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Insurance against USA’s weakness: Modi and Abe allying against China

Narendra Modi and Shinzo Abe. Photo: Reuters

Beijing pins hopes with Donald Trump coming to power and Washington becoming less engaged in the foreign policy to expand its influence in the South China Sea, first, and then in the world. However, India and Japan may spoil China’s plans, as they appear to have decided to make a large-scale strategic alliance against China, primarily.

Undeservedly unnoticed visit

Like many other international news, the November visit by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Japan was overshadowed by the reports on the presidential election in U.S. and went undeservedly unnoticed. The press and television covered the meeting of the leaders of the second and third Asian economies only when it came to the cooperation agreement in the field of nuclear energy.

Meantime, the talks of Asia’s two big democracies, India and Japan, contained another much more important topic i.e. the emerging strategic and defense alliance against Beijing.

Modi’s three-day visit to Tokyo (Nov 10-12) was a clear message that the bilateral relations of India and Japan are moving towards new heights. Many observers say Tokyo and Delhi not just try to restore the balance of forces in Asia. It appears that they have decided to change the usual formula of relations through combination of economic, political and strategic actions.

Considering the dynamics of these bilateral relations, this cooperation is promising enough and can grow into a durable geostrategic alliance in Asia. When in December 2015, India and Japan announced their decision to work together for “peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region and in the world,” it became evident that a new, so far unknown format of relations will emerge and that it cannot but influence the situation in the region. For instance, with the decision to merge their maritime corridors, the two countries’ relations obtained a new content going beyond the region.

Geostrategic radars of Delhi and Tokyo ‘caught’ the Indo-Pacific region after Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe spoke about the two countries’ cooperation in 2007. Indian politicians say the region has obtained a special political status after Modi’s government replaced the “Look to the East” policy with the “Act in the East” policy.

In 2015, the sides declared the Indo-Pacific Region (IPR) as “epicenter of global prosperity” and decided to cooperate under slogan “Proactive Contribution to the Peace.” The cooperation of India and Japan in the IPR must be mutually beneficial. It will help Tokyo strengthen Prime Minister Abe’s three principles of “rule of law at sea:” making and clarifying claims based on international law, not using force or coercion in trying to drive their claims, and seeking to settle disputes by peaceful means. As for India, it has even more far-reaching goals – to modernize the billion-strong country and give it a proper place in the international arena.

The elections in U.S. could not but influence the result of the Mobi-Abe meeting. Donald Trump’s pre-election promises to focus on the domestic problems and pay less attention to external issues, even the partially settled ones, pose certain threat to Washington’s allies, including Japan. Therefore, with the help of India, Japan started preparing for possible weakening of the U.S. presence in Asia.

Politicians in Delhi and Tokyo are concerned that their countries will have to live in a new Asia, where U.S. will no longer lead the alliance against China’s aggressive policy. These concerns are grounded, at least because of the recent hints in the U.S. press that under Trump the country may join China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) intercontinental trade and infrastructure project in case of certain conditions. In this light, India and Japan seek to fill the gap that will emerge if U.S. “leaves” Asia.

Japanese and Indian experts say the Tokyo-Delhi alliance will be useful even if U.S. changes its mind and does not leave Asia. In such case, it will just boost the Quadrilateral Defense Initiative (QDI) involving U.S., Japan, Australia, and India. QDI was initiated by Shinzo Abe almost ten years ago and can now grow into a large-scale strategic alliance considering the new status of the relations of India and Japan.

Cooperation after sanctions

“Japan and India share fundamental values such as freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law and strategic interests,” Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe said last year.

During his trip to Delhi last December, Abe reaffirmed his desire to reshape the Indian-Japanese Strategic and Global Partnership into deep, wide alliance pursuing specific goals. Modi’s return to Tokyo let the sides develop a plan of future development of relations and deepening of cooperation. In this light, talks on a wide range of issues were held in the Japanese capital. Abe and Modi discussed economy, politics, security, changing climate, infrastructure, production, UN reform and other topics.

In a joint statement, they addressed a number of the agreements signed to enhance the bilateral relationships. Observers say the m0st important is the nuclear agreement that reflects the changed relations of the two countries after Japan, the outspoken critic of India’s nuclear program, imposed economic sanctions on Delhi following the nuclear tests in Pokhran in 1998.

At present, Tokyo considers India a responsible country able to control nuclear technologies and its reasons to develop own nuclear weapons as weighty and justified. Japan supports India’s bid of NSG membership. India has become the first country Japan agreed to cooperate with in the nuclear field despite the fact that it has not signed the NPT. The agreements will strengthen the strategic ties and help selling the U.S.-made reactors to India. The point is that the control stakes of GE-Hitachi and Westinghouse, the two major producers of nuclear reactors in America, belong to Japanese companies. The agreement will reduce Delhi’s expenses on acquisition of cutting-edge nuclear technologies, as it will make it less dependent on France and Russia. For conclusion, the deal will help restoring the nuclear power-engineering in Japan after Fukushima accident.

Trade lagging behind

Another pillar of the strategic alliance of India and Japan is the economic and trade relations between the two countries. Narendra Modi sees that Japan understands India’s efforts to achieve two-digit economic growth rates. They in India believe that PM Modi’s initiative “Make in India” may be a success only in case of cooperation between India’s “Act in the East” policy and Japan’s “Partnership for Quality Infrastructure.” The Indian market cannot attract foreign investors unless it has quality infrastructure.

Japan sees alluring prospects of developing economic relations with India that has a huge domestic market and a large quantity of natural resources. PM Modi has recently done much - to some extent and looking out for Japan – to liquidate obstacles to the activity of foreign businesses in India. Shinzo Abe highlighted some powerful, as he called, initiatives of Modi’s government. Such as “Make in India,” “Digital India” etc. Besides the nuclear deal, in Tokyo Modi signed an agreement to finance and build Mumbai-Ahmedabad high-speed rail corridor. The project is estimated at USD15 billion. Japan funded the largest part of the underground project in India’s capital and seeks to fund 80% of the high-speech rail corridor’s cost on preferential terms – at an interest rate below 1%.

Japan has been one of India’s largest donors and the key source of foreign direct investments (FDI) for a long time. Japan’s FDI in 2000-2014 exceeded USD17.5 billion. More than 1,200 Japanese companies operate in India.

"No nation has contributed so much to India's modernization and progress like Japan - cars, metros and industrial parks, for example. And, no partner is likely to play as big a role in India's transformation as Japan," Narendra Modi said last year.

Another bright example of the Japan-India cooperation is REE (rare earth elements) used in high-tech products, starting from precision-guided missiles up to smartphones. The world press first addressed REE in 2010 after Japanese coastguards detained a Chinese fishing boat captain near the Senkakus, a group of disputable islands. China that then satisfied the world’s 95% demand for REE reduced the export quotas by 40% and stopped supplying REE to Japan. As a result, the REE prices roared.

Tokyo is the world’s second largest importer of REE on the planet. India has very modest reserves of REE and depends on China when it comes to supply of at least half a dozen of rare metals. This did not hold Japanese companies from cooperating with their Indian partners and building a mineral separation plant in Odisha and a processing plant in Andhra-Pradesh. In November 2012, Japan and India signed a trade agreement to supply 2,000 tons of REE from India to Japan to satisfy 15% of Tokyo’s demand. The first ship with REE arrived in Japan this year.

In 2016, Tokyo and Delhi signed an agreement to build a 15MW diesel power plant on India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands. India has always been wary of possible investments in those remote islands due to their strategic location adjacent to the Strait of Malacca as well as in the poor and undeveloped northeast of India, part of which, the so-called South Tibet, is claimed by China. Tokyo is now funding construction of roads in the northeast of India. The project is estimated at USD744 million.

Delhi and Tokyo agreed to establish a Japanese-Indian Institute of Manufacturing that will introduce Japan’s cutting-edge technologies to 30,000 Indian engineers and managers. The sides agreed to facilitate visa requirements for students from India.

The bilateral trade relations between Japan and India yield to the economic ones significantly. In 2015-2016, their commodity turnover reached very modest USD14.5 billion. For comparison, the trade between India and China exceeded USD70 billion and the one of Japan and China – USD350 billion. The commodity turnover between Japan and India accounts for less than 2% of these countries’ foreign trade. There is much to do in that field.

Tokyo persuades Delhi to throw off “non-alignment” shackles

The third corner-stone of the strategic partnership of India and Japan is the relations in the field of defense and security. In November, Shinzo Abe and Narendra Modi reaffirmed their intention to boost cooperation in the field of defense to upgrade security in the Indo-Pacific Region. The sides expressed their concern over growing international terrorism and promised to hold a policy of “zero tolerance” to it. Under the new counter-terrorist partnership, Japanese officers from the recreated anti-terrorist unit underwent training in Delhi.

During the talks, the sides focused on South Asia, India is ready to develop infrastructure and communication at Iran’s Chabahar Port. These and other actions in the region, including in Afghanistan, show that Tokyo and Delhi are committed to countering the China-Pakistan axis.

Japan recognizes India as the largest democracy and rapidly growing economy in the Asia-Pacific and supports its APEC membership, which will help the new allies promote their strategy of “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Region.”

Territorial disputes with China stimulate the alliance between India and Japan. National Interest magazine cited Japan’s former defense ministry official saying Japanese and Indian armed forces do not coordinate their actions but their common goal is to keep balance of forces in the region.

This year, Japan for the first time participated in Malabar naval exercises — the largest bilateral military exercises between the United States and India. The sides expanded JIMEX maritime exercises that have been held since 2012.

This trend is set to increase if the pending deal on the US-2i ShinMaywa amphibious search-and-rescue aircraft materializes, though the sides have not yet managed to agree on the price and delivery date yet.

The sides agreed to set up a Single Task Force on military equipment and technological cooperation. They had a successful annual dialogue at the level of defense ministers in Delhi. The first foreign visit of India’s defense minister Manohar Parrikar was to Japan. India, in turn, supported revision of Japan’s Constitution in the part of self-defense.

The India-Japan alliance has significantly improved in the South China Sea. The sides greatly depend on maritime trade, especially when it comes to import of energy resources. At last year’s meeting, Abe and Modi highlighted the extreme importance of protecting the routes to the South China Sea for regional energy security and trade. To that end, the allies seek to hold regular consultations. Japan Times considers this as one of the pivotal issues in the Indian-Japanese relations.

The first, and perhaps, the major competition of Tokyo and Delhi with Beijing, is in the South China sea. China insists that it has never thought to claim the free merchant shipping in the South China Sea, but this does not apply to warships.

The joint statement the sides adopted following Modi’s visit to Tokyo reaffirmed that India and Japan support the freedom on the seas in line with UNCLOS. This July, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in Hague ruled against China’s claims in the dispute with Philippines. The verdict strongly favored the Philippines, undermining China's claim to sovereignty under the nine-dash line it draws around most of the sea. Delhi openly supported the verdict. In September India’s Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar took even tougher stance in support of the verdict than Europe did. India reminded Beijing that in 2014 it supported a similar verdict in the maritime dispute with Bangladesh. Furthermore, Narendra Modi during his visits to Kuala-Lumpur and Hanoi even advocated, though without success, for including a provision on the need to observe The Hague Court verdicts into every joint statement following his talks.

As the distance between India and Japan is great, their cooperation may pass mostly on the sea. Therefore, it is very important to merge the sea corridors of the two countries into single geostrategic marine space.

Shinzo Abe is considered one of the earliest and outspoken supporters of “construction of the Indo-Pacific region” considering the two oceans as an integrated economic and geopolitical space. In December 2012, he urged for establishment of Asia’s Democratic Security Diamond involving Austria, India, Japan and Hawaii and protecting the maritime space stretching from the Indian Ocean up to western waters of the Pacific. Since then the Indo-Pacific concept has become an important part of the Indian and U.S. strategic lexicon.

India’s rapprochement with Japan on the sea will inevitably encounter China’s Maritime Silk Road project and become another obstacle on China’s way through the so-called nine-dash line in the South China Sea.

Everything comes with a price

The talks in Tokyo in Nov 2016 were dedicated among others to China.

Deputy foreign minister of Japan said the sides reaffirmed that their stances coincide on many issues concerning the relations with China.

This could not go unnoticed by China, and Global Times (GT), the foreign policy mouthpiece of China's Communist Party, warned that “Tokyo is trying to contain and besiege Beijing by every possible means, and Abe will not miss any chance to draw Modi over to his side to counter China.”

GT considers India as a stranger that has never had influence in the Pacific and warns that Delhi’s further interference with the situation around the South China Sea may result in big problems for it in the business and trade sectors, first.

GT evidently hints that China may create problems to India. For instance, China refused to support India’s bid for NSG membership in June. In fact, it seeks to punish Delhi for its support to the U.S. policy of deterring China.

Beijing wants to punish India for ignoring China, but China cannot ignore India, as the latter can spoil its plans in the South China Sea.

Sergey Manukov for EADaily

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