The South Asia Channel

Between Tokyo and Beijing: India’s Modi Strategy and Asia’s Future

After Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ascendency to premiership, India has gained the spotlight in global politics. The rising pride and confidence pulsating the country following Modi’s election reveals how India, once preoccupied with its own internal security and economic development, is now at a moment of transformation. The rising Asian Giant would be a game-changer ...


After Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ascendency to premiership, India has gained the spotlight in global politics. The rising pride and confidence pulsating the country following Modi’s election reveals how India, once preoccupied with its own internal security and economic development, is now at a moment of transformation. The rising Asian Giant would be a game-changer in Asian security as “the swing state in the global balance of power” as academic C. Raja Mohan put it.

India’s emergence as a potential “game-changer” resulted in major powers trying to lure Delhi to their own camps. In this climate, Delhi’s juggling between Japan and China – two East Asian rivals with untangled relations – could offer insights into India’s possible foreign policy direction. While Modi has a strong personal relationship with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, it would seem like a contradiction that Modi is willing to strengthen ties with Beijing at the same time. This naturally leaves outside observers puzzled by the new administration’s policies with the rivals. Looking into this seemingly contradictory situation might reveal Delhi’s foreign policy calculus that has tremendous impact on Asia.

First of all, warming ties between India and Japan makes good sense on the surface. They have common concerns over China’s increasingly assertive behavior and share fundamental values as democracies in Asia. Abe articulated this point in his article enti tled “Asia’s Democratic Security Diamond.” Published in December 2012 almost immediately after Abe seized the premiership, the op-ed piece – building on Abe’s own speech at the Indian Parliament in 2007 – emphasizes the “Confluence of the Two Seas”, namely the Pacific and Indian Ocean and stresses Japan’s commitment as “a mature maritime democracy” to maintaining the freedom of navigation in Asian waters. He describes further his strategy to partner with other regional democracies including “Australia, India, Japan, and the US state of Hawaii.”Together, these would “form a diamond to safeguard the maritime commons stretching from the Indian Ocean region to the western Pacific.” As maritime powers, Japan and India – which has natural primacy in the Indian Ocean – share an affinity to strengthen ties as the naval power balance in Asia becomes volatile.

Such a move is not new nor a mere reflection of Abe’s “nationalism.” During the Cold War, the United States expected Tokyo to share the burdens for pursuing stability and peace in Asia as Japan re-emerged as a strong economic power after the devastation of the Second World War. The Kennedy Administration saw Japan, a major U.S. ally, as a “core power” in Asia that would shoulder substantial responsibility in the regional order. In this context, the then Japanese Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda said, “Japan must contribute to the economic development of Southeast Asia.” This complemented America’s Cold War strategy in Asia during his visit to the region in fall 1961 at a time when the situation of Indochina was becoming increasingly volatile. Since the 1960s, Tokyo deepened their commitment to the economic development of Southeast Asia not only based on economic interests but also as part of the “Western camp” in the Cold War.

Tokyo’s increasing commitment to Delhi can be seen as a continuation of this tradition. Japan’s lavish investment in the much-needed infrastructure projects for India’s sustainable growth, often backed by the Japanese government, has both security and economic interests. The changing climate of East Asia and Abe’s own aspiration for Japan’s increased role in Asian security – in tandem with his personal relationship with Modi – could contribute to strengthening the relationship with stronger security ties.

Indo-Sino relations equally have their own complexity. Beyond the conventional rivalry, the competition could further result in shaping not only the future of Asia but also the Indian Ocean littoral, a region Robert Kaplan describes as a possible stage for the contest for naval primacy between Delhi and Beijing in his book “Monsoon.” The effect of this rivalry is thus felt not only in traditional alliance politics but also in the countries of the Indian Ocean littoral. Myanmar (also known as Burma), for example, is positioned where “China meets India” as the prominent Burmese historian Thant Myint-U spelled out as the title for his book. In it, he reflects on the increasing importance of the Indian Ocean and in particular the Bay of Bengal in looking at Asian security.

The recent settlement of maritime territorial disputes between India and Bangladesh is a tremendous step towards stronger corporation in the Bay of Bengal littoral as China increases its presence. India’s interest in shoring up its own neighborhood interestingly coincides with Japan’s rising interest in the Bay of Bengal. Abe visited Bangladesh and Sri Lanka in early September. Prior to this, during a summit with Bangladeshi Prime Minister Hasina late in May in Tokyo, Japan and Bangladesh agreed on a “comprehensive partnership” to upgrade their bilateral relationship. Abe proposed a “Bay of Bengal Industrial Growth Belt (BIG-B)” saying Japan is prepared to fund roughly $6 billion for such project in the next four to five years – an initiative that could enhance connectivity, effectively contributing to the development of the entire region.

Such active moves in India’s neighborhood may make one assume that a new zero-sum game is being played out between the Asian powers. Amid these developments however, Modi said in his maiden Independence Day Speech at the Red Fort that his top priority would be economic growth. How? By inviting more foreign investment and turning India into a manufacturing hub, he said. Consequently, economic growth would enhance Delhi’s capacity as a major regional player. While the rivalry with Islamabad and the competition with Beijing have been conventional national security priorities for India, Delhi has limited capacity to act beyond to play a major role in Asian security or act as a global player. Further, economic growth would allow India to enhance its status as another pillar in Asia that could balance China and play a constructive role in the international order.

Promoting economic growth in India however will require robust trade within South Asia, a region that has been plagued by politics and wars of distrust and enmity deeply embedded since 1947. Modi’s visit to Nepal in early August was a good move, not only revealing Delhi’s security calculus vis-a-vis Beijing but also seeking to bolster economic ties with neighbors, necessary for India’s growth. At the same time, Delhi’s economic commitment is also beneficial for Kathmandu, a landlocked country with limited options for economic growth. Nepal has increasingly been relying on migration abroad and the remittances that now consist of a quarter of Nepal’s GDP. India’s expanded engagement could overturn such a situation as a positive force in uplifting South Asian economy. Japan’s commitment to the Bay of Bengal uniquely coincides with Delhi’s economic development strategy in the region.

However, there seems to be a perception gap between the high expectation from major powers on India’s potentially enhanced role in regional security and Delhi’s policy priority that is economic development. Such a focus on economic development is what led to Delhi’s current mixed approach to Beijing, which Manoj Joshi, a leading Indian security expert, described would “feature both competition and cooperation”, in a recent op-ed piece. The traditional rivalry and China’s looming presence in South Asia could erode India’s primacy in the region. Nevertheless, for development-focused Delhi, investment from the world’s second largest economy is not something India could ignore. This pragmatism in dealing with Beijing reflects the tradition of Indian foreign policy that seeks nonalignment and strategic autonomy.

Therefore, jumping to the conclusion that India would be another chess piece in Asian security, actually an enormous one, would be ineffective at least for now. Nevertheless, Abe’s own focus on restarting Japan’s long-stagnated economy uniquely coincides with Modi’s priority of inviting foreign investment to India and possibly also in its neighborhood. The foreign policy approach of mixing economic development and strategic calculation is one of the similarities that Abe and Modi share. The key to the bilateral relationship would be whether they could envisage a long-term picture in the partnership, not being clouded by short-term security concerns. Modi’s recent five-day visit to Japan, extended by a day including a visit to the ancient city of Kyoto, revealed the momentum of the “Strategic Global Partnership” that could shape the future of Asia. Where this could bring Asia might still be uncertain, but it is clear that Delhi and Tokyo are quite serious about the weight the bilateral relationship may hold for Asia.


Takuya Matsuda is a second-year graduate student at Johns Hopkins SAIS. Takuya spent time in Iran and India for research this past summer. The piece is based on his findings in India.

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