A visit by the Japanese Prime Minister is always news for a variety of reasons, not least because the two have long shared an extremely warm relationship, unmarred, usually, by clashing interests. But as the Bhagavad Gita teaches us, change is a changeless law. The opening declaration of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, in a signed article in The Indian Express, would seem to indicate that some serious bumps lie ahead, even as he steers his country through increasingly choppy waters.
The Japanese Prime Minister bluntly links the “totally unacceptable” Russian invasion of Ukraine and the recent Quad meeting where all the parties — the United States, India, Japan and Australia — ‘concurred’ that no unilateral change of the status quo by force “such as this time” would be tolerated in the Indo-Pacific. Those are, in a way, words that India would like to hear. After all, China is certainly seeking a change in the status quo in Ladakh, even if not on the same scale as the Russian attack.
On the other hand, it’s an embarrassing link-up that New Delhi has been trying to avoid, and putting it out in the open doesn’t help. The White House version of the extremely short Joint Readout of the Quad meeting held slap bang in the middle of the Ukraine crisis commits itself to “a free and open Indo-Pacific, in which the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all States is respected and countries are free from military, economic, and political coercion”. It can hardly get clearer than that. It’s not a Joint Statement, as can be seen from the New Delhi version of the meeting, which talked of supply chains, clean energy, and connectivity, and the tail end reiterating “the importance of adhering to the United Nations Charter, international law, respect for sovereignty, and territorial integrity”. Now comes Japan, with all the right words in the wrong places.
A raft of deals
The Joint Statement between India and Japan had plenty of meat to beef up bilateral cooperation. Neither did Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s press statement — while tick-boxing democracy and the rule of law — make any reference to the pressing international question. That could be, in part, due to the richness of the ties between the two, which involves critical coordination in India’s Act East policy by boosting not just (long overdue) connectivity but also sustainable forest development.
Japan is a true leader in conservation, and a technique developed by Japanese botanist Akira Miyawaki to create urban forests was taken up by the Municipal Corporation of Gurgaon, which is a project that needs urgent funding. The good news is that another Japanese method, called Johkasou to treat wastewater, is at the Memorandum of understanding (MoU) stage. Then there’s the Clean Energy programme powered by commitments from both countries to reach net-zero emissions, with Tokyo announcing its Asia Energy Transition Initiative last year.
Some 600 million people in South Asia, with North India the worst hit, are affected by toxic air. But for big businesses, there’s money in it. Take for instance the fact that Japanese company Okinawa Autotech alone sold one lakh electric scooters last year. The next big pollution issue is likely to be batteries piling up. Besides, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Energy transition will include everything from biofuels to an urgent issue of clean construction. There’s a raft of other plans ahead, with a target of 7 trillion Japanese yen in future, doubling the targets of 2014.
All that is for the good of both countries. India is a market where the Japanese have a ‘friendly’ advantage and needs all the investment it can get. The number of Japanese companies in India, however, hasn’t grown much — remaining at 1,455 over the last two years. Compare that to a reported 33,000 in China. Although Japan is incentivising firms to shift out, there is no evidence yet that this has progressed. It could if India can offer efficient services and space. That, at least, is the envisaged ‘roadmap’ with the two leaders focussing on supply chain issues and encouraging small and medium industries. That is also the focus of the Quad.
Quad and Indo-Pacific merge into Ukraine
The briefing by Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla naturally tick-boxed the Quad and also India’s counter to the ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’, which is the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative announced in 2019. There is little available in official sources in coherent terms but from a wealth of semi-academic papers, one gathers that the initiative has seven pillars, including maritime security. Australia is the lead partner in the Maritime Ecology pillar, which is another instance of how the Quad partners are tying up together.
In defence, however, this tie-up is in bilateral formats. All four have similar two plus two (Foreign and Defence Secretaries) formats, ‘Reciprocal Provision of Supplies and Services’ such as between the Japan Self-Defense Forces and the Indian Armed Forces, and participation in bilateral and multilateral exercises with Japan to participate in the Navy’s Multilateral Naval Exercise series soon. Joint fighter exercises are also in the works with some snags. In this instance, Japan’s Air Force is overwhelmingly American, but with some solid Japanese-built medium and heavy-lift aircraft.
India’s Air Force fleets are overwhelmingly Russian/Soviet in origin, and with the Antonov factory being hit in Ukraine, things may get worse. Its US heavy-lift aircraft have proved their worth, but ‘Aatmanirbharta’ in the air is still elusive. With the focus on interoperability, the future thrust is likely to be more for ‘Made in America’, perhaps with some joint production. In the end, however, New Delhi signed on to “serious concern about the ongoing conflict and humanitarian crisis in Ukraine and assessed its broader implications, particularly to the Indo-Pacific region”. That’s going to make China see red, particularly since the statement also comes with references to the East and the South China seas.
The Japanese Prime Minister’s official Twitter account goes much further in firmly linking the Ukraine question to security in the Indo-Pacific, and in the process, New Delhi’s position gets sharper than it probably wants, both with regard to Russia and China. But it seems that New Delhi had no compunctions in declaring that the two sides had discussed “the massing of troops and attempts at multiple transgressions” by China. Perhaps India is slowly inching towards an international position. Meanwhile, a Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson dodged the question of whether the Chinese Foreign Minister is due to visit, as widely rumoured.
Back in Japan, the Kishida government – just like Europe – passed the 10th straight annual defence increase expenditure for 2022, with the budget for the fiscal year to rise 1.1 per cent to 5.4 trillion yen ($47.18 billion), still less than a quarter of China’s military budget this year, according to official Beijing data.
Apart from buying 12 F-35 Stealth fighters, Japan is also to develop its first domestic fighter in 30 years. All this is moving Tokyo towards the formulation of a new National Security Strategy (NSS) already under debate, which will be watched for an expected dilution of Japan’s constitutional limitations on self-defence as well as the language it deploys on China. The earlier 2013 version recognises the importance of maintaining peace between the two countries and called for a ‘Mutually Beneficial Relationship Based on Common Strategic Interests”. Any change in that language is going to take a lot of moving jigsaw pieces around.
At the beginning of 2022, Japan signed on to a Reciprocal Access Agreement with Australia, which is not a big step for Tokyo. Meanwhile, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison is going to be on a virtual summit with Prime Minister Modi a week from now. A watchful Beijing may see this as rounding of a circle, which it is not. Both India and Japan are struggling to deal with the ramifications of the sudden breakdown of the ‘rules-based order’ in Europe and its likely fallout in the neighbourhood in a manner that will neither enrage nor encourage their much-larger and menacing neighbour. Even as the language unfolds in Joint Statements and press briefings, what must be clear is that very little of this has anything to do with Ukraine at all.
The author is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi. She tweets @kartha_tara. Views are personal.