covered in advancing their bilateral defence exchanges."
Later during a news conference, foreign secretary S Jaishankar refused to go beyond saying: "serious discussions (going on). I am not in the know of what the issues are as I am not one of the negotiators".
Though bureaucratic obstinacy is as prevalent in Japan, in India the practice runs deeper. The aircraft deal could have formalised the defence partnership with Japan who is looking to break its decades-long moratorium on defence exports. Additionally, it could have provided more meat to the bilateral Special Strategic and Global Partnership and bring India closer to the US-led axis. This may have led to closer strategic ties with the US. This is where India's institutionalized isolationism kicks in. India's hesitation in striking up any military-strategic alliance is borne out of its deep-seated aversion towards limiting its strategic autonomy.
A similar hesitation marked the development of civil nuclear deal where one witnessed very little progress. India reportedly was ready for collaboration with Japanese companies in the area of nuclear energy. The statement read: "The two Prime Ministers expressed satisfaction at the entry into force of the Agreement between the Government of the Republic of India and the Government of Japan for Cooperation in the Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy. They looked forward to a working group to strengthen bilateral cooperation in this field and reiterated their shared view that the Agreement reflects a new level of mutual confidence and strategic partnership in the cause of clean energy, economic development and a peaceful and secure world."
Last year, Modi and Abe had "welcomed the signing of the Agreement between the Government of Japan and the Government of the Republic of India for Cooperation in the Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy which reflects a new level of mutual confidence and strategic partnership in the cause of clean energy, economic development and a peaceful and secure world."
Abe had put in a considerable amount of work to persuade lawmakers to get over their skepticism about India on nuclear energy. The bureaucratic stasis is largely from India's side which conflates pragmatism with procrastination. If Modi wants to be India's milestone man — and he clearly sees himself as one — he must find a way around babudom's inertia. For that to happen, the South Block officials must stop looking at the current geopolitical climate through Nehruvian prism. The dynamics in Asia calls for bolder, surer steps.
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