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Build strong Japan-India ties without taking aim at China

by Yoichi Funabashi

At 63, India’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi, is the first to have been born after India’s independence.

India’s population now stands at 1.2 billion. While this falls just short of China’s 1.3 billion, it is predicted that at the midpoint of the 21st century, India will surpass China to become the world’s most populous country, with a population of 1.5 billion. China, however, boasts an economy four times larger than that of India. China, Japan and India currently rank first, second and third, respectively, among Asia’s economic powers.

Prime Minister Modi has impressively declared that his target is to improve the living standards of the people and transform India into an economic power on a par with China. “Build toilets first and temples later” is the slogan of this new “Modinomics.”

Modi’s Indian People’s Party (BJP) is a Hindu-first party — to the extent that Modi’s campaign platform included a pledge to introduce government subsidies for eye surgeries for the nation’s sacred cows. Nevertheless, 9 percent of Modi’s aggregate votes in the 2014 election came from India’s Muslim population. India’s Muslims have certainly not forgotten the 2002 Hindu-led massacre of Muslims in Gujarat state, which occurred during Modi’s tenure there as chief minister. But the desire to somehow correct the “three evils” — corruption, excessive bureaucracy and poor infrastructure — bedeviling India have led many to support “the people’s prime minister” Modi, and his message of “Yes, we can.”

In this sense Modi is a reformist. But at the same time, he is a nationalist. And his nationalism manifests itself as more than simple patriotism. Rather, Modi’s is a reactionary form of nationalism that is acutely sensitive to foreign threats. And the chief target of his reactionary nationalism is not Pakistan, but rather China. It is not simply about the fact that India and China have clashed over disputed national borders. China’s strong ambitions to expand its reach from the southern Pacific Ocean into the Indian Ocean has prompted a new sense of vigilance on his part.

In thus describing Modi, clear similarities to Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe can be found.

Abe was the first Japanese prime minister to have been born in the postwar period. The first Abe administration (2006-2007) sought to undertake reforms and rebuild Japan following the “lost decades” of economic malaise.

The second Abe administration launched in 2012 is now pursuing a package of economic policies, widely referred to as “Abenomics,” to counter deflation and to revive the Japanese economy. At the same time, Abe has expressed his “deep regret” for not having visited the controversial Yasukuni Shrine during his first term as prime minister. Notwithstanding opposition from China and South Korea and strong warnings from the United States, Abe visited Yasukuni last December, on the occasion of the first anniversary of the start of his second term in office.

Abe is generally recognized to be an ardent nationalist — and a self-acknowledged one. Like Modi, Abe directs his nationalist fervor at China. Modi has shown strong interest in the nation-building of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, which was characterized by an Asian model of economic development. Thereby, he is attempting to learn from Japan as the pioneer of this model.

Modi also hopes to further cooperation between India and Japan in the realm of security. There is indeed a need to build a multilateral regional framework encompassing issues such as maritime security, and India and Japan should certainly increase cooperation in this field.

It is not necessary, however, to look for the China factor in every new initiative in Indo-Japanese relations. India and Japan should exercise restraint and take a stance of “quiet deterrence” to avoid provoking China (“Quiet Deterrence” is the title of the latest report by Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation, which is available on the foundation’s website).

In both Tokyo and New Delhi, there are people seeking to elevate Indo-Japanese relations to the status of a de facto alliance and to pursue a strategy of encircling China. However, I doubt such efforts will prove successful given the barriers that exist on both sides — particularly in India.

First, India is unlikely to discard its long-held principle of nonalignment. Well after the end of the Cold War, this principle remains deeply rooted in Indian politics. To be sure, India did strengthen ties with the Soviet Union to counter China following the Sino-Indian border conflict of 1962. At that time, however, the potential repercussions for India’s economic ties with China were not an important consideration. This is no longer true today.

Second, India possesses the soft power represented by its democracy, English-language capabilities of its people and global media — though in some cases they remain latent soft power. But sooner or later this soft power will elevate India from its current status as a regional power to that of a global power.

Japan’s approach to India should not aim at encircling China. Rather, Japan should try to help India activate its soft power and then draw upon it, so as to make plans for and develop a mutually beneficial path for the two countries.

Meanwhile, Modi is currently the subject of some debate among foreign policy experts in Beijing. The debate centers on one question: Is Narendra Modi India’s version of Shinzo Abe?

According to some of these experts, Modi is a right-wing nationalist who places enormous importance on national pride, and must take an uncompromising stance on territorial disputes with China. According to their view, Modi is an Indian version of Abe.

There is also a different perspective: that Modi is India’s version of Richard Nixon. It was precisely because Nixon himself was such a hard-line conservative that he was able to win over American conservatives opposed to establishing diplomatic relations with China. For the same reason, some in China hope that Modi may prove to be just the man they need to resolve territorial disputes between the two.

Will this actually be the case? This whole debate itself appears to be influenced by a Sino-centric view of history.

For if we ask whether Modi is Abe or Nixon, then we must also ask if the current Chinese head of state Xi Jinping is Mao Zedong or Zhou Enlai.

After all, Nixon’s historic visit to China was not achieved through his efforts alone. Nixon’s visit was successful also because both Mao and Zhou possessed commensurate strategy and leadership.

Do China’s current leaders possess these qualities? Is Xi China’s version of Abe or of Nixon? It could even be possible for Abe to prove to be Japan’s version of Nixon.

Yoichi Funabashi is chairman of the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation and former editor-in-chief of The Asahi Shimbun. This is a translation of his column in the monthly Bungei Shunju.

  • Jaikumar Hundlani

    China is becoming powerful day by day. And it is a threat for countries like INDIA, JAPAN VIETNAM . To counter that threat anti CHINA countries should unite . Even if they unite it will be hard to balance CHINA.

    • Matts

      India should be weary of being used to fight proxy wars against China for western powers. India should be able to shape its own destiny and foreign policy .

  • Kautilya

    The author is engaging in a pointless discussion about whether Modi is Abe or Nixon; forgetting the fact that India has a rich tradition in statecraft it’ll likely draw inspiration from and which was ignored by selfish and narrow-minded rulers / administrators for the past few centuries. With that out of the way, one must understand India’s non-alignment was primarily dictated by the absence of its national interests in the fight between communism (USSR) and capitalism (USA). That’s absolutely not the case with Japan v/s China; where both (Japan & India) face the same threats. Under the right circumstances, India would have no compunction on building an alliance with Japan and other other Asian countries against China. Japan though, needs to decide for itself, whether it wants to move outside the US umbrella and stand on its own two feet militarily or remain in a wonderworld! US involvement in this aspect is not only suspect but also detrimental to all Asian countries (including China)!

  • NationFirst

    If India or Indians follow the discipline of Japanese, India will become one of the most revered country in this world. Indians have got the smartness, intelligence and India as a country has a very rich culture. Indians need the discipline of Japan, opportunities like in the USA and hardwork of the chinese. Mr.Modi is for sure, aiming to take India closer to its destiny of grand glory. For that, we need all Indians to co-operate along with friendly countries like Japan, USA, Israel, Germany etc including Nepal. Let all countries that support and value humanity come together and create a better world.

  • A2ZRT

    Japan through large scale investment and transfer of technology has helped creeping China to pose a serious threat in Asia . Japan has invested enough in China but faces threat of hostile policies towards its citizens and companies. India and Japan in contrast shares no mutual differences. In fact, India is willing to work under leadership of Japan in Asia and not under US . Given fact of the high level of trust with Japan, For Indians it was not a surprise when India offered Japan to work for development of its critical border areas such as Northeastern region and probably now J&K also. What India expect from Japan is to divert most of its investment in India and make it powerful partner to balance creeping china. India needs technology and investment money. In exchange India will offer Japan a big friendly market, high skilled but cheap labour and an extension of security in South Asia. India has best skilled people in software technology while Japan has best in hardware technology. If we work together we may rock at global scale.