In diplomacy, symbols and gestures matter a lot. This was quite apparent when Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while addressing a business meet in Tokyo said, “Everywhere around us, we see an 18th century like expansionist mind-set: encroaching on another country, intruding in other’s waters, invading other countries and capturing territory.” This was a swipe intended against China for pursuing an aggressive strategic agenda in the South Asia and the Southeast Asian region. And with this, it was interpreted as India’s intention to throw a lot with Japan to firm up a united front against an increasingly assertive China.
But those who know the Indian Prime Minister, will resist giving a weight to such interpretation; rather they will agree that Modi being a consummate politician will try to forge an alliance with Japan in areas where India has a shared concern about China, while working with Beijing in areas that yield mutual benefits. India, in that way, will work closely with China on international trade, climate, energy, reforms of the political and financial institutions and terrorism. It is futile to give a narrative that India will allow itself to play against China. Instead, it will use Japan-China rivalry to its strategic and economic interests without antagonizing the other. This is apparent in India’s desire to seek Chinese cooperation in improving railways and its management; this is apparent in New Delhi’s keenness to improve its energy situation with China’s help. Also, India on its part has done its best to keep in mind Beijing’s interest.
At the BRICS summit in Brazil, a long-drawn tug of war between India and China on headquarters of the BRICS bank, was resolved with the Modi-led delegation handing over China the opportunity for having the multi-lateral bank’s headquarters on its soil. Not only that when many countries in East Asia and the West are dead against giving a leeway to China in setting up an infrastructure bank, India is supporting the cause. This was made clear by the Prime Minister during his talks with Japanese journalists held prior to his Japan departure. Now, signals coming from the Prime Minister’s Office as well as the Ministry of External Affairs suggest that New Delhi will leave no stone unturned to make the forthcoming visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping highly successful. From trade and investment to opening of a new route for Indian pilgrims to Kailash and Mansarover through Sikkim will set the tone up for the high-profile visit of the Chinese President. Maintaining a balance in approach to Japan and China appears to be a ‘mantra’ of the government under Modi.
However, since India has no boundary disputes or strategic concern with Japan in the manner the former has with China, it is natural New Delhi will have a more free-flowing friendship with Tokyo than Beijing. It is apparent in the huge $35 billion investment Japan has announced for India’s infrastructure. And Modi, walking an extra mile, announced creating a team in the PMO with two Japanese nominees to fast-track their investment proposals. In defence, the two countries further elevated their engagement, when the two sides signed a Memorandum of Cooperation and Exchanges. It promises to markedly transform defence and strategic cooperation between the two countries; where, apart from collaborating with India in the manufacture of high-end defence technology, they will engage in regular maritime exercises in the Indian Ocean.
All this is apparent when New Delhi and Tokyo agreed to elevate their ties from the existing framework of “strategic partnership” to a “special strategic partnership.” At one point this enthusiasm brimmed with the two countries agreeing to explore with the US the possibility of raising their joint secretary-level trilateral dialogue to the level of foreign ministers. Here, it could be seen as counterweight to China’s push in Asia. It should be noted that in 2011 when the trilateral dialogue between India, Japan and the US had been launched, Beijing had expressed unhappiness and had termed it as an act of ganging up against China. Despite this, there has been no stopping for the trilateral dialogue.
On the other hand, India’s bid to push Japan into the country’s northeast region for its infrastructural development has been tagged with strategic response to China’s overture in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir where Chinese are engaged in building dams and other projects. Yet in no way, India will afford to have prickly ties with China whose economy is five times bigger than India and its defence spending is three-times larger than India. China watchers say that Beijing will also try to avoid opening up front with India when the former is already sharing uncomfortable ties with Japan, the Philippines, Brunei and Vietnam. But then China has not sidestepped the practice of exerting pressures on India with regard to either Arunachal Pradesh or Ladakh. Incursions by Chinese soldiers in the Ladakh show Beijing’s motive to keep New Delhi on toes on the border disputes.
Since the taking over of administration by Narendra Modi, PLA soldiers’ led incursions in the Ladakh has got spiked. More than a half dozen times, Indian soldiers had to push the Chinese army back from the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Ladakh region. All this, however, without resorting to gun and blood-curdling killings. But the considered peace on the LAC is just a trapping which can be torn asunder by the Chinese army anytime and India understands it clearly. This is the reason, warm hugs between Indian Prime Minister Modi and his close friend and Japanese Prime Minister Abe, has given the Chinese enough hints to see the developing strategic fresco in the South Asia and Southeast Asian region.
More so, after Modi’s “expansionist” remark, signaled arrival of India’s foreign policy which is ready to speak spade a spade. Following this remark, China’s Foreign Ministry gave a guarded response, official Chinese media warned against any attempt to form a united front against China. Nonetheless, with new administration at the helm of the country’s affairs, New Delhi has begun to send messages across the world that India loves friendship and peace, but ready to stand up against any adversary who believes in destruction and chicanery.