Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be on his way to Japan this weekend, making this the second major summit level visit he is undertaking since he took over in May. The visit, which was postponed on account of the budget session of the Indian parliament, is being watched with a lot of eagerness and anxiety, depending on which of the world capitals one is watching it from.
Both in India and Japan, there is wide spread expectation from this visit in terms of economic and trade relations as well as defence and strategic engagement. The personal rapport between Modi and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is likely to be a catalyst in deepening and broadbasing this relationship.
Several commentaries on the Modi visit have focused on the economic aspects of India-Japan relationship or how they may be developed without a China factor. While economic and trade aspects are vital for a relationship to flourish, it should not be forgotten that there are also strong security imperatives that are becoming the drivers of this relationship. These include a mutual desire for a stable Asian strategic framework, security of the Sea Lanes of Communications (SLOCs) in the region, and concern about the fickleness of US policy when it comes to balancing China. These core interests along with shared ideals of democracy, rule of law and free and independent media call for a close partnership between New Delhi and Tokyo.
It is true that the India-Japan relationship should not be based on an external factor such as China and that there should be independent driving factors that take forward this relationship. However, enabling a stable Asian strategic framework to the mutual benefit of both New Delhi and Tokyo should be a compelling factor for both Modi and Abe. The emerging Asian strategic framework is being held hostage by China and its aggressive posturing in the recent years. The long-held regional view that China may come to assume a more accommodating and benign posture has been put to rest by Beijing’s own actions in its neighbourhood. Thus, there is a concerted effort by countries in the region – both big and small – to form new friendships and partnerships that may provide them with some cushion and a shield in the face of a belligerent China.
Security, the key driver
Asia is going through an unprecedented churning, characterising in many ways the 19th century European theatre. It is after several centuries that we are witnessing the simultaneous rise of three Asian powers – China, Japan and India. This itself is a perfect recipe for competition, rivalry and conflict. But compounding this is the yet unresolved boundary and territorial issues and the baggage of history that weighs down these Asian great power relations. While the territorial issues have been around for decades, Chinese behaviour in recent years in the South China Sea, East China Sea and the Sino-Indian border have led to fresh anxieties about the Chinese intentions and capabilities.
Given this backdrop, there are uncomfortable questions as to what kind of power China would become as it grows stronger in both economic and military terms. Thus, much of the Asian uncertainty that one witnesses today is a direct result of China’s rise. Many argue that this is nothing different or unique about China and that China’s rise needs to be understood within the larger processes of power transitions and changing balance of power equations. While there is merit to such arguments, the reality is that Asian countries in particular are faced with a tough and unsettling neighbourhood. This will set in motion both diplomatic maneuvering and acquisition of hard power, which are inherently destabilizing but have become inevitable.
A strengthened India-Japan relationship needs to be placed in this context if we have to understand and appreciate the changing dynamics in their bilateral ties. It is a fact that India-Japan relations have enjoyed a strong economic relationship, with Japanese ODA (Overseas Development Assistance) forming an important component of that. Japanese share in India’s infrastructure story is also phenomenal and set to grow. Even as this is the case, the growing partnership between the two is the outcome of new regional security dynamics. Commitment to the annual summits and periodic dialogue between the foreign and defence ministries is a reflection of the increasingly synergetic approach towards Asian security in general.
Therefore, while there are several outstanding issues between the two countries including on trade and FDI and on a bilateral nuclear deal that needs to be improved or fixed, it will be unfortunate if New Delhi let these become the determining factor in the bilateral relationship. Some Indian analysts have argued that India should bargain hard with Tokyo and conclude the nuclear deal at the earliest. But India should learn to do hard bargaining with those that are hostile to India, not potential partners such as Japan. Early conclusion of the nuclear deal is important but India should not lose sight of the bigger strategic picture that drives this relationship. Japan has taken the extra step in assigning special importance to India, reflected in its offer of the U-2 amphibious aircraft to India. It is time for India to reciprocate and show that Japan matters to India.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author.
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