[Asia’s Next Page] Kishida’s visit to India: Eleventh-hour Samaritan?
The “special strategic and global partnership” between India and Japan has weathered the turmoil and only grown stronger in the face of an uncertain security environment.
The two countries share a history devoid of any dispute. They also rank among Asia’s two largest economies and major emerging powers, which has given them an opening to form a deep-rooted, synergistic and fruitful partnership. Such a partnership was shaped, at least in part, by the personal camaraderie between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, both of whom built on bilateral relations to form a strong and comprehensive relationship to the new era.
Now, under recently elected Prime Minister Fumio Kishida – who served as Abe’s foreign minister – Indo-Japanese synergy and cooperation in third countries (including Southeast Asia) is steadily growing. Kishida’s upcoming state visit to New Delhi (subject to pandemic conditions) is a testament to the importance and care the two states give each other.
At the same time, however, the visit also comes at a time of great tension and breakdown in the international order amid the Ukraine crisis. On this subject, India and Japan took divergent positions: while Japan strongly condemned the Russian invasion, India took a more cautious approach given its separate ties to Moscow.
What does Kishida’s visit mean? Can Kishida’s visit bring the personal touch to Indo-Japanese diplomatic relations that has been missing since Abe?
More importantly, does the visit signal a determination on Tokyo’s part to resolve emerging issues that may prove to be a dividing point between the two countries in the time to come?
India over Ukraine and in the quadrangle: critical variables
Notably, India and China are two of the leading global voices that have refrained from explicitly condemning Russia’s military assault on Ukraine. While Beijing’s “strategic silence” and implicit support for Russia stems from their shared critical stance towards the West, India’s “silent diplomacy” presents itself as a deft attempt to balance a critical strategic partnership with a long-term partner with its commitment to democracy and liberalism. international values and synergy (ever growing) with the United States and European powers.
However, with all the Indian partners of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) tied together in their censorship of Russia and imposing international sanctions to deter its continued actions, cracks began to appear in the group. Whether these cracks deepen to form a chasm between India and its Quad partners remains a major concern for Japan.
As the last (emergency) Quad Leadership Summit showed, India remains the only power that has not called for tough action against Russia. Moreover, the meeting took place against the backdrop of India’s abstentions in the United Nations and other international forums vis-à-vis the condemnation of Russian aggression. The only point of agreement that emerged on the issue was that “unilateral changes to the status quo with such force should not be allowed in the Indo-Pacific region,” as Kishida himself pointed out.
Such openness has reiterated support for the prospect of “a free and open Indo-Pacific”, but India is fast emerging as the odd one out, and Kishida’s forthcoming visit to India should deftly draw attention to the same thing. As seen at the Quad Foreign Ministers meeting in February 2022 also, India has cautiously distanced itself from its Quad counterparts on issues relating to Ukraine, the Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar returning to the concept of “we are for something and not against someone”.
India’s attempts to stay above the fray have become a matter of concern for Tokyo, especially as the Quad and US engagement in the region both remain heavily dependent on India. As an old ally of the United States, Japan’s close ties with Delhi are better established than the global partnership between India and the United States, as they are based on longer and more fruitful collaborations.
In such a scenario, while the West currently understands India’s reluctance, if Russian aggression develops in Ukraine, India’s Western partners may not continue to show the same determination and encourage the India to act. In this context, Kishida’s visit comes as an eleventh-hour need as Japan prepares to be a good Samaritan. Kishida will no doubt seek to address the subject of Ukraine within the larger context of their focus on the Indo-Pacific and China.
Yet, at the same time, Kishida’s visit matters far more than the question of India’s position on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. More importantly, the visit comes as a crucial meeting between two of Asia’s top leaders. As Kishida assumes leadership of Japan at a time of intense geopolitical flux, his vast experience in diplomacy and foreign policy, as Japan’s longest-serving foreign minister, is an asset. Kishida has a nuanced understanding of the diplomatic situation and it is an essential tool in his skillset which he can use effectively to assess India’s unique position on the matter.
For India too, Kishida’s visit constitutes an opportune moment to make clear its precarious posture and to ensure that its divergence on the Russian question does not become a persistent point of division and create a vast chasm between India and its quad partners. Going forward, maneuvering the delicate balance between Russia and the West with Japan on its side, will allow India to have more leeway in the Quad and with New Delhi’s bilateral relations with United States.
Building Connect Leadership and Beyond
Kishida’s upcoming state visit, beyond forging a new and stronger leadership bond through invigorating attempts to reach consensus on hot topics, will also be an important factor in the growth of relations. bilateral relations between India and Japan. As 2022 marks 70 years of diplomatic relations between India and Japan, Kishida’s visit paves the way to assess the growth of their partnership and plan for future implementation.
According to reports, topics such as the Mumbai-Ahmedabad high-speed rail project are also on the agenda, while North East India cooperation and the potential growth of the resilience initiative of supply chain (SCRI) should be identified as valuable additions to the discussions.
The March 2022 SCRI Ministerial meeting set out to identify key manufacturing and service sectors where the India-Japan-Australia trilateral can operate effectively. This could be a talking point during Kishida’s visit.
Furthermore, as the idea of China following Russia’s lead and engaging in military action in the Indo-Pacific grows with respect to Taiwan, the Indian Ocean and the East China Seas and South, India and Japan can address ways in which the Quad countries can prevent Beijing from drawing conclusions from the precedent set by the Ukrainian conflict. India and Japan have the opportunity to think innovatively at present on regional security issues.
Much like the India-Russia partnership, Japan and India (as well as Australia) have deep economic ties to China that they are not likely to hastily ignore. At a time when strategic circles argue that Ukraine foreshadows a similar move by China in the Indo-Pacific, the time has come for the two Quad countries to strengthen their cooperation in science, technology, trade and third countries.
The state visit, which is taking place at Japan’s request, also aims to explore whether the high-speed train project can be expanded beyond its current scope, while emphasizing connectivity of the supply chain. Other topics of discussion will center on China and its military activities in eastern Ladakh, the Senkaku Islands, joint air exercises with Russia in the Sea of Japan, claims over Taiwan and the dispatch of warships war in the territorial waters of the Philippines and the Sulu Sea.
Notably, the visit will mark the first trip by a sitting Japanese leader since Shinzo Abe’s visit in 2017. It is therefore crucial that Modi and Kishida take full advantage of the event to revisit and recommit to a common agenda for growth and strengthening global cooperation. through international forums.
While the Quad Leaders’ Summit is to be hosted by Japan in May 2022, Kishida’a’s visit will be a test of his leadership skills. Kishida’s last visit to India – as foreign minister in 2015 – successfully culminated in the “Special Partnership for the Indo-Pacific Era”. Now, as Prime Minister, Kishida must once again underscore his belief that India and Japan share a special partnership that can persist as a central axis in Asia.
Kishida’s visit will touch on several sensitive topics, including the gap between India and its Quad partners (Japan included) over Russia. The Japanese Prime Minister will therefore have to make use of a rich set of diplomatic skills to ensure that he succeeds and achieves a substantial step forward.
Author: Dr. Jagannath Panda
Dr. Jagannath Panda is the head of the Stockholm Center for South Asian and Indo-Pacific Affairs (SCSA-IPA) at the Institute for Security and Development Policy (ISDP), Sweden. Dr. Panda is also Director of Europe-Asia Research Cooperation at the Yokosuka Council of Asia-Pacific Studies (YCAPS); And one International researcher at the Canon Institute for Global Studies (CIGS), Japan; and principal researcher at East Asia Security Center at Bond University, Australia.