On New Year’s Eve, President Xi Jinping issued a stern warning to China’s neighbours: “We adhere to peaceful development, and resolutely safeguard our territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests. Chinese people will never allow anyone to get away with making a great fuss about it.”
Not only were Japan, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan clearly targeted, but India too, with more than 4,000 km of land border with the Middle Kingdom.
The dual aspects of the relations
It is what Prime Minister Narendra Modi probably had in mind when he paid his maiden visit to Japan in August-September 2014; Delhi and Tokyo have a common ‘competitor’ in Beijing.
In November 2016, during the Indian PM’s second visit to the Land of the Rising Sun, the Joint Statement first pointed to another aspect, namely the ancient cultural links between the two nations. The two PMs “appreciated the deep civilisational links between the people of the two countries, including the common heritage of Buddhist thought,” it asserted, though there is more to the relationship; the two leaders: “underscored their shared commitment to democracy, openness, and the rule of law as key values to achieve peaceful co-existence. They welcomed the high degree of convergence in the political, economic and strategic interests of the two countries that provides an enduring basis for a long-term partnership.”
The cultural and geostrategic aspects may force the two nations to work even closer together in the future.
India-Japan cultural ties through history
The cultural and spiritual dimension will continue to remain the foundation of the relationship.
Not only Swami Vivekananda, Rabindranath Tagore or Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, but many other Indians have been associated with and have been admirers of Japan. It is not a coincidence that the Japan-India Association, set up 113 years ago, is the oldest international friendship body in Japan.
Since civilisational contacts between India and Japan began some 1400 years ago (Buddhism was introduced to Japan in 538 CE), the two countries have never been adversaries. Bilateral ties have been singularly free of any kind of dispute – ideological, cultural or territorial.
During a lecture in Tokyo in 1916, Rabindranath Tagore told a Japanese audience: “the welcome… which flowed towards me, with such outburst of sincerity, was owing to the fact that Japan felt the nearness of India to herself, and realised that her own heart has room to expand beyond her boundaries and the boundaries of the modern time.”
Visva-Bharati was eventually the first Indian university to introduce Japanese language courses.
This setting will remain the backbone of the bilateral relations.
To come back to Modi’s first visit, Clint Richards wrote in The Diplomat: “While both leaders are keen to play up both their personal relationship and the size of the cooperation between the two countries, final agreement on key deals expected from the summit were lacking. While this does not mean the bilateral meeting was a failure, it does indicate that the two sides have a longer way to go.”
This visit was more a seed for the future, but the factor which accelerated the deepening of the partnership has been external: it is the irredentist presence of China in the neighbourhood.
The Chinese Factor
For long, Japan has been China’s favorite whipping boy.
When Tokyo published a Defence White Paper in 2015, Xinhua immediately asserted that the objective of the exercise was to “increasingly stir up the ‘China threat’ and create a tense atmosphere so as to strengthen its security policies, develop its defence system, and find an excuse for a closer Japan-U.S. military alliance.”
A Xinhua article noted: “Unlike previous years, this year’s white paper placed the China ‘threat’ in a prominent position. …making the accusation that China’s unilateral action is undermining the principle of freedom of navigation.”
It is unfortunately a fact.
It has been remarkably shown by Dr Monika Chansoria in her book Steering Asia to stability, China, Japan, and Senkaku Islands. She writes: “Changing the territorial status quo has been the unfinished business of the People’s Republic of China since its founding in 1949, when it set out to forcibly absorb the sprawling Xinjiang and Tibetan plateau – actions that increased the landmass of China by 44 per cent.”
The scholarly author continues: “Underlining the fact that China does not apply the rule of law at home, its ingenious principle to covet neighbours’ territories is: ‘what IS ours is ours and what is yours is negotiable’.”
India has been at the receiving end of China’s attitude since Independence particularly in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh.
Chansoria quotes Maj Gen Zhang Zhaozhong of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), who mentions the ‘cabbabe’ strategy; it involves “asserting a claim, launching furtive incursions into the coveted territory, and erecting – one at a time – cabbage-style multiple layers of security around a contested area to deny access to a rival.”
In other words, you grab what you want or what you need for your security, cover it with a few ‘security layers’ and then offer ‘friendly’ discussions to the opposite party.
Beijing’s attitude has certainly brought Japan and India closer.
The November 2016 Visit: Multiple Partnerships
As Modi was leaving for Japan for his second visit, he tweeted that it would not to be an ordinary visit: Narendra Modi and his Japanese counterpart were to undertake a comprehensive review of the Special Strategic and Global Partnership outlined in the ‘India and Japan Vision 2025’ which was set forth in December 2015 during Abe’s visit to India. Modi has then tweeted “India is all set to welcome its great friend & a phenomenal leader, PM@AbeShinzo. His visit will further deepen India-Japan.”
The Joint Statement mentions myriad diverse projects with the ‘partnership’ in the background; the different sections emphasize ‘Synergising the Partnership’, ‘Building a Stronger Partnership for Safer and Stable World’, ‘Partnership for Prosperity’, ‘Working together for a cleaner and greener future’, ‘Laying the Foundation of a Future-oriented Partnership’, ‘Investing in People for a Durable Partnership’.
The partnership should take a very concrete shape with ‘the Agreement for Cooperation in the Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy’, the highlight of the visit. It reflects “a new level of mutual confidence and strategic partnership in the cause of clean energy, economic development and a peaceful and secure world,” says the Statement.
On the ground, it may take time to materialize (like the US and French ‘nuclear deals’), but the symbolic foundation is now set.
When the two leaders reaffirmed their commitment “to work together for India to become a full member in the remaining three international export control regimes”, including India’s entry in the Nuclear Suppliers Group, Beijing was not pleased, but is it not legitimate for India and Japan to see their own interests first?
It is possible that this move triggered a harder line from China, especially the last section of the Statement which talks of “Working Jointly for Strengthening Rules-based International Order in the Indo-Pacific Region and Beyond,” but this is part of the Great Game of geopolitics.
The results of the US elections may have also played a role in the coming together of Japan and India. Former Foreign Secretary Kanwal Sibal wrote: “The Modi-Abe summit in Tokyo was important in itself for consolidating bilateral ties, but gained value as it took place in the shadow of Donald Trump’s election to the American presidency.”
The Modi visit occurred soon after Donald Trump was elected as the next US President. Trump’s arrival on the world scene brings a lot of uncertainties and may open the doors to deep changes in the political equation in Asia (incidentally, Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, was the first foreign leader to rush to meet Trump, probably to get reassurance from Japan’s first ally). There is no doubt that in the new era of incertitude, Japan will need to work closely with India.
The Future of the Relationship
Even if only a few of the ‘partnerships’ mentioned earlier, materialize in the next couple of years, it will be a great step forward.
Defence is certainly an area were the collaboration could go a step deeper.
The two defence framework agreements on the transfer of defence equipment and technology and on security measures for the protection of classified military information can now be implemented.
The most promising development for India is the purchase US-2 amphibian planes from Japan to improve the Indian Navy’s surveillance capabilities. Modi noted that it symbolizes the high degree of trust between the two countries.
According to The Financial Times (FT): “The US-2 amphibian planes are known not only for their prowess in search and rescue operations, but also as a great addition to any country’s Navy in terms of surveillance.”
Developed by ShinMaywa of Japan, it is claimed to be the world’s best short takeoff and landing (STOL) amphibian aircraft, which can land on rough seas with a metre high waves. The FT added: “it will deepen the strategic partnership with Japan, but also it would send a message to China.”
The $1.65 billion defence deal needs now to be cleared by the Defence Acquisitions Council (DAC).
This type of defence collaboration should be encouraged and developed further.
Japan has pledged to support India in its ambitious plan to develop infrastructure in the North-East.
The Official Development Assistance (ODA) provides bilateral aid consisting of concessional loans and grants, to developing countries.
The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), which coordinates the ODA’s projects has pledged for India an amount of 242.2 billion yen (some Rs 14,000 crores), out of which 67.1 billion yen are earmarked as loan assistance to the North East Road Network Connectivity Improvement Project.
The ODA projects are to identify technologies, infrastructure, and strategies to facilitate development. Tokyo has also agreed in principle to fund many critical Greenfield highway projects in Northeast India.
The JICA is involved in a 400 km highway stretch in Mizoram between Aizawl and Tuipang; a 150 km highway in Meghalaya; two projects in Manipur; and one each in Tripura, Nagaland and Assam.
Could this scheme be extended to other Indian borders such as Arunachal, Sikkim and Ladakh? It would be an interesting collaboration which would bring an even brighter prospect to future bilateral relations.
During his visit to India in January 2015, Fumio Kishida, the Japanese Foreign Minister said that Tokyo considered Arunachal Pradesh as a part of India. The Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei saw red, “We are seriously concerned about this and have lodged serious representation with the Japanese side. We hope Japan can fully understand the sensitivity of China-India border issues.”
A few months later, in response to a question about the JICA financing projects in Arunachal Pradesh, Shinya Ejima, JICA’s chief representative in India asserted: “It depends upon the decision first by the Indian government and also the government of Japan. But, as far as JICA is concerned, I don’t think there’s any problem in Arunachal.”
An enlarged collaboration in this field would make great strategic and technical sense.
Other small actions could be envisaged; just to cite one, the deepening of the relations between Bhutan and Japan could indirectly enhance the Indo-Nippon partnership. Japan through the JICA has been supporting the concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH). This type of support could be widened.
Though Japan has no official embassy in Thimphu, year 2016 marked the 30th anniversary of the establishment of relations between Japan and Bhutan.
India should encourage Bhutan and Japan to work out a greater collaboration for the sustainable development of the ‘happy’ Himalayan kingdom.
There are numerous areas of Indo-Japan collaboration; and fortunately, the profound trust between India and Japan, probably due to great civilizational and geopolitical convergences, will translate into a very special partnership in the future.
The fact that the present Foreign Secretary is married to a Japanese could be the symbol of this blooming relationship.