Japan, focal point of 'Act East'

Japan, focal point of 'Act East'

In 1995, a delegation of Indian experts led by senior journalist M D Nalapat was in Taiwan for a bilateral meeting whose purpose was not clearly known, not even to the Chinese - a recognised counterintelligence state. India had just opened up its economy in 1991 and was exploring avenues to draw investments and elevate India's economic status. Prime Minister Narasimha Rao had different designs for India's economy and national security, and much of the discussions were conducted in a private setting called the "Kitchen Cabinet," of which Nalapat was a member.

The meeting, evidently, was part of India's newly unveiled "Look East" policy, aimed to offset China's growing influence in the region. Asia Pacific was seen as the starting point in China's strategy of expansion and
Burma was the first casualty. India's policy changes had to, there-fore, be translated into finding a significant and favourable position in the US strategy to contain China. For this, two things were done in 1992, both interlinked.

Firstly, the Jewish state of Israel was allowed to establish formal ties with India as it was an important pawn in America's global strategy. Second, connections were established with the Indian diaspora in the US and oriented on the shifting landscape of India's geopolitics. With their roles clear, these Indians were modelled on the lines of the Jewish diaspora to lobby for a tilt in US foreign policy towards India. Senior journalist Cleo Paskal opined that this strategic shift allowed India to then "look east."

The overt Indian expressions at the 'Taiwan meeting' were economic in nature, trying to convince the tiny island to make investments in India. These were understandable as Taiwan was exploring investment destinations, and hence, the meeting was mutually beneficial. By the next decade, scientific and business links between India and Taiwan witnessed thousands of Indian skilled personnel finding employment in Taiwan.

While the economic part of the story was one of success, there was one other area that was discussed in strict confidence. It was one of security cooperation. A source present at the meeting revealed that the Indian delegation expressed willingness to open a second front on the Chinese border if a conflict emerged between Taiwan and the People's Republic of China.

However, for either reasons of China's remarkable counterintelligence or Taiwanese/Indian government's unwillingness, the security ideas were put on the backburner. Although the Indian thinking of the day was clearly strategic and long-term results oriented, the conditions were still not supportive, but looking east had commenced.

Fast forward to 2014, the situation remained similar, but with China more aggressive, and a stronger India. In the interim, India had also managed to forge friendships with Singapore, Thailand, Australia and other South-East Asian countries. After the thumping victory of 2014 elections, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was eager to look outwards to resolve challenges to India's security and development. The new policy was declared to be "Act East."

The new friend

The focus would now be on Japan. Perceived as a potential solution to two of India's principal threats, India-Japan cooperation efforts since 2007 gained further momentum. The threats are not just national security issues but also capable of haunting Modi's future political prospects. One is the external threat posed by Xi Jinping's China and the other is the problem of growing unemployment amongst a swelling youth population in India.

As much as the threat of unemployment seems real and daunting, it is also true that the developed countries, especially Japan, are facing the problem of a rising geriatric population and plummeting youth population. Japanese investments in India must be observed in the light of this development. The ambitious bullet train programme that will see an investment of Rs 1.1 lakh crore and the memorandum of cooperation for on-the-job technical training for three lakh Indians over the next 3-5 years is part of Modi's skill development initiative. The technicians trained by the Japanese are expected to generate a pool of skilled youth equipped for global employment, especially in Japan, as well as to proliferate practical knowledge in India.

On the security front, the assurance given to Taiwan of a reliable security partner in India is open to Japan. In fact, India has proved its will to act against Chinese aggression in the recent Doklam standoff. Japan, for its part, was vocal in its criticism of China's neo-colonial designs and territorial ambitions that had triggered the military standoff. Mutual concerns over China's power projection have now begun to gain momentum in the duo's security calculations. Consequently, we see the Quad gaining more power than before, preparing to seem like "NATO for the Asia-Pacific".

Apart from the security and economic facets of the relationship, this move is well positioned to develop a band of Indians in Japan capable of sustaining Japanese foreign policy in India's favour, should the situation demand in the future, just like the Indian diaspora in the US did during the 1990s. The Indo-Japanese bonhomie will be a touchstone for India's strategic endeavours elsewhere.

(The writer is a PhD scholar in Intelligence Studies and International Security at the University of Leicester, UK)

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