Prime Minister Modi’s Asian Engagement: India’s Pacific Diplomacy


2014-09-11 By Team India Strategic

New Delhi.

September has come this year with some delayed rainfall and a tidal wave of diplomatic engagements for the Prime Minister, Mr Narendra Modi.

Within a month, Modi would have blitzed through summits with Japanese PM Shinzo Abe, Australia PM Tony Abbott and US President Barack Obama. Modi will also welcome Chinese President Xi Jinping to Delhi, which is in a special category by itself.

Less noticed, but equally important will be the visit by President Pranab Mukherjee to Vietnam.

During the first weeks of Modi’s tenure, he made plain his intention to concentrate on the South Asian region.

Through September’s big power diplomacy, Modi plans to put in place the broad strategic direction to his foreign policy.


Japan plays a big role in India’s strategic calculus.

The transformed India-Japan relationship has been a decade in the making.

With the clear direction Modi appears to be setting, there is a new sizzle to the high-stakes Asian geopolitics.

It comes at a time when China’s expansionist outlook contrasts with the US’s fading footprint.

Moscow’s economic miscalculations might, for the first time, make Russia second fiddle to China.

On the other hand, rising powers in Asia – from India to Vietnam, Indonesia and Japan (even South Korea and Australia, though they still shelter under the American umbrella) are becoming rich and powerful almost in tandem. And all of them are working harder than ever to ensure that China remains one of Asia’s giants, not its sole spokesman.

MJ Akbar, author and BJP spokesperson, places the focus of Narendra Modi’s foreign policy squarely in the Indo-Pacific. “The Pacific, overlapping the Indian Ocean, is far closer to us than the Mediterranean or the Atlantic. Our popular, and policy, reflexes so far have been so embedded in attitudes formed during the British Raj that we have stopped thinking of the Pacific as the bridgehead to anywhere. Japan, China, Australia and America are Pacific mercantile and military powers. This quadrilateral is at the top of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s foreign policy.”

Japan is important to India’s transformation to a modern, technologically savvy nation.

Japan’s presence in India can ensure a couple of things – higher value Indian manufacturing, higher quality infrastructure and the creation of an alternative supply chain system in Asia.

At present, the supply chain is geared to China, which creates strategic constraints for most nations in Asia.

If India can emerge as the next manufacturing hub, particularly for products higher up in the value chain, it gives Asia an alternative.

There is little point in India positing itself as a balancing power to China if it cannot provide the necessary economic heft to this strategic policy.

South Asia and Southeast Asia

Another crucial aspect of India’s determined turn to the east is to work towards integrating South Asia with Southeast Asia in a network of connectivity. India by itself is building the trilateral highway through Myanmar to Thailand, which should be completed by 2016.

In addition, working together with Japan and US, the “trilateral” plan to undertake a longer term connectivity plan through Southeast Asia.

This would have to run east-west to balance out the north-south connectivity plans by China.

China however, is thinking ahead. China recently announced its intention to upgrade its FTA with ASEAN, greater interconnectivity between China and Southeast Asian states through road, rail, water, air, telecommunication, and energy connections including the offer to fund these connections. So India will have to play a smarter game.

India’s strategic advantage in the Asia- Pacific is the fact that it’s growing military and security capability is not deemed to be threatening by anybody.

Therefore, a better strategy with ASEAN/Southeast Asia should be in pushing defense and security cooperation. India already has a strong defense relationship going with Singapore.

Reluctance in India-Japan Military Cooperation and US-2

In the past decade, India and Japan have worked hard on their security cooperation. In 2008, the two countries signed a rare agreement on security (one of the very few that Japan has in the world). The Indian Navy and Japanese maritime forces have been exercising together both off the coast of Japan and, for the first time, in Malabar exercises that involve the US.

The logical corollary is the imperative of developing India’s defense industry to provide the economic ballast to its strategic outreach. During his visit to Tokyo, apart from signing agreements to boost India’s physical infrastructure, India and Japan made forward progress on the US-2, an air amphibian aircraft by Japanese company Shinmaywa that the Indian Navy wants for island connectivity.

India is interested in buying 15 of these aircraft with transfer of technology to build the majority of them in India.

The Japanese-Indian Summit reinforced their working relationship in a time when Japan is expanding its Pacific role. Credit: India Strategic
The Japanese-Indian Summit reinforced their working relationship in a time when Japan is expanding its Pacific role. Credit: India Strategic

For that, Japan has been invited to invest and transfer technology for that to happen in India. For Japan and India, this is an important deal in more ways than one. Japan is taking baby steps to becoming a “normal” nation, and it is perhaps natural that it should happen with Indian cooperation.

Unlike most countries in Southeast Asia, India does not have unhappy memories of Japan’s brutal imperial past. So the trepidation in ASEAN about Japan’s military awakening is not shared in India.

While the US-2 is an accomplished piece of work, Japan wants to sell it as a civilian aircraft, without the military components. India and Japan have been trying to find a way out, and one of the things being considered is to allow somebody like Israel to retrofit the avionics for the US-2.

According to many in the Indian defense establishment, that might solve many problems including the fact that Japanese avionics technology is easily trumped by others.

US-2 is also favored by the Indian Navy as it has the same Rolls-Royce AE 2100 turboprop engines that propel the Indian Air Force’s newly-acquired C-130J Super Hercules aircraft. Common maintenance and reduced costs – four engines per aircraft for both – are attractive factors for both the Ministries of Defence and Finance.

Notably, Japan and India have already signaled they would want to work together in the highly militarized Indian Ocean.

Japan has secured Djibouti as a base on the eastern seaboard, which is also India’s stamping ground. With Andaman & Nicobar Islands, India has its own sweet spot at the mouth of Indian Ocean. With Sri Lanka, Mauritius and Maldives, India has set up a quadrilateral cooperative group to be its core in the Indian Ocean.

Defence planners believe the US-2 deal could facilitate that. Increasing defense cooperation with Japan would not necessarily initiate an arms race in the Indo-Pacific. Moreover, the US- 2’s features, such as its short takeoff capability and ability to land on tides as high as three meters would be a bonus for India.

India-Japan Nuclear Cooperation

The failure to seal the nuclear deal is less India’s fault than Japan’s, showing that Japan too has to do a lot of work internally before they can take themselves beyond check-book diplomacy.

Japan’s block on the deal affects US companies like Westinghouse and GE, even the French AREVA, who are all lining up to sell nuclear reactors to India. It, however, has no impact on Russia, which is actually building nuclear reactors in India. Nor will it affect the South Koreans, who are presenting a clear challenge to the Japanese in the global nuclear supplies market, and with whom India already has concluded a nuclear agreement.

However, signaling deep interest in developing better defense-security cooperation, India and Japan also upgraded their official dialogue to the 2+2 format modeled on the US-Japan relationship. The “2+2” format, officially called the Security Consultative Committee, is the core of US-Japan relations.

“Two plus two” refers to the two chief representatives, one the top diplomat (the US Secretary of State and the Japanese Minister of Foreign Affairs), and one the Defence Chief (the US Secretary of Defence and the Japanese Minister of Defence) on each side.

India and Japan are not treaty allies in the manner of US, but the upgraded defense and foreign policy dialogue signals a greater willingness to talk over the horizon.

Incidentally, Japan has also upgraded its Russia relationship to the “2+2” format, showing that Japan, like India and many other Asian powers, is hedging its bets.

Akbar says, “India and Japan may have stronger bonds than India and China, but the three Asian giants know that they have much to gain by maximizing complementary strengths and minimizing conflict zones.

It is this matrix that can turn the 21st into an Asian century.

This is the rationale and objective of India’s “Look East” policy; and if you look far enough into the east, across the Pacific, you can see America.”

India and Australia sign Nuclear Deal

Modi landed back from Japan to welcome Tony Abbott, PM of Australia, with whom India signed a long-in-the-making nuclear cooperation agreement. In about three years, India should be able to source high-grade uranium from Australia, making it India’s prime resources partner in this part of the world.

But in addition, India and Australia are branching out to embrace a deeper security relationship.

Welcoming the deal, PM Modi told journalists, “The signing of the civil nuclear cooperation agreement is a historic milestone in our relationship. It is a reflection of a new level of mutual trust and confidence in our relationship and will open a new chapter in our bilateral cooperation. It will support India’s efforts to fuel its growth with clean energy and minimize the carbon footprint of its growth.”

We will hold our first bilateral naval exercise in 2015 and intend to enhance our exercises in the coming years. Our two countries can contribute to a variety of objectives in the Indian Ocean Region.”

India and China

The gorilla in the room is undoubtedly China, which has expressed discomfort at Japan’s and Australian efforts towards India.

When Xi Jinping arrives here in mid- September, India will have to play a more sophisticated game. How Modi deals with Abe, Xi and Obama will be keenly watched across the globe.

Modi wants to establish a new paradigm for ties with China, but he also understands that as long as the border is disputed, these can be only halfway measures.

He is keen for China to invest in Indian infrastructure but we cannot let them into many sectors. Modi’s challenge will be to devise ways of attracting Chinese investment without choking the life out of Indian industry or deterring Japanese and US investments.

Nonetheless, Chinese media has speculated that Xi might make more generous offers to India on investment and manufacturing in India.

However, India will be keeping an eye out for China’s aggressive approach, much in evidence lately.

South China Sea

On the territorial disputes in South China Sea, India has taken the official position that it’s for the parties to the dispute to sort it out between themselves. But India has just renewed a lease for two oil blocks in the South China Sea, off the Vietnam coast, areas that China claims for itself in the nine-dash line. Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj made her first visit to Vietnam in late August, and President Pranab Mukerjee plans to visit soon.

China’s Defence Minister, General Chang Wanquan, recently told his US counterpart Chuck Hagel that China would not be the first to launch an attack over the dispute either in the South or East China Sea. “China has indisputable sovereignty over the Diaoyu (Senkaku according to Japan) Islands,” General Chang said. He added that on the issue of what he called “territorial sovereignty,” China would “make no compromise, no concession, no treaty.”

He continued, “The Chinese military can assemble as soon as summoned, fight any battle and win.” India cannot afford to gloss over these official statements.

India and the US

Modi will round off September’s hectic diplomacy with a visit to Washington DC to build a relationship with Obama on the embers of a decade of visa denial to Modi. The US remains India’s most important partner, and to prepare for Modi’s visit, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel visited India in August to promise a boost in cooperation. Though there have been question marks in the recent years, it looks like Obama’s interest in India will endure.

Modi will be looking to ramp up ties with DC after years of neglect.

Defense looks to be an obvious area, but here India’s best bet with the US would be to coordinate approaches to India’s west. While the Asia-Pacific is India’s opportunity, the Gulf and Middle East is a challenge. US-India coordination would be mutually useful.

This piece was republished with the permission of our partner India Strategic.

Also see the following:

With regard to the video above:

The Indian Navy Shivalik-class stealth multi-role frigate INS Sahyadri (F 49) transits Pearl Harbor as it arrives at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. Victoria is in Hawaii to participate in the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) Exercise 2014.

Credit Video: USN

According to India Strategic:

New Delhi. INS Sahyadri, one of India’s latest indigenously designed guided missile stealth frigate, has reached Pearl Harbor for the multilateral RIMPAC (Rim of Pacific) exercise with the US and other navies.

This is the first time that an Indian warship is in the US waters for an exercise. The Indian Air Force (IAF) and Indian Army have though interacted with the respective US forces both there as well as in India to enhance wargaming perspective.