Ahead of Xi Jinping's visit: A look at India's Japan move vis-a-vis China

Written by: Col R Hariharan

India's Japan move vis-a-vis China
Though Prime Minister Narendra Modi's recent visit to Japan probably achieved less than what India desired, it did achieve handsome results. Japan promised $ 34-billion investment in India in the next five years. Though the much awaited India-Japan civilian nuclear deal did not come through, the two leaders agreed to accelerate talks on a nuclear energy pact. Both the countries have already agreed upon strengthening their strategic cooperation which would be intensified now.

[Read also by Col Hariharan: What is the significance of Xi Jinping's visit?]

But more than all these, Modi made a mark in Japan more strongly than any of his predecessors had done. It went well beyond the warm personal equation he enjoys with the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. He put through a well orchestrated programme to appeal to all sections of Japanese society. Overall, the visit was a success as it has paved way for speeding up multifaceted cooperation between the two Asian powers. and it was uncannily timed before China's President Xi Jinping's visit to India.

Even though Indian TV scribes were debating Modi's 100 days performance rather than analysing the strategic implications of his visit to Japan, China was paying close attention to it. And they had every reason to be concerned if we go by the outpouring of articles on the visit in China's media.

China's ‘scant comfort' with Modi-Abe bonhomie seen during the visit probably led the Global Times's to call its editorial as "Modi-Abe intimacy brings scant comfort." The Communist Party web magazine's editorial apparently tried to read between the lines in Modi's call on both the countries to strengthen strategic cooperation to promote peace and prosperity in Asia and counter an expansionist mind-set.

However, the trigger for the Communist Party magazine's irritation was perhaps Modi's remarks while addressing the business leaders in Tokyo. Modi had said: "Everywhere around us, we see an 18th century expansionist mind-set: encroaching on another country, intruding in others' waters, invading other countries and capturing territory."

Referring to the remarks the editorial added: "Japanese and Western public opinion views his remarks as a clear reference to China, although he did not mention China by name. This interpretation made some sense because Modi is more intimate to Tokyo emotionally. Therefore it is perhaps a fact that he embraces some nationalist sentiments against China." And probably this is what makes China very uncomfortable with Modi.

The Global Times tried to rationalise the advantage of India's relations with China by saying, "The increasing intimacy between Tokyo and New Delhi will bring at most psychological comfort to the two countries. What is involved in China-India relations denotes much more than the display of the blossoming personal friendship between Modi and Abe. After all, Japan is located far from India. Abe's harangue on the Indo-Pacific concept makes Indians comfortable."

It reminded that it was South Asia "where New Delhi has to make its presence felt. However, China is a neighbour it can't move away from. Sino-Indian ties can in no way be counterbalanced by the Japan-India friendship....Both as new emerging countries and members of BRICS, China and India have plenty of interests in common. Geopolitical competition is not the most important thing for the two countries, at least at present (emphasis added)."

Such comments in the op-ed showed China's difficulty in coming to terms with Modi's readiness to improve India's relations with China to do business while showing equal keenness to improve strategic cooperation with Japan. This is compounded by Modi inviting Japanese investments in infrastructure, particularly railways, and manufacturing industries many of which would be in direct competition with China's trade and investment interests in India. And more than these, Japan's readiness to ease export restrictions to allow Japanese defence firms to participate in India's huge weapons market is an offer that China cannot match.

The irony of Prime Minister Modi's trip to Japan was it coincided with the 69th anniversary of Japanese surrender celebrated with all pomp and show in China. Even as Modi was completing his five-day visit, Chinese President Xi Jinping addressing symposium on the occasion urged Japan "to admit and reflect on its history of militarist aggression." At the same time he sounded an ominous warning to Japan: "With the utmost resolution and effort, we will join with people all over the world to safeguard the victory in the Chinese Peoples' War of Resistance against Japanese aggression and the world war against fascism."

With the battle lines drawn between China and Japan, both Prime Minister Modi and President Xi will be a little cautious while discussing each other's strategic concerns when they meet for formal talks for the first time in the next few days. While Modi has to keep in mind the fractious Sino-Japanese relations, Xi will have the more difficult task to soft sell China's rapidly escalating involvement in strategic cooperation with Pakistan.

Chinese analyst Liu Zongyi writing in the Global Times aptly summed up Modi's dilemma: "Modi's biggest challenge is to kick start a lagging economy. India needs Japan's investment and technology, but it also needs economic cooperation with China.

And Global Times editorial advise: "Maintaining strategic independence is India's diplomatic tradition. It's also in the Indian interest to be a balancer in the international system," is probably more apt for China. It is not exactly known for balancing its international relations with nuance.

One of the key objectives of President Xi's talks with Modi will be to wean away India from the lure of Japan. So it is not surprising Beijing is holding out a carrot of $ 100 billion Chinese investment in India. And the huge delegation of leading lights of Chinese business and five major banks accompanying the Chinese President underscores President Xi's serious efforts to win over Modi.

But the reported Chinese troops' intrusion into Indian territory in Ladakh (in Demchok sector) on September 11, even in the midst of all media hype on Xi's visit, exposes the soft underbelly of India-China relations. And this is where Japan has an edge over China in dealing with India.

[This article written on September 4 was updated on September 13, 2014.]

Col R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the South Asia Analysis Group. E-Mail: haridirect@gmail.com Blog: http://col.hariharan.info

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