India-Japan ties: Can Modi, Abe go beyond personal chemistry?

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Indranil Banerjie

The personal chemistry is great; the compliments effusive and the avowals of friendship overwhelming. But can the relationship between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe go beyond their personal equations? That is the question that will determine whether their shared vision of a long-term strategic relationship between the two countries outlasts them.
At stake is much more than just good press, diplomacy or success of a bilateral visit. India and Japan are emerging as key pivots in Indo-Pacific geopolitics and how their relationship evolves will impact not just the future of the two countries but the whole of Asia as well.
Prime Minister Abe has defined his pro-India stance by declaring that he will be India’s friend for ever, and so has Prime Minister Modi by making it clear that Japan is India’s key partner both in the economic and strategic spheres as he ended a two-day visit to that country.
At the heart of the Japan-India dynamic is the China factor. While this will always be unstated, it will remain key to assessing developments on the India-Japan front.
Prime Minister Abe, who comes from a respected political family, is adept at political diplomacy. While he has publicly stated the need to have good relations with China, he has also taken several steps to ensure that Beijing’s hegemonic aspirations do not break down the strategic equilibrium in the Asian continent.
This is the main reason for his relentless efforts to both raise military preparedness and forge strategic alliances with likeminded nations, including India.
Most worrying for Japan is China’s attempts to completely dominate the East China Sea and claim Japan’s uninhabited Senkaku Islands. Earlier this year, the Chinese sent in a nuclear attack submarine and a frigate to the island, thus violating Japan’s territorial integrity. Grabbing these islands would vastly extend China’s maritime boundaries and shrink Japan’s. The Chinese Air Force too has been testing Japan by regularly violating its airspace.
As China grows more assertive and belligerent, Prime Minister Abe knows Asia requires a counter-balance. At stake is the independence of virtually all Asian nations. This concern is at the heart of his strategic initiatives, including his support for the not so successful Quadrilateral initiative aimed at forging an alliance involving Japan, Australia, the United States and India.
Prime Minister Abe’s strategic concerns were reflected in the joint statement issued by him and Prime Minister Modi last September, which stressed the need for “safeguarding and strengthening… a rules-based order” and ensuring the “peaceful resolution of disputes, including through full respect for legal and diplomatic processes, without resorting to the threat or use of force, and in accordance with the universally recognised principles of international law…”
Having Japan as a strategic ally would be a huge plus for India and the Prime Minister recognises this. It is no coincidence that Japan was the first country he paid a state visit outside South Asia after his 2014 election.The shared worldview of the two Prime Ministers has helped overcome the traditional Japanese resistance to the idea of military cooperation with any country other than the United States. Japanese strategists believe that India could grow into a naval power capable of protecting the sea lanes in the Indian Ocean Region.
Former Japanese ambassador to India Yasukuni Enoki had once said: “Japanese energy security is dependent on the Indian Navy. The Indian Ocean has very important sea lanes. We have only the Indian Navy which can be trusted. Other navies are not as reliable. For Japanese energy security, closer relations with India are very much required.”
Despite this, there are a number of obstacles to the growing strategic partnership. For one, there are powerful pro-China elements in Japanese politics and, second, Beijing on its own seeks to scuttle the growing alliance.
The other problem is more pragmatic. If for either India or Japan, economic stakes in the geopolitical game assume a larger role than territorial disputes, then the India-Japan strategic equation would automatically be weakened, if not wrecked.
It is significant that just prior to Mr Modi’s visit, Mr Abe was in China leading a huge delegation comprising 500 top Japanese business leaders. This was the first visit to China by a Japanese Prime Minister in seven years.
Mr Abe has not been popular in China. The Chinese leadership has criticised Prime Minister Abe for drifting away from Japan’s constitutional pacifism adopted after its defeat in the Second World War. They see him as a militarist, revisionist and an anti-China leader.
Mr Abe’s 2013 visit to the Yasukuni shrine, a controversial Shinto place of worship dedicated to the Japanese who died serving their emperor during the wars from 1867 to 1951, further incensed the Chinese who saw this as an attempt to honour Japan’s militaristic past.
The timing of this visit, however, pleased Beijing, which made it out to be a snub to Washington’s policy of increased belligerence.
Mr Abe, who was for many years considered an “unwelcome person” in China, was cheered for agreeing that Japan and China are moving from competitiveness to cooperation. The two countries agreed to open a hot-line to prevent accidental clashes, especially in the East China Sea.
The biggest agreements were on the economic front — where the two countries decided to jointly pursue projects in China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Thus, even a hardliner like Mr Abe recognises the practical necessity of downplaying geopolitics for the sake of business and economics.
For the Modi-Abe bonhomie to survive, it must go beyond China and find an anchor in shared economic interests. The Modi government’s decision to go ahead with the Japanese-funded bullet train project is the right stuff for future cooperation but questions remain about India’s ability to sustain such big-ticket deals, overcome domestic opposition and generate resources to become a key economic player. India’s yawning current account deficit, plunging rupee and stock markets are not good omens.
Even as the two Prime Ministers huddled in Japan, the shadow of India’s unending internal crises looms over the future. As long as India fails to realise its full potential as a regional military and economic power, it cannot contribute to a potentially game-changing relationship.