For India, good relations with Japan and cooperation with China are not mutually exclusive

Neeta Lal says while the number of agreements India recently signed with Japan may have rattled China, that is not all Modi seeks, at a time when India-China ties are also growing

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 December, 2015, 4:02pm
UPDATED : Monday, 14 December, 2015, 4:02pm

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s recent three-day visit to India focused on forging greater synergies between the two major Asian economies, and taking forward bilateral ties, which have gained traction under him and his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi. Within weeks of taking charge last year, Modi flew to Tokyo to meet Abe, whom he once described as a “phenomenal leader”. Abe, who was making this third trip to India since becoming prime minister, is a strong advocate of strategic ties between India and Japan, saying that “a strong India is in the best interest of Japan and a strong Japan is in the best interest of India”.

In New Delhi, Tokyo sees a natural ally also unnerved by China’s growing belligerence across the region

At their summit in Tokyo last year, both leaders agreed to elevate bilateral relations to a “special strategic and global partnership”. They have since intensified synergies in a swathe of fields, including commerce, defence and security, with Japan announcing a doubling of its investment in India to about US$34 billion over five years.

Abe’s India sojourn comes at a time when Japan – keen to eschew its post-war pacifism – is looking to bolster its contributions to regional and global security. China’s repeated military provocations have propelled it to seek cooperative alliances with, among others, Australia, the Philippines and Vietnam. In New Delhi, Tokyo sees a natural ally also unnerved by China’s growing belligerence across the region. The two have thus gradually enhanced their military-to-military exchanges as well as joint exercises in partnership with the US, a triumvirate Beijing views with suspicion.

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Given these dynamics, Abe and Modi clinched a landmark nuclear agreement, five years in the making, for peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Critics ascribe the deal to a rattled Tokyo, nervous at the prospect of China positioning itself as a global manufacturer of the technology.

In a veiled reference unlikely to go unnoticed in Beijing, the Indo-Japanese joint statement also mentioned China’s increased assertion in the South China Sea and called on “all states to avoid unilateral action that could lead to tensions in the region”.

Modi, ever the consummate politician, sees little merit in annoying a giant neighbour like China

The sale of military hardware to India was, unsurprisingly, high on Abe’s agenda, including negotiations for a US$1.2 billion deal for Japanese ShinMaywa US-2 seaplanes, which will be one of Japan’s first arms sales since Abe lifted the ban of nearly 50 years on weapon exports. Fifteen other agreements were signed, including on defence technology transfer and co-production of weapons.

To address the prickly point of Indo-Japanese bilateral trade, which stood at a low US$15 billion last year, Japan has promised financial and technical support for infrastructure projects in India, including construction of the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor. In the run-up to Abe’s visit, Modi’s cabinet also cleared a US$14.7 billion Japanese proposal to build a bullet train line between Mumbai and Ahmedabad. Building highways and bridges, connecting Myanmar to India’s northeast, are also in the pipeline.

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The optics of such vigorous engagement has discomfited China. However, the rising profile of the Indo-Japanese relationship also needs to be seen in another context. Beijing has, of late, repeatedly thwarted Modi’s ambitions to expand India’s regional influence, unveiling one blockbuster infrastructure project after another in and around India, thus shrinking his room for manoeuvre.

Typically, Beijing has balanced these actions by making friendly overtures, wooing Modi at bilateral and multinational forums. As part of the larger BRICS grouping, China and India are now members of the New Development Bank to finance infrastructure and development projects in the region. Beijing has also expressed a willingness to settle the protracted border dispute with India and invest more in the country.

Modi, ever the consummate politician, sees little merit in annoying a giant neighbour like China. He would rather befriend both President Xi Jinping (習近平) and Abe, who have offered to help him build world-class infrastructure, the pivot of his domestic agenda. Modi realises that building on complementarities – not confrontation – is the key to containing China.

New Delhi-based senior journalist Neeta Lal was a nominee for the World Media Summit Awards 2014 and the Sopa Awards 2014