Commentary / Japan

Modi victory augurs well for Japan-India ties

by Brahma Chellaney

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s landslide win in national elections will help cement the Japan-India relationship as Asia’s fastest growing and facilitate a military logistics pact to allow access to each other’s bases. The Japan-India entente is a central pillar of U.S. President Donald Trump’s strategy for a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” a concept authored by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Modi indeed mirrors Abe’s soft nationalism, market-oriented economics and geopolitical goal to create a web of interlocking strategic partnerships among like-minded Asian countries. Modi’s election triumph represents a fresh mandate for him to reinvent India as a more secure, confident and competitive country, and forge closer ties with natural allies such as Japan.

Faced with a choice between a stable, firm government and a possible retreat to political drift, voters in the world’s largest democracy have returned Modi to power with a thumping majority. His big win has averted a nightmare scenario for Indian democracy — an indecisive election verdict fostering political paralysis.

The Indian vote came after elections in most other countries in Southern Asia. In the past 18 months, elections have brought pro-China communists to power in Nepal and a military-backed party to office in Pakistan, while voters have booted out a quasi-dictator in the Maldives, elected a new government in Bhutan and, in Bangladesh, retained a prime minister who has turned the country into one of Asia’s fastest-growing economies.

The only country in the region not to go to the polls recently is Sri Lanka, where the Supreme Court forced the president to roll back a coup after he unconstitutionally dismissed the prime minister and called fresh parliamentary elections.

India’s biggest neighbor, however, is the world’s largest, strongest and longest-surviving autocracy, China — a reminder that the new Indian government’s most-pressing security challenges relate to the country’s combustible neighborhood, not least a deepening strategic nexus between China and Pakistan. Both these nuclear-armed allies stake claims to vast swaths of Indian territory and employ asymmetric warfare.

Not surprisingly, national security weighed on the Indian voters’ minds, especially because, in the run-up to the elections, a Pakistan-based, United Nations-designated terrorist group claimed responsibility for a massacre of more than 40 paramilitary troops in Indian Kashmir. An Indian retaliatory airstrike on the group’s hideout in the Pakistani heartland helped burnish Modi’s credentials as a strong leader.

Modi’s stint in office since 2014 has helped change Indian politics and diplomacy. He has animated the country’s foreign policy by often departing from conventional methods and shibboleths. And as underscored by his latest election victory, he has helped turn his Bharatiya Janata (Indian People’s) Party into India’s largest political force.

However, like Trump, Modi has become a polarizing figure. Consequently, Indian democracy seems as divided and polarized as U.S. democracy. Modi’s landslide election win is unlikely to heal the polarization.

In fact, Modi, like Trump, is accused by his critics of acting like a strongman. The truth, however, is that Indian democracy, like American democracy, is robust enough to deter authoritarian creep.

If anything, the “strongman” tag that political opponents have given Modi helps to cloak his failings. For example, his “Make in India” initiative to promote domestic manufacturing has yet to seriously take off. Unlike Abe, Modi has yet to carry out any major national security reforms. India’s defense modernization continues to lag, widening the yawning power gap with China.

However, to his credit, Modi has reduced political corruption and cut India’s proverbial red tape by streamlining regulations and reining in the bloated bureaucracy. For example, government permits and licenses can be sought online.

A new simplified national tax regime serves as a further advertisement that India is open for business. The tax and regulatory overhaul will likely yield major dividends in Modi’s second term.

To be sure, India’s economic growth has remained impressive. Its economy now is about 50 percent larger than when Modi took office five years ago. After overtaking France, India — the world’s fastest-growing major economy — has just edged out its former colonial master, Britain, to leap to the fifth place in the international GDP rankings. But if GDP is measured in terms of purchasing power parity, India’s economy ranks third behind the United States and China.

The country’s international profile also continues to rise. More fundamentally, India under Modi appears to be moving from its long-held nonalignment to a globalized practicality — multi-alignment. A Cold War legacy, nonalignment implies a passive approach, including not taking sides and staying on the sidelines. Multi-alignment, by contrast, calls for a proactive approach.

India, although a founding leader of the nonaligned movement, now makes little mention of nonalignment. Instead it is building close partnerships with major powers to pursue a variety of interests in diverse settings, not only to advance its core priorities but also to shore up its strategic autonomy, in keeping with its long-standing preference for an independent foreign policy.

Although some see it as a key “swing state” in the emerging geopolitical order, India is already swinging in one direction, thanks to China’s territorial revisionism and muscular foreign policy.

A multi-aligned India under Modi is tilting toward the other major democracies, as the Australia-India-Japan-U.S. quadrilateral (or “Quad”) grouping underscores. India is now a “major defense partner” of the U.S., with which it holds more military exercises than with any other country. The U.S., meanwhile, has emerged as the largest arms seller to India, leaving the traditional supplier, Russia, far behind.

Modi has forged a special relationship with Japan and built personal rapport with Abe. The two leaders have already set in motion the process for the Indian and Japanese militaries to clinch a logistics-sharing agreement, formally known as the Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement. A logistics-sharing accord has become imperative for the two militaries, given the number of joint maneuvers they hold, including three-way exercises involving the U.S. Navy in the Indian and Pacific oceans.

As Abe has contended, Japan’s ties with India hold “the greatest potential of any bilateral relationship anywhere in the world.” A deeper India-Japan partnership under Modi and Abe could potentially reshape the Asian strategic landscape.

Longtime Japan Times contributor Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books.