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Hindi-Japani Bhai Bhai!

May 20, 2014 11:37 IST

'Both nations have a common problem: A rampaging, jingoistic and hostile China which is making substantial territorial claims. In the long run, Japan and India are going to be the victims of Chinese aggression -- so they might as well hang together to contain China,' argues Rajeev Srinivasan.

There is a general dictum that when there is a change in government, foreign policy continues much as before. In the United States, even though the two parties fight like cats and dogs over domestic policies, all that stops at the water's edge, and the two parties are as one in the pursuit of the national interest. Ambassador T P Sreenivasan put forth this perspective in a recent discussion I had with him.

However, it is not clear that this applies to the case of India. This is partly because it is hard to believe that the outgoing United Progressive Alliance government truly had India's interests at heart in its foreign dealings. The result of their ad hoc, unthought-through policies has been that India has shrunk as a relevant power, even in its own neighbourhood. The only parties that seem to have done well are quasi-friends like the US which has sold India much military hardware, up from zero in the old Soviet days.

Other than this, India is universally considered a bully by its subcontinental neighbours, it has been kept at arms length by Southeast Asia; the US, Europe, Russia and China treat it as a minor, unimportant regional power. Its energy diplomacy has been pathetic; its erstwhile markets in Africa and Europe are now under threat from the Chinese. The Indian Ocean Rim initiative is going nowhere. That Nehruvian shibboleth, the Non-Aligned Movement, has been consigned to the trash-can of history. India's brand has been diminished by the 'South Asia' moniker. The erstwhile 'Greater India' is only a memory.

In large measure, India's shrinking stature is a result of its pathetic economic growth. It has been left in the dust by all of Southeast Asia and East Asia, all of which have managed to uplift their poor. Today India is the biggest repository of misery in the world, with half the world's malnourished, half the world's blind, half the world's illiterate.

There is no choice but for India to grow at near-Chinese rates, and commerce should be one of the principal pillars of its foreign policy.

But a more important issue for India is the wimp factor. Nobody takes India seriously: It comes across as a weak, gullible, impotent power whose major strength is in lecturing. Nobody likes a moraliser, and India has had many of them, for instance, Krishna Menon. It is rumoured that Chou en-Lai of China considered his interlocutor Jawaharlal Nehru a 'useful idiot'.

Similarly, every time there is a major terror attack supported by Pakistan, some minister threatens dire consequences 'the next time there is a major terror attack'. Therefore Pakistanis attack, again and again, with impunity. There is no pain applied to Pakistani bottoms for perfidy.

The US is facing something along the same lines. Barack Obama is seen as someone whose threats have no teeth. Thus, his promise to act in Syria if chemical weapons were used was shown to be just hot air. He did not act in Ukraine; he is unlikely to step in if the Chinese, emboldened by all this, grab the Senkakus from Japan as they have the Paracels from Vietnam. There is a credibility deficit, as the Financial Times says in 'Barack Obama's cautious foreign policy comes home to roost,' May 14.

This is what makes me suggest a discontinuity in Indian foreign policy, which has always centered on the Anglophone world, and on Pakistan and China. It is time to make a radical shift to an Asia-centric perspective, with Japan as the centrepiece. After Asia, it is important to work with Africa, and then with Europe, specifically Germany, as there is much to be gained from the European Union's leader. There is little that traditional partner Britain can do for us.

Finally, there is the US. Given that Democrats are extremely hostile (this is generally true, although Indians labour under the delusion that Republicans are worse), it is always a bad time for India when they are in power. In particular, this time Barack Obama, John Kerry and Hillary Clinton have gone out of their way to humiliate Modi over the silly visa issue, egged on by Indian-origin leftists/Islamists and conversion-seeking Christian fundamentalists.

Modi is not one to bear grudges, but it is incumbent upon the US to make conciliatory moves. Until that happens, it is going to be a holding pattern in Indo-US relations, detente but no cordiality. The contrast with the warmth with Japan could not be more dramatic.

Why Japan as priority nation? Because it appears to be the most appropriate civilisational/cultural partner. There is more to international relations than transactions. It is important to have alliances with those who have similar affinities, both at the individual level and at the national level.

Japan, along with Bali and Thailand, are the only parts of Asia in which Indians are held in some respect -- the Japanese, for example, see India as their Holy Land. (Unfortunately, elsewhere, it is India's failures, dirt, poverty and squalour that are its calling card.)

Besides, both nations have a common problem: A rampaging, jingoistic and hostile China which is making substantial territorial claims. In the long run, Japan and India, along with Vietnam, the Philippines, and others in Southeast Asia, are going to be the victims of Chinese aggression -- so they might as well hang together to, with Russia and the US, create a reverse 'string of pearls' to contain China.

There are also nice symmetries. Japan has an ageing population; India has one of the world's youngest populations. Japan has plenty of capital; India is hungry for capital. Japan is worried about the security of its investments in China; India is eager to bring in foreign direct investment. Japan has outstanding quality and processes; India needs these if it is to ever become a manufacturing power.

In Shinzo Abe and Narendra Modi we have two nationalists.

Furthermore, the Japanese have now realised that they would benefit from an alliance with India. They made an extremely rare gesture: The Japanese Emperor visited India. In addition there were two visits by Shinzo Abe, who has said that he expects the Indo-Japanese relationship to be as significant over time as the US-Japanese alliance.

Unfortunately, the Manmohan Singh government did not go out of its way to show its appreciation: Instead of breaking protocol by sending the PM to welcome Abe at the airport, it sent a junior minister, Rajiv Shukla. I am sure the Japanese noticed. But anyway, it is Modi that Abe has an affinity for.

Geostrategist Brahma Chellaney suggests in Prosyn the duo will work towards 'promoting regional stability and blocking the rise of a Sino-Centric Asia'. That is precisely the point.

And that brings us to China. As that nation pursues a highly aggressive policy with almost all of its neighbours, bullying, grabbing land and sea, and using gunboat diplomacy, India has to be wary about the long Indo-Tibet border as well as China's oft-repeated claims to Arunachal Pradesh. The recent leak of the Henderson-Brooks/Bhagat report on the 1962 war suggests that India could have done better because its military capability was adequate.

But that is not the case today, 50 years later. China has systematically built up its logistics (rail and road) and military capability in occupied Tibet. India has lagged behind, even though a few mountain divisions are sought to be raised. The military has struggled greatly in UPA1 and especially UPA2. A damning report by Ajai Shukla in Business Standard suggests that India's armed forces modernization is based on a delusion as there is no budget for it.

Given Chinese aggression in the South China Sea (the latest being their drilling for oil in what would be Vietnamese territorial waters under international law) and the expansion of its blue-water navy, India's badly-delayed naval modernisation needs to be accelerated, if we are to defend our interests in the Indian Ocean, all the way from the Straits of Hormuz to the Straits of Malacca, which carries about 80 per cent of the world's oil shipments.

Modi has had cordial relations with China, and that should continue. But the terms of any agreements should be based on mutual respect, not imposed on India under duress, as is likely to be the case now. For instance, most of India's exports to China have been raw materials like iron ore, while they send back manufactured goods, in some cases destroying Indian manufacturers.

I have heard anecdotal evidence about this: How the manufacture of kites for Uttarayanam in Gujarat was decimated by Chinese imports, until the local makers replicated a cluster and supply chain as efficient as that in China.

Along with China, the other party where India needs to have a muscular foreign policy is Pakistan, China's ally. Without going to war, it is possible to tell the Pakistanis in no uncertain terms that their adventurism will have consequences, and to back this up by carefully monitoring their infiltrators into India. It is also possible to increase -- rather than reverse, as Inder Kumar Gujral did Research and Analysis Wing's intelligence efforts and special operations in Baluchistan and other restive parts of Pak.

The situation in Afghanistan is another area in which India needs to ensure that we do not screw up. As the Americans depart, the vacuum there will be filled quite eagerly by strategic-depth-seeking Pakistanis, and if the new Afghan government is in the least bit pro-Taliban, India will be shut out, its commercial interests and consulates endangered, and its huge investment in relief including roads etc will be wasted. On the other hand, there is no point in, as Americans sometimes demand, India taking on a military role there either. Afghanistan will be a headache.

Repairing ties with the Near Abroad, that is the subcontinental nations such as Bangladesh, Nepal, Maldives, and Bhutan should be pursued in parallel with a reinvigorated Indian Ocean Rim initiative, that will reach out to both ASEAN and Africa, especially South Africa.

Thus, the Modi government has its work cut out for itself. To begin with, it might enter the Asian arena with a response to the current crisis in Vietnamese waters where the Chinese are drilling. Modi can arrive on the world scene by loudly advocating a peaceful settlement, and even offering to mediate, as a neutral third party. It can draft the UN-honed political skills of Shashi Tharoor, even though he is an Opposition member of Parliament; and it can send a subtle message to China wrapped in bonhomie: you too are just another Asian power.

Image: Narendra Modi, right, with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, left. Image: Kind courtesy: Deshgujarat.com

Rajeev Srinivasan