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Kishida can’t dream of ‘open, Indo-Pacific’ unless India, Japan are tied on defence sector

Japan is a treaty ally of the US and hosts American bases on its soil. It has stayed true to its ideological affinities with the West.

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Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has completed his 27-hour-long flying visit to Delhi, where he reiterated the need for a “free and open Indo-Pacific” while joyfully eating gol gappe with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Delhi’s Buddha Jayanti Park.

However, such cosy sentiments emerging from an increasingly shared political vision have been unable to totally eliminate the discomfort that stems from Japan’s continuing caution about manufacturing in India.

As Kishida seeks to put his stamp on his own “doctrine” — which, naturally, goes beyond former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s 2008 strategic vision of “the confluence of the two seas,” the Pacific and the Indian Oceans — it is interesting that he chose India to launch his idea, rather than any of his other Quad partners like Australia or the United States.

Certainly, this is Kishida’s way of signalling intent. When he showed up for his summit with PM Modi in March 2022, the Japanese PM promised that Japanese companies would invest 5 trillion yen in India (about $42 billion) over the next five years. Kishida has also invited Modi to participate in the G7 summit in Hiroshima this summer as an observer.

Also read: Talks on bilateral ties, G7 invitation — When Japan PM Kishida met Modi at…

Some sharp words exchanged

With India marshalling the Global South and leading the G20 this year, Modi’s presence at the high table of the world’s richest economies demonstrates a real synergy between the two groupings.

But the fact remains that even though Japan has toned down its open support to the Western view of the Russia-Ukraine crisis — by stating, for example, that it will not give up its 30 per cent stake in the Sakhalin oil fields in eastern Russia, even if it stops sourcing its oil needs from the country in deference to US-led sanctions — it would help if Kishida stops sermonising on Ukraine.

In March last year, (soon after the Russian invasion of Ukraine) Indian and Japanese officials are believed to have exchanged some sharp words on the phrasing of the joint communique on Ukraine. Ultimately, of course, they sorted the matter out.

Surely, there’s nothing more bothersome than a fellow Asian nation that has risen from the ashes to become a top economy giving Delhi gratuitous advice on foreign policy.

Also read: India-Italy-Japan is the troika that can one-up China. It starts with Meloni’s Delhi visit

Japan’s affinity to the West

Back in 1998, when India went nuclear, Japan, like the rest of the Western world, imposed sanctions on Delhi. But India ignored the shallow commentary that emerged from Tokyo and decided to take its criticism on board because the latter had been a victim of a nuclear holocaust.

Delhi also remembered, at the time, that the Indian delegate at the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal, Radhabinod Pal, had delivered a “not guilty” judgment on the Japanese emperor’s involvement in the Second World War.

In the current situation too, Japan and the rest of the Western world might take into account the fact that the world is increasingly distressed by Russia and Ukraine’s inability to find a way out of the mess.

Moreover, Japan is a treaty ally of the US and hosts American bases on its soil. And despite the end of the Cold War and the opening up of a multipolar world, it has stayed true to its ideological affinities with the West.

Japan has tied up with Britain and Italy to build an advanced jet fighter that will cost billions of dollars. But despite six rounds of the India-Japan Joint Working Group on Defence Equipment & Technology Cooperation (JWG-DETC), there has been no joint collaboration in the defence sector nor any outright purchase.

In fact, Modi had to tell Kishida in Monday’s talks that one possible area of cooperation could be “co-innovation, co-design and co-creation” in defence manufacturing.

Both India and Japan have been content to participate in a plethora of defence exercises —  anti-submarine warfare drills with third countries like the US and Canada, joint military exercises called the ‘Dharma Guardian,’ a multi-lateral maritime exercise with the UK and the US called ‘La Perouse,’ the time-tested Malabar naval exercise with the US, and the first-ever bilateral exercise between the two air forces called Veer Guardian.

The Delhi-Tokyo defence ‘hook’

Japan lifted its self-imposed ban on defence exports in 2014, and last year, Kishida talked of building counter-strike capabilities to deal with the vulnerabilities that came with living in a neighbourhood where China and North Korea loom large. But despite two rounds of foreign and defence ministry talks, there has been no action on the sale of Japanese defence equipment to India or R&D collaboration between Delhi and Tokyo.

As Kishida is acutely aware, there can be no fully “free and open Indo-Pacific” without India and Japan hooked into each other on the defence front.

Then there is the matter of Japan’s infamous caution regarding investing in the manufacturing sector here in India, even as it remains eager in participating in India’s enormous market.

The untold message of the Supply Chain Resilience Initiative (SCRI) between India, Japan, and Australia, announced with much fanfare in 2021 as a measure to diversify from China, has basically fallen apart. It seems Japanese companies would much rather manufacture in Southeast Asia than move their products to India to be part of its large market.

Hiroshi Suzuki, Japan’s ambassador to India, says India tops the list for future mid-to-long-term Japanese investment — but refused to say anything about the present situation.

Still, as they indulged in gol gappas during their walkabout Monday, Kishida and Modi demonstrated a familiarity borne out of both need and choice. The fear of China may drive India and Japan closer — even as their respective trade figures with Beijing rose through the pandemic years. But if it triggers a rediscovery of each other’s political and economic potential, the intervening delay may have well been worth it.

Jyoti Malhotra is a senior consulting editor at ThePrint. She tweets @jomalhotra. Views are personal.

(Edited by Humra Laeeq)

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