Asia’s tangled triangle 

Modi meets Abe meets Xi

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) shakes hands with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe prior to their meeting at Abe's official residence in Tokyo on October 29, 2018.AFP

Two summits with three major nations in Asia involved and with Japan as the fulcrum provides a good setting to examine the unfolding geopolitical churn in Asia. Shinzo Abe made a rare trip to Beijing on October 23, the first by a Japanese prime minister since 2011, to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping. Upon his return to Japan, he hosted Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The overriding, if hidden, concern was, how to manage China’s increasing assertiveness in regional issues. 

While the core of the Abe-Xi discussion was on sharing mutual concerns and interests, what emerged on the surface was how to get Japan involved in Xi’s pet Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Seeking to deepen economic relations was the logical common ground as both nations have come under US pressure on trade. Since President Donald Trump has levied tariffs on imports from both China and Japan, accusing both of unfair trade practices, finding ways to cope with Trump’s America dominated the discussion. In fact, the trade war seemed to have hastened Abe’s China visit. The situation presented China to seek an ally in Japan. 

Does it mean that Japan has stopped worrying about China’s brazen expansionist design and increasing assertiveness in regional issues, besides territorial disputes over the Senkaku islands? From all indicators, this is not the case. Japan is aware that the BRI project has come under severe criticism, with many countries either summarily cancelling or downsizing the scale of projects and others starting to review their participation, as fears of falling into a Chinese debt trap rise. Yet, Japan has hesitatingly agreed to participate in BRI with a view to ‘manage’ China.

In contrast to the adversarial relations between Japan and China, relations between India and Japan are robust and devoid of either the shadow of history or any strong irritant. In fact, there is plenty of warmth and goodwill earned over history. There are no negatives, only opportunities.  

This was the fifth annual summit between Modi and Abe and their 12th meeting since 2014. Besides bilateral issues, the two leaders discussed regional and global issues, including the situation in the Indo-Pacific region. Those discussions reaffirmed the bonds of friendship between the two countries and strengthened their multi-faceted cooperation in diverse fields. Their meeting will advance the vision of both countries to work together in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond. 

Prior to Modi’s visit, in an interaction at the Brookings India think-tank, Japanese envoy Kenji Hiramatsu had observed that strengthening of defence and trade ties would top the agenda. As it transpired, strengthening maritime cooperation, including the signing of the Mutual Logistical Support Agreement, was one of the main agendas. Japan has evinced greater cooperation between the navies of the two countries on maritime domain awareness and security issues.

The two sides agreed to have greater defence equipment and technology cooperation, including joint research activities on unmanned vehicles and robotics. For the first time, the armies of the two counties will hold a joint military drill in Mizoram in November, while Japan will be an observer at the India-US ‘Cope India’ air force exercise.

On defence procurement, India has expressed interest in buying Japan’s Soryu class submarine. At present, the Japanese government is discussing this possibility with the private sector. There is no decision yet on collaborating with India for the project. The two sides also discussed India’s interest in buying the US-2 amphibious aircraft and some progress is expected in due course.

One driver of expanding India-Japan cooperation in the defence and maritime domain between is China’s increasing military footprint in the region and the perceived threat to the sovereignty of smaller neighbouring countries. The fear of China’s assertiveness disturbing regional stability, including the global commons, is drawing closer those countries that respect global rules of law and freedom of navigation.

The bonhomie that Abe and Modi share has also helped in lifting the relationship further. It may be recalled that Modi chose Japan among the first nations to visit after taking power four years ago. He has been urging countries in the Indo-Pacific region to unite against protectionism and cross-border tensions.

Common adversary

Interestingly, the three major Asian nations — China, Japan and India — have come under President Trump’s protectionist onslaught, providing an opportunity for the three to work out economic strategies in their mutual interests. In particular, Trump’s policies have targeted mostly China with tariffs. Trump has also accused Japan and other nations of unfair trade practices, pushing Delhi and Tokyo to promote their economic ties.

Abe has made bolstering and opening up the nation’s economy central to his policies, called ‘Abenomics’, and has encouraged trade, foreign investment and tourism. Although the US remains Japan’s main ally, especially in defence, Abe is courting other ties. He has also been vocal about free trade, which runs counter to Trump’s move to raise tariffs. This background provides an ideal opportunity for Japan to expand and deepen economic cooperation by increasing investment in Indian projects. Japan’s assistance in building a super-fast railway system may be seen in this light.

Two other takeaways from Modi’s visit are India and Japan initiating a 2+2 dialogue involving the countries’ foreign and defence ministers and entering into a $75 billion bilateral currency swap agreement. While upgrading the institutional framework from secretary to ministerial level will help build a robust mechanism on the Indo-Pacific strategy, the currency swap agreement is expected to bring stability in foreign exchange and capital markets in the country. Being one of the largest swap arrangements in the world, it reflects the depth of the economic relationship between the two countries. 

(The writer is Lok Sabha Research Fellow, Parliament of India)

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Asia’s tangled triangle 

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