On the pivot to East

By signing the nuclear and high-speed rail deals with Japan, India inches closer to the anti-China alliance led by the United States.

Published : Dec 23, 2015 12:30 IST

Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Shinzo Abe take part in Ganga puja in Varanasi.

Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Shinzo Abe take part in Ganga puja in Varanasi.

JAPANESE Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has become a frequent visitor to India, was in New Delhi yet again in December. This is his third visit to India since taking over as Prime Minister. Abe had also struck a good personal rapport with former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Japan and India have grown extremely close to one another during the 10-year rule of the United Progressive Alliance. India’s tilt towards the anti-China alliance led by the United States and Japan started in this period. The tilt has become more pronounced after the National Democratic Alliance led by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power. The mutual admiration and backslapping between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Abe have been on public display. They participated in a quasi-religious ceremony on the banks of the Ganga in Varanasi.

Modi has described his Japanese counterpart as “a phenomenal leader”. Both Abe and Modi evidently share the same world view and want to establish closer military ties with the West and view China as an emerging world power that has to be counterbalanced. Abe has declared that the India-Japan relationship is the “most important bilateral relationship” in the world. At their summit meeting in Tokyo in 2014, the leaders had agreed to elevate bilateral relations “to a special strategic and global partnership”.

During the course of Abe’s three-day visit, the two governments signed some important agreements that could have an impact on the future course of Indian foreign policy. India has come out openly on the side of the U.S. and Japan on the dispute with China over territories in the South China Sea.

“In view of the critical importance of the sea lanes of communications in the South China Sea for regional energy security and trade and commerce which underpins continued peace and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific region, the two Prime Ministers called upon all states in the region to avoid unilateral actions that could lead to tension in the region,” said the joint statement issued during Abe’s visit.

This is the first time that the South China Sea has been mentioned in a joint statement. In the previous two joint statements issued during bilateral talks in 2015, the dispute did not figure in the text. Indian Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar told mediapersons that the latest statement reflected the concerns of the two countries.

“The South China Sea is of concern to us as both countries have important energy stakes there—important and unilateral actions should be avoided,” he said. Tokyo has no territorial disputes with Beijing in the South China Sea. China had objected to India prospecting for oil and gas in an area off the coast of Vietnam.

China’s stand

The Chinese side has been insisting that there has never been a danger to international navigation or civilian overflights in the South China Sea but that it considers naval vessels and military aircraft travelling through the area as a violation of its sovereignty. Beijing accuses Washington of trying to instigate an international crisis in the region. Beijing, supported by many countries in the region, says that the territorial disputes could be easily resolved through negotiations between the affected parties. It has been repeatedly asserting that there is no need for outside powers to get involved in the dispute. Speaking to mediapersons after Abe’s visit to India, the spokesman of the Chinese Foreign Ministry expressed the hope that countries outside the region “respect the efforts of regional countries in maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea, instead of doing the opposite”.

During Abe’s visit, it was announced that Japan would now regularly participate in the biannual “Malabar” military exercises “to help create stronger capabilities to deal with maritime challenges in the Indo-Pacific region”. Previously, these exercises had involved only the U.S. and Indian navies. India had participated in quadrilateral military exercises in the Bay of Bengal in 2006 with the U.S., Japanese and Australian navies. But after strong protests from China, which viewed the exercises as part of U.S.-orchestrated manoeuvres to form a military alliance to isolate it in the Asia-Pacific region, India had chosen to stay away, until recently. Now, with Japan also becoming a trilateral dialogue partner with India and the U.S., China has reason to suspect that India has also become a partner of the Barack Obama administration’s much publicised military “pivot to the east”. The U.S. Ambassador to India, Richard Verma, recently said that the navies of the U.S., India and Japan “are already interoperable” after Japan had participated as “a guest” in the complex Malabar exercises held in October 2015.

The Chinese spokesman was also critical of India’s decision to invite Japanese participation in the annual Malabar exercises. “As for Japan’s participation in the relevant military exercises, China’s position is very clear. Relevant countries should not provoke confrontation and create tensions in the region,” he said. According to Michael Kugelman, an expert on South and South-East Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington, Modi and Abe are “telegraphing a striking message, even at the risk of roiling China”. As TheJapan Times noted, the agreements signed during the Abe visit bring India further into the orbit of the U.S. military. It also said that the defence agreements were aimed “at containing China’s expansion in regional waters”.

India as a military market

Abe’s visit took place after he had successfully amended Japan’s pacifist Constitution. Japan is no longer circumscribed by its Constitution from either going to war or selling lethal armaments to other countries. Japan sees India as a big market for some of its sophisticated military weaponry. A memorandum of understanding (MoU) has been signed between the two countries during the Abe visit for the possible purchase of ShinMaywa US-2 military seaplanes. The deal, if it fructifies, will be worth more that $1.2 billion. It will also be the first Japanese military sales in 50 years. Japan has agreed to the transfer of defence equipment and technology. There has been a lot of criticism domestically in Japan and by countries like China on the amendment of the pacifist Constitution by Abe’s right-wing Liberal Democratic Party government. Abe has been unapologetic about Japanese war crimes and has not hidden his ambition to make Japan a military power to be reckoned with in the region once again.

An important achievement from the Indian standpoint during Abe’s visit was the signing of the MoU on nuclear cooperation between the two countries. Japan has agreed in principle to sign a civil nuclear cooperation agreement with India despite New Delhi being a non-signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Public opinion in Japan, particularly after the Fukushima disaster in 2011, does not trust the government on nuclear issues. Owing to pressure from peace groups, the Japanese government had been so far stalling a nuclear deal with India. Now, the Japanese seem to be on the verge of operationalising it. There are indications that the Indian government will approve the seaplane deal only after Tokyo formally inks the civil nuclear cooperation deal. Japan will partner the U.S. in the construction of civilian nuclear reactors in India. The deal will provide a breakthrough for companies such as Westinghouse Electric and General Electric to sell equipment to India. Both these companies are either controlled or owned by Japanese businesses.

Protests in Tokyo

Soon after the proposed India-Japan nuclear deal was announced, there were protests outside the Japanese Prime Minister’s office in Tokyo. Hiroshi Shimizu, secretary general of the Hiroshima Prefectural Confederation of A-Bomb Sufferers Organisation, told a Japanese newspaper that his group was against nuclear cooperation with India. “We are not sure whether India, for some reason, will seek to divert the technology for nuclear weapons,” Shimizu said. “This move is intolerable for atomic bomb survivors because it goes against the government’s position to seek the abolition of nuclear weapons.” Nagasaki’s Mayor, Tomihisa Taue, said that the Japanese government’s decision was “extremely regrettable” as the survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear attacks were against the civil nuclear pact with India. “I strongly urge the Japanese government to fulfil its responsibility as a country subjected to nuclear weapons,” he said.

High-speed train

The other agreement that created a buzz was the $15-billion deal to help build India’s first high-speed rail link between Mumbai and Ahmedabad. While making the announcement, Abe compared Modi’s leadership to the high-speed Shinkazen train. “Prime Minister Modi’s economic policies are like Shinkazen, high-speed, safe and reliable while carrying many people along,” Abe said. Abe is no doubt aware that more and more people in India are now questioning the leadership style of Modi as well as the need for a Shinkazen train in the country. The high-speed train will be used only by the rich, while the need of the hour is to improve the dilapidated infrastructure of the Indian Railways for the benefit of the common man.

Despite the hype, economic relations between the two countries are yet to fully take off. Both India and Japan have much stronger economic ties with China.

Japanese investors, despite frosty relations between Tokyo and Beijing, still prefer to invest in mainland China. India accounts for only 1 per cent of Japan’s imports. Japan is now planning to set aside $12.4 billion for investments and financing of projects in India. During Abe’s visit it was announced that Tokyo would be funding road-building projects in India’s north-eastern States, including the “disputed” State of Arunachal Pradesh. India seems to have turned its back on China’s “One Belt, One Road” blueprint for the economic integration of Eurasian nations. Almost all South and Central Asian countries have signed up for the initiative. India, however, prefers to align with Japan and the U.S. in the region.

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