Commentary / Japan

U.S.-India relations shape Japan's strategic environment

by Ramesh Thakur

U.S. President Donald Trump’s high-profile visit to India from Feb. 24 to 25 had a fivefold significance. It was Trump’s first visit to India; it was a standalone trip with no stopover in any other country despite the length of the journey; it provided spectacle on a grand scale in an era in which optics are growing in electoral importance; it added substance on the security side; but it failed to consummate a trade deal.

Both Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Trump are instinctive strongmen who love showmanship, have mass social media followings, bask in mass adulation and react harshly to perceived slights and criticisms. This explains the success of their mutual charm offensives supported by huge adoring crowds who back the Make America/India Great Again agendas.

All this is relevant to Japan whose strategic environment is shaped by the intersection of three major geopolitical story lines.

First and the most consequential is the rise of China as a comprehensive national power. Fueled by unprecedented economic growth, this has dramatically increased China’s weight in Asian and global affairs. The disruption of global supply chains by the coronavirus pandemic is the latest illustration of how critical China is to the health of the world’s economy.

The second is the major reset by the Trump administration of relations with China, with a 180-degree turn from facilitating its rise and integration into the international economy to identifying it as the major full-spectrum strategic competitor.

This was spelled out starkly in a speech at the Hudson Institute on Oct. 4, 2018, by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence. China is the geopolitical glue that binds the relationship between India, Japan and the United States. Their shared commitment to the Free and Open Indo-Pacific is a euphemism for keeping China out of Asia’s continental and maritime spaces and buttressing efforts by the Indo-Pacific countries to resist Chinese encroachments on their strategic autonomy and economic sovereignty. More countries now subscribe to Indian, Japanese and U.S. hesitations and suspicions about China’s Belt and Road initiative.

The third is the parallel expansion, consolidation and deepening of India-U.S. ties. The end of the Cold War upended the central elements of India’s economic and foreign policies, and the shock compelled a complete reorientation of India’s policies. The crisis-induced economic reforms after 1991 and growing investment in bilateral relations with the U.S. as well as with the Asia-Pacific region have slowly but steadily strengthened India’s economy and geopolitical weight. The rupture of New Delhi-Moscow relations removed a perennial irritant in India-Japan relations; the development of India-U.S. relations meant that deepening ties with India was a reinforcing complement of Japan’s own security partnership with the U.S.; the long history of Sino-Japanese problems ensured a convergence of interests against a common potential rival; and the absence of any historical baggage rooted in imperial aggression and “comfort women” means an untroubled path to improved India-Japan relations.

Where does Trump’s recent visit to India fit into this complex three-strand narrative? Modi and Shinzo Abe are among a handful of foreign leaders who have established a personal rapport with Trump. Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee coined the phrase “natural allies” to describe India-U.S. relations in 2000. Former U.S. President Barack Obama updated that to a “defining partnership” in December 2017. There is a germ of truth in that. China-U.S. may be the defining relationship but is not a partnership. Strengthening the partnership has been a surprising success of Trump and Modi.

On Feb. 25, they said they intend to elevate ties to a “comprehensive global strategic partnership,” part of which will see India purchase U.S. military equipment worth $3 billion. The two condemned cross-border terrorism, added two more Pakistan-based groups to the list of terrorist outfits, and expressed support for an Afghan-led and -owned peace and reconciliation process. Energy and telecommunications deals also were signed. The failure to conclude a trade deal was glossed over by talking of the ambition to initiate negotiations on a still more ambitious comprehensive trade agreement. Thus trade will remain a point of friction between the two countries.

The Indian military doctrine has traditionally focused on defense of threats at the borders with China and Pakistan. To turn India’s military into a capable U.S. and Japanese security partner in the wider Indo-Pacific arc, it must acquire an expeditionary mindset in equipment and training with power projection capabilities — and the U.S. is the best placed to ensure the success of such a strategic reorientation. However, although the Modi-Trump hugs are getting tighter, speculation on a formal alliance is misplaced.

Positive perceptions of the U.S. and Trump by the Indian public provides a strong ballast to the overall relationship. In a Pew Research survey published on Feb. 25, 68 percent of Japanese had favorable views of the U.S. As one would expect, Indians viewing the U.S. favorably are lower at 60 percent but higher than the 50 percent of Australians. Perhaps most surprisingly, the share of Indians with confidence that Trump will do the right thing in world affairs has jumped from 40 percent to 56 percent between 2017 and 2019, compared to 24 percent and 36 percent of Japanese, respectively.

Modi and Trump are alike in the promotion of an aggressive brand of nationalism. Both practice transactional politics with scant concern for values, ethics and principles in a winner-takes-all scorched-earth approach to domestic political battles. This has turned the U.S. into an unreliable security ally and a problematically protectionist trade partner for Japan. The last also applies to the turn to protectionism by India, which saw it pull out of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership strongly promoted by Japan.

Trump’s India visit was marred by deadly riots in Delhi. Although Trump said it was for India to handle the domestic agitation, Modi’s religious agenda has five major deleterious consequences. It undercuts the shared liberal democratic values of political pluralism; drags down India’s economic prospects; degrades India’s ability to fund military modernization to counter China; risks the radicalization of 180 million Muslims that would transform India from the biggest bulwark against the eastward spread of Islamic militancy into the epicenter of Islamist terrorism to be exported to the Asia-Pacific; and could produce the biggest wave of refugees into this region.

Ramesh Thakur is an emeritus professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.

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