How India and Japan rattled China with Act northeast policy

The biggest red rag for Beijing is Modi's bold decision to rope in Tokyo in the region's infrastructure development.

 |  4-minute read |   17-09-2017
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Any summit India has with a major power these days necessarily has China-related strategic components. The annual India-Japan summit goes a step further as most decisions are triggered by the China factor. Various agreements inked by the two sides — wholly bilateral and unrelated with China — are aimed at taking their relationship to a higher trajectory in order to send a message to the Dragon.

At the recently-concluded 12th edition of the India-Japan summit in Gujarat's Gandhinagar, the two allies' prime ministers, Narendra Modi and Shinzo Abe, took several decisions to further consolidate their strategic partnership — to stand up to China together.

The very title of the joint statement released following the Modi-Abe talks — "Towards a free, open and prosperous Indo-Pacific” — itself, in many ways, hints at the China-related agenda and the broad thrust of the discussions that the two prime ministers had. For a change, there was no specific mention of South China Sea, but the usage of the larger geopolitical location “Indo-Pacific” in the joint statement subsumes South China Sea and sets the new template of India-Japan, indicating their thrust area will be much larger.

The two prime ministers participating in the ground-breaking ceremony of India’s first ever bullet train (Japan's first bullet train became operational 53 years ago) was the biggest takeaway from Abe's India visit in terms of optics. The $16 billion project, set to see the 508km Ahmedabad-Mumbai bullet train running from 2022, is largely funded by a soft loan from Japan at an unbelievably low interest rate of 0.1 percent, repayable in 50 years.

This has enormous political significance for PM Modi. The very fact that Abe stayed in Ahmedabad and Gandhinagar alone during his two-day visit and that the Indian PM ensured the foreign dignitary's itinerary didn’t even include New Delhi — an unrecedented event — showed how Modi milked this visit politically by keeping Abe in poll-bound Gujarat.

The bullet train project will be useful optics for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Gujarat, which is due for Assembly elections in two months.

Modi and his brigade will also extract maximum political mileage from the bullet train project in the general elections, due by May 2019 but set to be advanced by around six months if the BJP wins Gujarat.

But apart from the optics, the Abe visit will be best-remembered for a China-specific strategic agenda: the two sides agreed to intensify their defence ties and the joint statement specifically mentioned the progress made on Japan selling the US-2 amphibian aircraft to India, the next big milestone between Asia's number two and number three economies after they signed the landmark civil nuclear deal in 2016.

This will irk China no end as the Japanese are not known to export defence equipment and once the US-2 deal is inked, it will inevitably open up the floodgates for more state-of-the-art defence exports from Tokyo to New Delhi.

However, the biggest red rag for the Chinese is India's bold decision to rope in the Japanese in the northeast's infrastructure development, which found mention for the first time in their joint statement following the summit.

doklam_091717055344.jpgIndia-China's disengagement following a standoff at Doklam was completed on August 28, 2017. Photo: Reuters

Foreign secretary S Jaishankar succinctly underlined the Indo-Japanese convergence thus: “We are trying to align each other’s approach towards the world in our case and towards the region. In Japan’s case i.e. the free and open Indo-Pacific Strategy, in our case it is the Act East Policy (read Indian northeast).”

No wonder then that China is rattled. Of all the joint moves of India and Japan, the only point Beijing picked on was New Delhi's decision to involve Japan in infrastructure projects in the northeast. Consider the following statement from China's foreign office spokesperson Hua Chunying: “China and India are working on seeking a fair and reasonable settlement which can be accepted by both sides through negotiations. Under such circumstances, we believe that any third party should respect the efforts made by China and India to settle the disputes through negotiations and any third party should not meddle in the disputes between China and India over territorial sovereignty in any form.”

Clearly, the Chinese find themselves in a soup as they don’t know how to deal with Japan's increasing influence in India — which is now set to spread to the northeast. Needless to say, Beijing is getting a taste of its own medicine. This is precisely what India has been telling China for years, highlighting its reservations about Chinese troops' presence in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) in the guise of construction workers and more recently of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that passes through PoK.

China has never listened to India on either concern. And there is no reason why India should heed to China's concerns of a “third party meddling” in the northeast.

India should tell the Chinese bluntly whenever Beijing raises the issue diplomatically, which it surely would, that New Delhi won’t involve the Japanese in its northeastern region if and only if Beijing itself withdraws its “construction workers” from PoK and scraps the CPEC.

Also read: Doklam standoff may be dusted, but China will strike India hard

Writer

Rajeev Sharma Rajeev Sharma @kishkindha

The writer is an independent journalist and a strategic analyst.

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