India, Japan and a new regional architecture

India’s World War II conception of Asia has finally turned on its head


Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Japan was the first country outside India’s immediate neighbourhood that Narendra Modi visited after taking over as prime minister. The personal bonhomie between Modi and his Japanese counterpart Shinzō Abe dovetailed with their overlapping strategic world view. But there was also the big geopolitical factor: the rise of China and its hegemonic designs.

As Modi returned from his second visit to Japan on Saturday, the China factor had become yet more overbearing. Sino-Indian relations have slumped precipitously—and this simply cannot be stated differently. China has refused to cooperate with India on terrorism emanating from Pakistan and India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group. On the other hand, Chinese coast guard vessels were spotted near the disputed islands in the East China Sea while Modi was still in Japan.

But China is not the only reason India and Japan are considering closer cooperation. The other major reason is the US. The Japanese administration, especially Abe, has had a lingering scepticism of US commitments in East Asia for some time now. The election of Donald Trump as the next US president magnifies Tokyo’s concerns. During his entire campaign, Trump maintained that allies like Japan were free-riding on American resources. In an argument to withdraw from the American role of providing security, Trump had even hinted that Japan acquiring nuclear weapons was acceptable to him. Trump’s election has also increased the uncertainties for India, as was pointed out in this newspaper.

While some expect Trump to assuage Tokyo’s fears in a forthcoming meeting with Abe this week, the latter realizes that it is high time Japan made significant strides in becoming a “normal” military power. Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party have long felt suffocated by the restrictions placed on the Japanese military by the 1947 Constitution that was imposed by the US as a military occupier in the aftermath of World War II. Defence cooperation with India, comprising sales, co-production and co-development of military hardware and joint military exercises, can help Japan outgrow some of its constitutional restrictions while Abe builds domestic opinion favouring a greater role for the Japanese military.

Modi’s visit, however, did not see the finalization of the sale of US-2 amphibious rescue aircraft but the joint statement notes India’s “appreciation for Japan’s readiness to provide its state of the art defence platforms such as US-2 amphibian aircraft”. As far as defence exercises are concerned, Japan has now become a permanent third participant in the annual Indo-US Malabar exercise. But when it comes to the security of the Indo-Pacific region, Japan is not seen as an independent entity. Both India and Japan would like to continue the Malabar exercise with the US and engage in other forums such as the India-US-Japan trilateral dialogue, but they would also be looking to build greater bilateral cooperation in securing the global commons in the Indo-Pacific region. This is not to suggest America’s disintermediation but to prepare for the contingencies were Trump-led Washington to grow disinterested in the region.

The reverse of security cooperation is true for nuclear energy. The Indo-US civil nuclear deal could not have been operationalized unless India had a civil nuclear agreement with Japan—Westinghouse, which has agreed, in principle, to supply reactors to India is owned by Japanese firm Toshiba. Modi’s visit finally saw the nuclear deal between India and Japan inked. Both sides have made some compromises: Japan has signed such a deal for the first time with a country which is not a signatory to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and India has signed an additional note which states Japan’s right to terminate the deal if India were to backtrack from its unilateral, voluntary moratorium on nuclear testing (whether this is legally binding is unclear). The nuclear deal will help India build up its clean energy reservoir and is expected to provide some relief to Japanese firms reeling under financial distress in a post-Fukushima world.

Besides, the joint statement notes progress in other areas of cooperation, including the high-speed rail project, the Delhi-Mumbai industrial corridor and skill development. It is not yet clear if New Delhi is willing to supplement Japanese resources in Tokyo’s “Expanded Partnership for Quality Infrastructure” to counter Beijing’s “One Belt One Road” initiative. Unless New Delhi takes this decision, its transition from a balancing power to a leading power will not begin.

In his address to business leaders, Modi pitched India as the most attractive investment destination in the world—Japan is among the top five sources of foreign direct investment in India. A significant part of Japanese capital invested in India is state-backed, providing patient capital on easy terms for long-term infrastructure projects. Private capital from Japan complements it by generating jobs in sectors like automobiles. The numbers on trade ($14.5 billion in 2015-16), however, do not do justice to economic relations between the third and fourth largest economies (in terms of purchasing power parity) of the world.

Abe always had an ambitious vision for India-Japan relations. In his 2006 book Towards A Beautiful Country, he wrote: “It will not be a surprise if in another decade Japan-India relations overtake Japan-US and Japan-China ties.” In the decade since, his vision has not been realized. In Modi, Abe has finally found a willing partner who is not given to Cold War nostalgia.

With Modi’s term, so far, seeing a dramatic upswing in India’s relations with Japan and a significant decline with China, it can now be said that India’s World War II conception of Asia has finally turned on its head.

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