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Maintain a fine balance

India must ensure that its ties with Japan are insulated from the Ukraine war

Maintain a fine balance

NON-NEGOTIABLE: If India's role is that of a peacemaker, it must remain neutral, in word and in deed, at any plurilateral or multilateral gathering. ANI



K. P. Nayar

Strategic Analyst

CIRCUMSTANTIALLY, no doubt, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s back-to-back visits to New Delhi and Kyiv underscore a new peril to Indian diplomacy that the Modi government’s attitude to Ukraine may get hyphenated in its relations with other countries. Japan is a prominent example. Since World War II, pacifist Japan has consciously avoided sending its leaders to any active war zone. Kishida’s photo opportunity with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy outside Kyiv’s famed Mariinsky Palace last week was a historic exception. It signals the Prime Minister’s resolve to carry forward his mentor and predecessor Shinzo Abe’s path-breaking initiatives to make Japan more assertive on the global stage.

Japan wants to enlarge and enhance India’s vision of its ‘Act East’ policy, so that Tokyo can play a bigger role.

A meek Japan, which played second fiddle in Asia to the US since its surrender to Washington’s nuclear muscle, was good for India. Japan was a ‘nice’ source of development aid, often the biggest benefactor in this category, when India was less developed and in dire need of assistance. Successive PMs in Japan did not attempt to change the prolonged status quo in New Delhi’s foreign policy since Independence. It is no surprise, therefore, that PM Modi has more than once referred to India’s engagement of Japan as one of the most ‘natural partnerships’ in the Asian region. This may not be the same anymore.

Kishida’s invitation to Modi for the G7 Summit in May under Japan’s presidency was what got the most attention globally after talks between the two leaders. This is not surprising. In fact, Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra acknowledged that India’s current G20 presidency and Japan’s priorities for G7 ‘formed an important component of (their) bilateral conversation.’ Modi has accepted the invitation to attend the May summit. It will require all of External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar’s rational arguments and persuasive skills for Modi to return unscathed from the summit. Jaishankar has a unique relationship with Japan. In Japan’s long history, Jaishankar was the only Foreign Secretary from any country to have been given an audience by the Emperor of Japan. In the hierarchy of statecraft, a Foreign Secretary is way lower than the occupant of the Chrysanthemum Throne. Protocol did not stand in the way of this meeting and a surprised Japanese media front-paged photos of it because of this break in tradition.

Given the recent experience at G20 meetings in Bengaluru and New Delhi, the G7 Summit will be overwhelmed by the Ukraine war. This will be more so if recent Russian successes on the battlefield enhance the clear possibility of diplomatic and strategic setbacks for G7 countries by the time of the summit. Given India’s neutrality in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Modi can be singed if he does not go along with the Western powers against Russia. The saving grace is that India is not a G7 member, only a special invitee. So, Modi is not required to formally negotiate any summit declaration or make any commitment to help Ukraine during the deliberations.

India can avoid these pitfalls – or at least minimise their fallout – if Modi launches a Ukraine peace effort without delay. If India’s role is that of a peacemaker, it must remain neutral, in word and in deed, at any plurilateral or multilateral gathering. In that case, New Delhi’s neutrality at the summit will automatically become non-negotiable. Modi will be looked up to with greater expectations since there is no other credible peace plan on the horizon. A Chinese peace initiative has so far been a non-starter. At any rate, the Biden administration in the US is determined that China’s global stature should not be enhanced by allowing it to broker an end to the most serious regional conflict since World War II. India’s former Permanent Representative to the UN in New York, TS Tirumurti, recently said on record that UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told him soon after the war broke out that India was ‘in a unique position to talk to both sides’ and give peace negotiations a chance. An Indian peace offensive will also mean less pressure on the G20 and its Indian presidency to be overly strident in support of Ukraine. A push for dialogue by the G20 presidency offers the best chance for a smooth New Delhi summit for the organisation in September.

At all costs, India must ensure that its relations with Japan, which were cobbled together by Jawaharlal Nehru after the latter’s defeat in 1945 and nurtured by several of Nehru’s successors — in particular, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh — are insulated from the Ukraine war. Decisions taken at their 15th annual heads of government summit last week include some creative steps, which have not received the public attention they deserve. One such is the renewal of a Memorandum of Cooperation on learning the Japanese language, specifically higher learning. This drive was launched in 2017, but its renewal points to more focused action to achieve the memorandum’s objectives. People-to-people engagement with Japan has been lagging because of the language barrier. The effort to overcome this handicap could lead to greater mobility by Indians into Japan: this is critical for both countries, especially in view of Japan’s crisis of an ageing population.

The move should be read in conjunction with Modi’s suggestion to Kishida that 2024 should be designated as the year of youth exchanges between their countries. April will be an important month for focused bilateral cooperation in a part of India which has a history of Japanese involvement — the North-East. Japan wants to enlarge and enhance India’s vision of its ‘Act East’ policy, so that Tokyo can play a bigger role. At the end of next month, Japan’s ambassador to India and Foreign Secretary Kwatra will sit down with all stakeholders in the North-East and explore how partnership projects, development cooperation projects and infrastructure cooperation projects can be fast-tracked. This could herald a major transformation of the North-East, given Japan’s successful track record in such efforts.


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