Thursday, Oct 19, 2017 | Last Update : 09:04 AM IST

The Modi-Abe show: China on their mind

The writer is a former secretary in the external affairs ministry. He tweets at @ambkcsingh
Published : Sep 16, 2017, 3:15 am IST
Updated : Sep 16, 2017, 3:16 am IST

The Malabar naval exercises are recalled and future naval cooperation emphasised.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife Akie Abe ride an open vehicle during their roadshow in Ahmedabad. (Photo: PTI)
 Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife Akie Abe ride an open vehicle during their roadshow in Ahmedabad. (Photo: PTI)

This year’s annual India-Japan summit was mixed theatre and summitry, in signature Narendra Modi style and approach to public affairs. It began with an open jeep drive by Mr Modi with Japan’s PM Shinzo Abe and his wife through the crowd-lined streets of Ahmedabad and a tour of Mahatma Gandhi’s Sabarmati Ashram conducted personally by the Indian PM. The next day the “bullet train” project, that will link Ahmedabad to Mumbai, was flagged off with an audio-visual presentation, which the Opposition questioned as money is desperately needed to improve the speed and safety of the creaking traditional network of the Indian Railways.

The joint statement proclaims the aim is to “elevate their relationship to the next level”. While the basic themes have been developed over nearly a decade, the energetic decision-making and urgent implementation is new. The changed geopolitical environment created by the increasing Chinese assertiveness and American hesitation under President Donald Trump saw Mr Abe finding in Mr Modi an active and non-hesitant partner guiding the direction and pace. The ghost of China, however, clearly lingered over the summit.

The joint statement calls for a “free, open and prosperous Indo-Pacific region”, indirectly criticising Chinese attempts to rewrite the laws of the sea by imposing unilateral control over vast sections of the South and East China Seas, or even over the latter’s airspace. The four sub-sections detail the bilateral strategy to counter this Chinese revisionism. The overall objective is to align Japan’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy” with India’s “Act East Policy”.

The first sub-section talks of “Reinforcing Defence and Security Cooperation”. It refers to robotics and unmanned ground vehicles as  areas of possible cooperation. A decision on purchasing US-2 amphibious planes is under discussion, though not finalised, as was anticipated. The Malabar naval exercises are recalled and future naval cooperation emphasised.

The next theme is “Working Together for a Better Connected World”. Infrastructure projects, it is argued, should be “open, transparent and non-exclusive” and in sync with local economic and development strategies. This is again a critique of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. It builds on the existing understanding between the two sides to create connectivity between Asia and Africa. India and Japan have trade, training and investment links with Africa. The intention now is to marry the capabilities and strengths of both to balance the Chinese penetration of the African continent and even the establishment of a naval base at Djibouti. Indian human resources, facility with the English language and links with Anglophone Africa, if married to Japanese technology and industrial might, can work to balance Chinese penetration leveraged on major infrastructure development and raw material import.

The third theme is “Partnership for Prosperity” focuses on the Mumbai-Ahmedabad High-Speed Railway (MAHSR), or the bullet train. Realising its optics as elitist and probably usable only by the wealthy in the foreseeable future, it is claimed to be a technology dispenser for the rest of the Indian railway system. This may well happen over time but the test will be whether indigenisation will bring the costs down to a level where India can replicate the “bullet train” for other high-density corridors like Bengaluru-Hyderabad, Bengaluru-Chennai or Mumbai-Pune, etc. But the government will find that every time there is a train accident, allegations will resurface that the traditional railways were neglected for an expensive and unnecessary luxury.

A proposal for skill development centres, called JIMs, to be set up in Gujarat, Rajasthan, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, is welcome but the question arises why the most backward and populous states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal were omitted. A connected question would be why the government did not divide resources between the other railway salient connecting New Delhi to Kolkata instead of focusing on a Gujarat-traversing Delhi-Mumbai corridor.

The last portion of the joint statement deals with regional and global issues. On reform of the UN Security Council, for which India and Japan have been agitating alongside Brazil and Germany in a Group called G4 since 2005, or the climate change and implementation of the Paris Agreement or the need for free trade under WTO are ideas that both nations concur with. While India accepted a more forthright denunciation of North Korea’s missile and nuclear tests and called for a rollback, Japan in turn agreed to condemn the Pakistan-based terror groups and specifically the 26/11 and Pathankot attacks. Japan also endorsed Indian membership of the three regimes — Nuclear Suppliers Group, Wassenaar Arrangement and Australia Group — as well as the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec).

Significant is the support extended to the Asean group of 10 countries that are now finding China not only expropriating their South China Sea economic zones but dividing them through its surrogates Cambodia and Laos. If India and Japan strategically constitute the two ends of a democratic arc across the Indo-Pacific region, then Asean is its bridge and link. Existing security dialogues like the Asean Regional Forum and East Asia Summit are strongly endorsed as robust regional security structures are a condition precedent to a stable Asia-Pacific that no single country tries to dominate.

But the experience of an earlier close engagement between India and Japan, during Mr Abe’s first prime ministership (2006-07), teaches us that countries can alter tactics under new leadership. Mr Abe’s successor in 2007 tried to re-balance relations with China and thus the Quadrilateral Dialogue between Australia, India, Japan and the United States was abandoned as China found it unfriendly, being limited to democracies. China will be carefully watching the growing convergence between India and Japan, with both nations putting old hesitations aside. Institutional linkages deepen commitments which changes of political leaderships normally do not affect. That is perhaps the biggest takeaway from the latest summit — it seals the deal.

Tags: shinzo abe, narendra modi, act east policy