Abe and Modi attempt to bridge the Indo-Pacific

Author: Sourabh Gupta, Samuels International

During the second week of December 2015, Japan and India held one of their more productive annual summit meetings in recent memory in New Delhi. Breaking the pattern of high atmospherics and shallow content that has characterised Japan-India interactions over the past half-decade, prime ministers Shinzo Abe and Narendra Modi signed agreements on civil nuclear cooperation, defence equipment and technology transfer, protection of classified military information exchanges and high-speed rail cooperation.

A handout picture made available by the Indian Press Information Bureau (PIB) shows Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe (C), with the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi (R), receiving a traditional welcome on their arrival to attend the traditional Ganga 'aarti' or worship of the holy Ganges river in Varanasi, India, 12 December 2015. (Photo: AAP)

The summit meeting is best seen as a fulfilment of the key strategic bargain sought by New Delhi in inviting Abe to grace India’s Republic Day parade as its chief guest in January 2014. The Manmohan Singh government had hoped that the Japanese prime minister would convince his pacifist-leaning coalition partner, Komeito, to successfully deliver a finalised civil nuclear cooperation agreement. But the bargain did not materialise.

Fast forward to the December 2015 summit and Abe’s unqualified climb-down from Tokyo’s long-standing position on civil nuclear cooperation was rewarded. Japan was elevated to a regular participant in the India-US Malabar series naval drills and some mild criticism of China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea was added to the India-Japan Joint Statement.

Having given in earlier to New Delhi’s demand that it be allowed to reprocess spent nuclear fuel from Japanese-made reactors, Abe also conceded in principle to remove the nullification clause, which would have obliged Japan to scrap the agreement in the event of a nuclear test by India. Abe was left to repeat these long-standing Japanese positions verbally in New Delhi, given his failure to secure the language in the legal text, which is still to be formalised.

Whether this will fly with Komeito or the broader Japanese political establishment remains to be seen. The Japanese political establishment was under the impression that Abe’s primary concession was concluding a civil nuclear agreement with India, which is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The conspicuous sparseness of the initialled Peaceful Uses of Energy Memorandum suggests that a good deal of nemawashi remains to be conducted by Abe in Tokyo.

The consummation of this strategic bargain reflects a cardinal truth about India’s engagement with its US-allied strategic partners as it scripts its rise in Asia. India’s partners are expected to deliver on high-technology cooperation and transfer, which improves India’s indigenous civil and military manufacturing capabilities. In exchange, New Delhi offers rhetorical embellishments that lend the impression of congruence with Japan and the West’s grand canvas designs vis-à-vis China in the Indo-Pacific. And it offers incrementally upgraded defence interoperability (which still falls short of ‘jointness’) that is principally geared towards maintaining strategic stability in the Indian Ocean region.

This cardinal truth of India’s strategic engagement with the world to its east exposes the emerging fault-line in the Indo-Pacific: the emergence of not one but two Indo-Pacific strategic systems, with the Indonesian island of Sumatra as its point of separation.

Indian and Japanese core security interests and responsibilities are highly differentiated and unbalanced within these two systems, which is reflected in the hollow institutionalisation that infects Japan-India defence ties. New Delhi is an outlier consideration east of Sumatra for Beijing in its geo-strategic management of Tokyo. And Tokyo is not a consideration west of Sumatra in Beijing’s management of New Delhi or, for the matter, a factor in India’s defence planning vis-à-vis China.

The upshot is that Japan maintains a strategic interest in New Delhi’s participation in US and Japanese foreign policies that aim to create a network to surround and deter China (as unashamedly flagged by Abe), while limiting Japan’s defence commitments to a minimum. Japan’s recent collective self-defence legislation is written in this vein, envisaging no practical military collaboration with India, except during UN-flagged operations or in case of a general war.

India retains an interest in defence equipment and technology transfers from Japan, while staying detached from Washington and Tokyo’s rationalisations about the likelihood of China’s rise being peaceful if the democratic powers of Asia are united under a single political tent.

The sea lines of communication that traverse the Indian Ocean region present a narrow geographic and functional arena of overlapping strategic interest. Common strategic interests in these sea lanes include the veiled threat of interdiction of hostile shipping. Yet, no sustained and economically significant campaign to interdict the maritime trade of a major power has been mounted since the 18th century — except in a general war. A threat that is only as good as its non-activation is good theatre and poor policy.

Prime ministers Abe and Modi have vowed to hold regular consultations on the security of sea lines of communication that unite the Indo-Pacific. Yet if they wish to bridge the emerging regional fault-line, they would be better off exchanging notes on their respective China strategies. In a role reversal of the 1960s and 1970s, it is New Delhi that has moved on from playing host to a sputtering economy, persistently sour ties with neighbours, and over-dependence on a superpower in relative decline to script a hard-headed, Japan-like embrace of China. Japan, meantime, appears to be regressing to India’s earlier ways.  Until the two countries get on the same page, their bilateral efforts to bridge the Indo-Pacific will stay aspirational.

Sourabh Gupta is a senior research associate at Samuels International Associates, Inc.

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