Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrives in Tokyo on Sunday for a summit meeting with his Japanese counterpart, Shinzo Abe. This is Modi’s third visit to Japan as India’s leader. Abe, for his part, visited India in 2014, 2015 and 2017 as part of a growing engagement between the two countries. Among the visible outcomes of the increasing cooperation between the two countries is a small start to collaboration in defense. Next month, for the first time ever, the Indian Army and the Ground Self-Defense Force will conduct a joint exercise, taking part in drills in Vairangte, northeast India.
There are natural congruencies that have brought the two countries closer, but aspirations of continuing growth in ties will have to overcome two kinds of obstacles sooner or later. First, there are the devils in the details, such as the issue of land acquisition that has held up the $17 billion bullet train project between Mumbai and Ahmedabad in India. Second, there is the gorilla in the room, which I will come to later.
India’s northeast has of late been the focus of a lot of attention from Japan. This part of the country is relatively underdeveloped and surrounded by foreign countries. In fact, only 2 percent of its land mass borders with the rest of India. The remaining 98 percent borders the Tibet Autonomous Region of China, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar.
This is where India’s “Act East” policy meets Japan’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy.” During Abe’s visit to India last year, the two countries established the joint India-Japan Act East Forum to explore the possibilities of Japanese infrastructure development in the region. Japan is also extending Overseas Development Assistance to projects in the region, with commitments of tens of billions of yen for the development of roads alone.
Getting things to work on the ground, however, will be complicated by the internal dynamics of the provinces and the politics of the broader neighborhood. First, there is a long history of powerful insurgencies against the state in both northeast India and the northern parts of Myanmar that border it. Many of these places were historically non-state spaces. While several of the insurgencies have wound down for the present, it is not certain that some new form of violent unrest will not flare up again, for instance, over issues of migration and citizenship.
In part, this is because of a key external factor that led to the taming of the insurgencies in India’s northeast: the election of Sheikh Hasina in neighboring Bangladesh. Most of the insurgent leaders had bases in that country and ran training camps there. Hasina, who is considered friendly toward India, unlike her rival Khaleda Zia who is considered close to India’s regional rival Pakistan, put an end to that. However, Hasina is increasingly unpopular in her country, which is due for elections by January.
Apart from India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, the fourth country directly or indirectly involved in northeast India and its neighborhood is China, which has a territorial dispute with India over the Indian province of Arunachal Pradesh. This territory of 83,740 square kilometers is currently part of India but claimed in its entirety by China, which says it is Southern Tibet. India and China fought a war in 1962 over their differing territorial claims, and relations between the two rising Asian giants remain testy. Last year, the armies of the two countries came face to face at the trijunction of India, China and Bhutan in a place called Doklam over differing perceptions of where the border lies.
Growing cooperation between India and Japan in the defense and security spheres owes something to the fact that both countries have territorial issues with China. However, the attempts to build a quadrilateral grouping of India, Japan, Australia and the United States have not quite taken off despite being in play since 2007, when Abe first mooted the idea. This owes something to economic imperatives, which pull in the opposite direction. Australia pulled out of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue in 2008 because of fears that it would imperil its trade ties with China, its largest trading partner. Japan is second, and the U.S. third.
This brings us to the gorilla in the room: America under President Donald Trump. The uncertainties of life in the age of Trump are creating threats and opportunities across Asia. With a burgeoning trade war between the U.S. and China, there is a threat to the Chinese economy, and an opportunity for Japan as well as India to ramp up their trade relationships with that country. Abe’s historic first visit to China, and a possible reciprocal visit by leader Xi Jinping, are signs of changing relationships.
For its part, India was very cautious in managing the Doklam border dispute peacefully and even the raucous Indian media was relatively restrained in its coverage of the issue. This is in contrast to the coverage on similar disputes with Pakistan, for example, where television anchors clamoring for military action in the search of ratings is common. In a vibrant democracy such as India, this is important.
The Indian public’s real appetite for great power status, despite rising nationalism, is doubtful. Japan, for its part, is strongly pacifist, and this is part of its Constitution. Therefore, the Indian Army and the GSDF conducting counterinsurgency operations together is largely symbolic.
Traditionally, India was an ally of the Soviet Union during the Cold War, though it remained a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement that claimed equidistance from both Cold War camps. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union it has made the journey to becoming a friend of America’s, particularly after 9/11 when the U.S. found itself forced to put pressure on its old ally Pakistan. India’s military still depends significantly on Russian hardware, and ties between the two countries, while less close than before, remain important. Pakistan and China, meanwhile, have increasingly closer ties, which even China’s crackdown on its Muslim population have not affected in the least.
At the moment, most countries in Asia, from Turkey to Japan, seem to be hedging their bets. India is no exception to this. The overall situation is one of change and movement in which a number of players and a complex matrix of relationships are involved. So, it is fitting that Abe’s visit to China is so closely followed by Modi’s visit to Japan. The joint Indian-Japanese military exercise will be followed, probably within a month, by one between the Indian and Chinese armies.
Currently based in Tokyo, Samrat Choudhury is an Indian author and journalist.