Modi walks a fine line between Japan, China

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History lesson Narendra Modi may have more in common with Japan’s Shinzo Abe, but he knows the importance of courting China’s Xi Jinping as well
History lesson Narendra Modi may have more in common with Japan’s Shinzo Abe, but he knows the importance of courting China’s Xi Jinping as well. Photo: PIB

At the table for two, there will be a third, unseen guest. As Narendra Modi and China’s Xi Jinping size each other up beginning 17 September in Ahmedabad, neither can ignore Japan’s Shinzo Abe — who will not be physically present but will still corral their attention.

A China policy without a Japan component in the Asia-Pacific region of today is like a single pant leg or a lone shoe: Exposed, comically inadequate and highly impractical. Crowded with vital sea lanes, the Asia-Pacific region wears an uncertain air of expectancy combined with dread these days, as China rapidly moves to occupy the vacuum left by receding US power.

Also at the bilateral table during President Xi’s two-day visit will be the combined aspirations of the largest chunk of humanity anywhere in the world, or about 40 percent of the world’s population, making it the most important bilateral meeting in the world by one measure.

For India, the Japanese side of the trouser leg is already a remarkable fit. It could even be called tailor-made: Modi is just back from a leisurely five-day visit to Japan, with more than $34 billion in investment commitment, a “special” relationship and a security pact that stops just short of provoking China.

Both Modi and Abe have more in common than their big mandates at home and an easy sense of familiarity with one another. Both seem to want to rejuvenate their nations by resurrecting civilisational identity and a sense of historical continuity — while they engage more strategically with the world around them.

Prime Minister Abe seeks to restore a sense of “normalcy” to Japan, sensing that the world is willing to look past the country’s brutal legacy of World War II. Modi, on the other hand, is attempting a more difficult task: to “nativise” or Indianise foreign policy to accord with narrow national self-interest rather than high-minded ideology.

In this sense, the rough-edged Modi is a radical break from the classical Nehruvian model of grandiloquent, pan-humanist idealism. He is also closer to Narasimha Rao’s pragmatism than to Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s old world courtesy — and several leagues ahead of Manmohan Singh’s vapid style.

While credit does go to Modi for trying to take advantage of favourable conditions, it is worth noting that the circumstances themselves are fortuitous. The steady US withdrawal has deeply worried all Asia-Pacific nations with maritime disputes with China, forcing them to put aside their trepidations over Japan’s moves to empower its military.

The here-now, gone-again “Asia pivot” has just been dealt another, perhaps fatal, blow by America’s Iraq War III against the so-called Islamic State (IS). The US, which already lacks the money or the political discipline to stay committed in the Asia-Pacific, will not be helped by the new war in West Asia. This is certain to further embolden China.

China has paid close attention to Modi’s Japan trip, its state media parsing political meanings from minor and disparate events — much like the breathless political press in India seeks to do. India needs to understand that this less reflects Beijing’s nervousness over India’s positioning than its reflexive and deep antipathy to Japan.

“Modi snubbed Japan” before the BRICS summit in Brazil by refusing to visit Tokyo before the summit, “demonstrating” his government “actually gives priority to China in its foreign policy”, noted a party mouthpiece before the Japan visit. Modi met Xi in Brazil before he met Abe.

A consistent theme in the Chinese media is distrust of the Indian press, which is regarded as partly anti-China. “Amid a strained China-Japan relationship, and the simmering South China Sea disputes, Modi’s visit to Japan creates another opportunity for some Indian media outlets to hype the tensions in Sino-Indian relations,” an expert noted.

In another opinion piece during Modi’s Japan visit, the Global Times said that it was “not necessary to feel excessively nervous” because India has “long been cherishing strategic autonomy” as its foreign policy “standard”. Strategic autonomy is a phrase Chinese experts use frequently to describe what they hope the Indian attitude will be.

Again by fortuitous circumstance, Xi is not the conventional Chinese leader himself. A flamboyant man by Chinese standards, Xi cuts a dashing figure along with his celebrity wife. In his style, he is far more individualistic than is considered seemly for a party leader.

In political terms, it gives him more control than any leader since Deng Xiaoping. In policy terms, it translates into his vision for a “Chinese dream”, an embellished version of the old “nationalist” yearnings first stoked during Jiang Zemin. Simply put, this means retaking China’s “place in the world” before its “100 years of humiliation” at the hands of Japan and the West.

Xi has also launched a crackdown on corruption, a campaign that has not run out of steam even after two years. During the traditional Harvest Moon festival recently, he banned “hong bao” or red envelopes with money gifts from offices.

This rare constellation of three key Asian leaders entertaining some version of a “revisionist” mission can make for great soap opera television — or catastrophic misadventure. It can also politicise policy-making to a dangerous degree, especially without the stabilising influence of American power.

All this puts more pressure on Modi to steer a sure path between the two antagonistic powers. The only constant in the new equation is the depth of antagonism between China and Japan. India will do well to remember this.

Modi has already made some gains that are easy to miss: He has levelled the playing field with China simply by widening it from the Himalayan border regions to the sea lanes of the Asia- Pacific, where India has considerable strategic depth.

Till now, China has managed to contain Indian influence by pinning it to the subcontinent and its “all-weather friend” Pakistan, which China is not above using as a policy foil.

India has always played a role in providing maritime security in the Asia- Pacific region, including in the crucial Malacca Straits, and has built good operating relations with the navies of South East Asian nations, most of which have disputes with China.

The most visible result of US President Barack Obama’s trip to the region in April was not the “pivot” to Asia which he promised, but its opposite: the unsubtle message that Asian nations would have to provide for their own security.

It is no accident that India is the first country to benefit from the Abe government easing restrictions on arms sales under Japan’s pacifist constitution. A Japanese US-2 amphibious craft will significantly enhance the Indian Navy’s surveillance capabilities.

Another key Indian ally in the region is Vietnam. China has historically been the aggressor, but has never been able to subdue plucky Vietnam, a narrative that unfolds to this day. China recently withdrew an oil rig from Vietnamese waters after drilling in disputed waters to widespread outrage.

In perhaps an expansion of the ceremonial role of president by the Modi government, Pranab Mukherjee was in Vietnam signing key agreements just before Xi’s visit. Among them, aviation agreements and drilling rights for oil major ONGC, which has been in Vietnamese waters since the 1970s.

In walking this tightrope between Japan and China, India can simply borrow a leaf from the China playbook. This involves hewing to clearly articulated national interests while giving a calm hearing to both sides.

The Chinese, who take the long view in even the most mundane matters, have cultural affinity with the virtues of patience and restraint. They also distrust emotionality and, unlike the Americans or Europeans, do not lace policy with moral outrage.

This subtlety was on display during US National Security Adviser Susan Rice’s recent visit to persuade, among other things, China to join the US war on the IS in Iraq. A member of the delegation told reporters hopefully that China had not said “yes”, but had not said “no” either. And that non-answer would have had to satisfy Rice, except that on the last day of her visit, China suddenly demanded that the US needed to “decrease and even end” aerial and naval surveillance of China. It then admonished America for not taking the “correct” view of Chinese military development.

China’s Ukraine policy neatly illustrates the Chinese approach. China has taken a nuanced position on “valid” Russian concerns over ethnic Russians in Ukraine while also expressing discomfort with “interference”. It has blithely signed an agreement to build a pipeline for Russian gas.

India’s approach to Tibet, an irritant in ties with China, can be framed under exactly this rubric: Tibetan Buddhists are culturally, ritually and linguistically more closely allied to Hinduism than other strains of Buddhism.

The classical Tibetan language is derived from Sanskrit, especially in its written form. There are also ancient links between the two peoples, a historical legacy that Indian diplomats do not highlight, focussing solely on the “political” aspect of exile.

It should not be forgotten that though a Tibetan empire once ruled all of China, Tibetans were revered in East Asia as a spiritual people who provided religious counsel to whoever happened to occupy the throne in Peking, including the Mongols.

But China’s clinical approach to foreign policy can easily be upended when it comes to Japan. It is the one area where calculation gives way to open hostility. The intensity of feelings on both sides should not be underestimated.

A recent poll has found that more than half of all Chinese see war with Japan as inevitable as a result of the tensions, which erupted in 2012 over a small group of islets in the East China Sea. The islets, called by different names in China and Japan, are claimed by both. The survey showed that 53.4 percent of Chinese expect war, with more than a fifth of them fearing it would happen “within a few years”. In Japan, where the passion for reneging on a pacifist constitution is significantly lower, 29 percent think Japan is on the road to war with China.

The Chinese state apparatus stokes the anti-Japan sentiment. About 70 percent of all television drama in China is devoted to “patriotic” themes, mostly involving heroic Chinese battling heavy odds to defeat Japanese invaders.

This year, the Chinese government has ordered an increase of such programming, making war-film vocabulary part of everyday lexicon. As a result, most Chinese refer to Japanese as “guizi”, or the devil.

When tensions over the disputed islands run high, social media erupts with anger. There have also been attacks on Japanese businesses, something that cannot happen without at least tacit encouragement from authorities. Japan’s use inside China loosely parallels Pakistan’s use of India as an over-the-counter pill to build Pakistani nationalism.

Without doubt, a balanced approach to China and Japan can yield rich fruit to India. While Japan has promised to deliver bullet train technology, China is keen to sign a pact to modernise the railway system, promising to invest up to $50 billion over time, according to one estimate. China’s capabilities and speed are astounding: It added 14,000 km of modern track in five years. It took India almost 50 years to add 11,000 km.

During his visit, Xi may also allow Indian pilgrims visiting Kailash and Manasarovar in Tibet access to a new route. Modi is said to have brought this up during the Brazil meeting.

So far, India seems to have found the sweet middle. The Indian side notably resisted pressure from the Japanese to set up a controversial “two-plus-two” security framework that would have involved the foreign and defence ministers from both countries to consult regularly. India demurred.

Modi’s sole discordant note during the Japan trip was struck during an address to business leaders, when he criticised the “18th century expansionist policies” of some countries, obviously pointing to China. But showing finesse, he did not name China.

On the whole, the Chinese have not lost much sleep. “India needs Japan’s investment and technology, but it also needs economic cooperation with China,” the Global Times said on 9 September. “India is afraid of China’s rapid rise, but it doesn’t want to harness itself to the war wagon of the US and Japan.”

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