Singh’s Asia visit a lesson in power politics

Singh’s Asia visit a lesson in power politics

Singh’s visit to these economic powers comes in the wake of India’s success at the Nuclear Suppliers Group meeting in Vienna in September, when Tokyo overcame its aversion to nuclear weapons to back the Indo-US nuclear deal, and the Chinese, cagey about New Delhi’s growing international influence, finally decided not to stand in its way.

It was at the Nippon Keidanren lunch for Singh at Tokyo’s Four Seasons hotel on Wednesday afternoon that it became clear India was coming into its own. The Keidanren is a high-powered chamber of Japanese business leaders, creating its own halo of power wherever it goes. To be invited by the Keidanren, it is said, is an acknowledgement that you’ve arrived.

As an Indian official said of the Keidanren: “So far, we were dealing with the trading wings of Japanese big business, the smaller chambers of commerce and industry pretty low down in the food chain; now we’re dealing with the big businessmen themselves. These are the movers and shakers of Japan."

In his newly triumphal state, the soft-spoken Prime Minister unusually challenged the Japanese for ignoring India. There are more South Korean businessmen in India than there are Japanese, he said, and pointed out that India and China had already done more trade this year than the entire volume of trade ($10 billion) between India and Japan.

Still, the message seems to have gone home. The Japanese, after dilly-dallying for more than a year, have decided to fund two freight corridors in India, beginning with the one between New Delhi and Mumbai. A $4.5 billion (about Rs22,000 crore) soft loan for three years, as a first tranche, has been sealed for the first corridor leg between Rewari, in Haryana, and Vadodara, Gujarat. As work simultaneously proceeds on an industrial corridor alongside, where Japanese companies are said to have agreed to invest in five early-bird projects, much more money will flow in.

The Indian delegation on board the Prime Minister’s aircraft, normally not given to displaying emotion, is clearly excited. Not since the Japanese poured money into China, helping transform the communist state, has Japan taken a strategic decision to invest in another country in this way, members of the delegation said. But as the yen begins to flow, especially in the middle of this global financial crisis, the Indians are hoping that it will help boost industrial growth and perhaps even arrest the slowdown at home.

India’s triumph in Tokyo is also a clear signal to China, the Prime Minister’s next stop, that New Delhi now has firm friends in the region. Indian officials, of course, refuse to be drawn into a public condemnation of Beijing’s behaviour in Vienna, believing that winning is everything. Forgiveness has its own uses, especially when nobody ever really forgets anything in international realpolitik.

Singh flies to China from Tokyo late on Thursday to attend the sixth Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM). In China, his interactions with President Hu Jintao, on the margins of ASEM, are not expected to produce the same kind of intense cordiality that has been in evidence in Tokyo. Interestingly, New Delhi seems hardly concerned. The border talks are not really going anywhere, and at least until the Lok Sabha elections are out of the way next year, no further progress is likely.

Neither does New Delhi seem unduly concerned that the Chinese are allegedly building two more nuclear reactors for Pakistan, a report that has been put out in the Pakistani press after President Asif Ali Zardari’s recent visit to Beijing. One Indian official pointed out that Chinese media reports on this subject have been attributed to the Pakistani leadership. Meaning, there is no independent verification of the story.

New Delhi knows that the Chinese are never going to violate international non-proliferation norms, despite their “all-weather friendship" with Pakistan. More to the point, the rest of the international community is not going to allow China to violate those norms. (The reason India got away, of course, was because the US arm-twisted everyone else, including China, not to come in the way.) Pakistan is seen in the West to be a serial nuclear offender, courtesy the A.Q. Khan network.

Singh’s Asia trip this week has been a lesson in power politics. By the time he returns home, Parliament would have adjourned, leaving the field wide open for politics of another kind. Difference is, the Prime Minister has been much more successful on the first count.

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Jyoti Malhotra is Mint’s diplomatic affairs editor and writes every week on the intersection of foreign policy, trade and politics. Comments are welcome at