India, Russia and Abe’s posturing

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (raising hand) leaves Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo on Dec. 26, 2013 after paying homage there. Source: Photoshot / Vostock-photo

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (raising hand) leaves Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo on Dec. 26, 2013 after paying homage there. Source: Photoshot / Vostock-photo

China and Japan are heading into an acrimonious new year. Where does that leave Russia and India?

The Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit last Thursday to the Yasukuni Shrine, the controversial war memorial to the country’s dead could have been foretold, but when it actually happened, it raised eyebrows. China and Japan are heading into an acrimonious new year. Where does that leave Russia and India? 

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Tokyo must bear the “full responsibility for the serious political consequences” of Abe’s visit. Xinhua called the visit “a calculated provocation to stoke further tension... (and) is the culmination of Abe’s year-long policy of right-wing nationalism.” It claimed that Abe’s visit is “stirring up nightmare memories among Japan’s neighboring countries (here). However, Beijing will unlikely take any concrete response. Apart from condemning Abe’s visit and extracting propaganda advantage, Beijing will undoubtedly take comfort in the US government’s (and American media’s) strong disapproval of the Japanese prime minister’s decision. According to Japan’s Jiji Press, Washington “worked again and again behind the scenes” to block Abe’s visit to the shrine. Besides, Abe’s game plan could be to provoke China to react in a way that inflames tensions, which in turn would help him domestically to push through his nationalist agenda to get rid of Japan’s “peace constitution”. No doubt, a complicated calculus is at work here. 

There is a cycle of useless posturing going on between China and Japan – although  neither is gaining the moral high ground as a result. Ironically, Abe has ably neutralized China’s image as a bullying hegemon.  On the other hand, Abe has dashed any immediate prospects of improving ties with South Korea, the US’ other fellow ally in the region, which are already strained.

Of course, he risks drawing attention to Tokyo’s increasingly aggressive defence strategy and militarism.

Neither Russia nor India felt it necessary to pronounce on China’s air defence zone; nor are they going to say anything on Abe’s visit to the shrine. However, it is not as if they are not affected by the tensions in the Asia-Pacific. Russia and India are working hard to build the sinews of a long-term partnership with Japan. Both consider that coming to terms with China’s rise poses a major challenge and constitutes a top priority in their foreign policies.

There has been a leap forward in India-Japan strategic ties through 2013. The joint statement issued after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Japan in May testifies to the keenness of the two countries to consolidate and transform their partnership and give it a India new direction “taking into account changes in the strategic environment.” India recently rolled out the red carpet for the Japanese Emperor Akihito, whose visit early December was hailed as a “historic milestone” President Pranab Mukherjee. Abe is due to visit India in January as the Guest of Honor on India’s Republic Day. The two countries are building up Abe’s visit as a turning point in India-Japan strategic partnership.

Similarly, 2013 has been an extraordinary year for Russo-Japanese relations. Abe paid a landmark visit to Moscow in April during which the two leaderships agreed to revive the talks on the territorial dispute over the Kurile Islands, the vexed issue that prevents them from signing a peace treaty to bring their World War II hostilities to a formal end. There has been spectacular follow-up since then with Japan hosting its first-ever meet at foreign and defence minister level with Russia within the so-called 2+2 format at Tokyo in November. Russia becomes only the second country with which Japan has such a special format of strategic dialogue.

The Russian President Vladimir Putin’s formal message of greetings to Emperor Akihito on his birthday last week exceeded the call of protocol. Putin wrote, “I am confident that further expansion of the whole range of Russian- Japanese relations in the spirit of true partnership is in the fundamental interests of our nations and consistent with promoting stability and security in the Asia-Pacific region.” Curiously, even as Abe was visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, the minister of economy, trade and industry in his cabinet was in Moscow holding discussions on the prospects of accelerating Japan’s investments in the non-resource economic sector of Russia’s Far East.

Clearly, both Russia and India are hoping to draw more Japanese investments into their economy. Indeed, Japan also has strong motivation to transform its relationship with Russia and India. Both Putin and Manmohan Singh are known to be keen to foster ties with Japan. But the lingering wariness of the Japanese businessmen regarding the demanding conditions of the Russian and Indian market remains a stumbling block.

However, here we may draw line. India is far better placed than Russia vis-à-vis Japan insofar as its baggage of history is less burdensome. Japan’s “soft power” in India is way above China’s – and in some ways even exceeds Russia’s. India never fought wars with Japan or seized territories from it.

On the other hand, Russia is Japan’s immediate neighbor and is an established Asia-Pacific power, whereas that is not the case with India. While Russia has been hugely successful in steadying its strategic partnership with China, it also would have an affinity with Japan insofar as both are secondary players in the Asia-Pacific where China’s dominance is a geopolitical reality.

Russia also has specific concerns over the brewing rivalries in the Arctic. China, which calls itself a “near-Arctic state” and an “Arctic stakeholder”, does not intend to be a passive member of the Arctic Council. And Russia is only one among China’s partners. The Central Asian region may be a backyard for Russia, but the Arctic is its castle.  

Interestingly, on the same day that Abe undertook the visit to the shrine, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida disclosed that Japan and Russia will meet in Tokyo on January 31to discuss territorial issues and economic cooperation. Kishida expressed the hope that the meeting could shore up Japan-Russia relationship on the whole and would be conducive to progress in concluding a peace treaty. Indeed, Putin’s expected visit to Japan next year may turn out to be a defining moment in the search for some consensus formula for the territorial dispute over the Kuriles.

However, there are limits to the partnerships that Japan can forge with India or Russia. Of course, India remains averse to forming alliances. It also lacks a “bloc mentality.” Furthermore, it places the highest importance to settling the border dispute with China and to putting Sino-Indian relationship on an even keel, which demand an independent foreign policy. For Russia, too, the improvement of relations with Japan cannot be at the cost of its expanding strategic partnership with China. Besides, neither Japan nor Russia could be actually seeking to create binding mutual commitments, since both are on the lookout for ways to enhance their respective positions in the Asia-Pacific.

Again, unlike with India-Japan relations, the tempo of the Russo-Japanese relationship has a direct linkage with the Russian-American ties, considering that two decades into the post-Cold War era Tokyo still remains Washington’s key (and irreplaceable) ally in the Asia-Pacific. Having said that, Moscow would be keenly looking for signs of Abe putting Japan on a path of increasing diplomatic self-reliance. No one expects Abe to buck his only ally, the United States, anytime soon, but his pursuit of a more independent path is implicit in his visit to the Shrine last Thursday. Of course, on the outer side of interpretation, Abe is also leading Japan to adopt a more muscular response to its surrounding regional environment. This interplay of fluctuating tendencies in Tokyo’s reflexes would introduce a degree of ambivalence into Russia’s intentions toward Japan. Even as Moscow and Tokyo draw closer, Russia also keeps up its military posture

In comparison, India-Japan relationship remains transparent and predictable. Things could of course change if their defence cooperation really takes off and assumes a cutting edge, but that remains in the womb of time. 

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