More than US, Japan is the ally India must court

Editor's note: An earlier version of this copy said that Dan Quayle was Ronald Reagan's Vice-President. He was actually George Bush Senior's Vice-President.

Did you know Joe Biden, Vice President of the United States, visited India recently for four days? Well, neither did anybody else, because it was the lowest-key of low-key trips. Nobody paid any attention, including India’s loud and excitable media that went ga-ga over Barack Obama’s (imperial?) visit a few years ago.

Biden’s trip was the first by a US VP in 30 years, but that wasn’t enough to create any hoop-la. He did try to grab the limelight by claiming he had some relatives in India, but nobody bit on that bait, either. The first reason is that the US VPs are ceremonial non-entities. They only get visible when they screw up, like Spiro Agnew did under Nixon, or like the gaffe-prone Dan Quayle did during the Bush era (he was ‘impeachment insurance’ for George Bush Senior's, that is nobody would dare impeach Bush because that would make Quayle president!).

In any case, Obama is now acting more and more like a lameduck. His crowning glory in domestic affairs is Obamacare; but even there he is furiously backpedalling because it is increasingly clear that this has huge hidden costs. In foreign affairs, he has nothing to show: his making-nice to the Iranians and Chinese has brought no dividends, and revolts in the Middle East lessened US leverage instead of increasing it. Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize looks particularly undeserving now.

Obama is now reduced to playing the race card. His dramatic response to the Trayvon Martin affair, where a black teenager was shot dead (“That could have been me 35 years ago”), is a power play to become a black messiah after he retires. In view of popular revulsion at his acts – such as the PRISM invasion of online privacy - his standing in his post-presidential years is unlikely to be as good as, say, Bill Clinton’s. Maybe he is jockeying for another job then.

The second reason everyone ignored Biden is that he really didn’t have anything of note to tell Indians – his visit was mostly a rehash of the one by Secretary of State John Kerry a few weeks ago. With Kerry’s ascendance, Indo-US relations are reaching a new low. Kerry is a ranking member of the Atlanticist cult like his mentor Zbigniew Brzezinski – these guys are still fighting the Cold War with the late lamented Soviet Union and are focused on NATO and the Atlantic Ocean.

Obama is also an Atlanticist, but Kerry wins the prize for being the most Pakistan-friendly US official, the position the unlamented Robin Raphael used to hold. In general, East-Coast politicians, in particular Democrats and those from Harvard, tend to be Atlanticists; whereas West Coasters tend to be more Pacific-focused. Obama’s fine words that India-US relations will form “one of the defining partnerships of the 21 st century” were simple bombast and flattery.

Biden repeated the usual tiresome mantras: India must open up its industries to American exports, especially defence; India must buy more nuclear gear from them. Indian intellectual property rules are making it hard for American pharma companies. Walmart should not be forced into 30 percent local content. No word, note, about India’s issues such as increasing difficulty in the free movement of Indian labour and the costs of visas. Or about increasing US FDI in India.

The third reason the Biden visit was of no consequence is the increasing likelihood that the Americans will slowly disengage from the rest of the world, especially Asia. There has always been a tension between a ‘Fortress America’ perspective of those who wish to retreat, and a global engagement perspective of those who like America bestriding the world.

There are a couple of factors here: on the one hand, imperial overreach. The exhausting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have brought very few dividends but have hurt the American treasury as well as Americans' self-image. On the other hand, China looks unstoppable in its systematic approach to power by bullying its neighbours. The temptation to retreat is high.

In addition, there is shale gas/oil. A major reason for American adventurism abroad (most people except unreconstructed Cold Warriors now agree that the ‘domino theory’ is archaic) has been the search for energy. The continued embrace of various Middle Eastern despots and even the invasion of Iraq were, one could posit, all about oil. Now that the US is poised to become perhaps the world’s largest producer of (shale-based) hydrocarbons, that particular need goes away.

More than US, Japan is the ally India must court

Time to improve ties? AFP

All this means that there is an interesting opportunity for India if only Indians were willing and able to take it. An American retreat from Asia would leave a vacuum that the Chinese would be delighted to fill. But not even one of her fearful neighbours (except perhaps North Korea) would find a China-dominated Asia palatable: the Chinese are imperial bullies.

India, despite its bumbling and arrogant approach that has alienated its immediate neighbours, is viewed considerably less negatively by most Asians – partly because India has not been a saber-rattler and is (with good reason) considered not a very clever negotiator. An India that tries to take on leadership in Asia could well form alliances, even outside the existing American-led attempt using a Security Quadrilateral (US, Australia, Japan, India) to contain China.

One diplomatic opening comes from Japan, where Shinzo Abe has just won a resounding victory in the upper house of Parliament. Now that he has large majorities in both houses, and public support for his policies, especially ‘Abenomics’, is high, he should be able to take forward his nationalistic agenda. One way he may do this is by amending the American-imposed Constitution that prevents Japan from having an offensive capability in its armed forces. The second is by being more assertive regarding East Asia.

Abe, and Japanese in general, have become wary of China after their ongoing conflict over the Senkaku (Daiyu to the Chinese) islands, and also the ruthless trade barriers erected by the Chinese over rare-earth minerals. The Japanese may wish to reduce exposure in China and may be looking for other investment opportunities: and India is both hungry for FDI and a potentially good partner for Japanese firms, as Suzuki, Toyota, Honda et al have shown.

Writing in ProSyn, Yuriko Koike, a former foreign minister (“The return of action in Japan”) suggests that Japan is now reiterating its “future as… a trading country that has assumed its rightful role in ensuring a free and open maritime order”. Keeping order in the Indian Ocean (all the way from the Straits of Hormuz to the Straits and Malacca) is clearly of mutual interest to Japan and India; so is concern over China’s submarine base in the South China Sea.

Thus there is an economic case to go with a national security case for India to ally itself with Japan. In addition, there are old cultural links. Japanese Buddhists have a benign view of India as the Holy Land of their faith. In addition, many Japanese have not forgotten that only the Indian jurist Radhabinod Pal opposed the biased post-war show trials that painted all Japanese leaders as crazed war criminals. There is a bust of Justice Pal in the Yasukuni Shrine, where Japanese war-dead are honored.

Besides, there is absolutely no animosity between Indians and Japanese regarding WW-II: if anything, many Indians are grateful to Japan for the support it gave to Subhash Bose and the Indian National Army.

In August there are important dates for Japan: the anniversaries of the Hiroshima (6 August) and Nagasaki (9 August) bombings and also traditional visits to the Yasukuni Shrine on 15 August, the day of surrender to the US in 1945. The Chinese always make a lot of noise about Japanese war crimes in World War II (which is ironic considering their own ongoing war crimes in Tibet). India should use the occasion to reaffirm its solidarity with Japan. India has no axe to grind other than to offer solidarity.

Faced with a fading America and a Japan that seems to be shaking off the effects of two ‘lost decades’, India should adjust its foreign policy leanings to really ‘look East’ and offer an alternative pole to a bullying China.

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Updated Date: Aug 04, 2013 09:33:41 IST