Modi and Kishida’s Camaraderie in Their Bid to Counterbalance China

  • Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is slated to meet his Japanese counterpart as early as next month.
  • The developments in Ukraine serve to underline the fragility of peace in the region.
  • The two seek to further long-standing relations between their countries and respond to China in the Indo-Pacific. 
Kishida and Modi
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida / AP

Why are Kishida and Modi in camaraderie? 

Answer: The two leaders are set to meet in March to deepen long-standing ties and consolidate their Indo-Pacific strategy.

As China ramps up its aggression around both Japan and India, Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Fuimo Kishida look to coordinate a response that will bolster their security in the region in their planned March meeting in India. Furthermore, the developments in Ukraine and the potential parallels that can be drawn to Taiwan is also a significant part of their agenda.

The two leaders will be looking to build upon an already well established camaraderie between the countries, epitomised by India’s Foreign Secretary Harsh V. Shringla who said that “Over the course of the last 70 years, Japan has emerged as one of India’s most trusted partners.” Japan and India are not only engaged in large FDI infrastructures programs and joint development construction projects in the region, but have also conducted joint security exercises and play significant roles in leading global alliances such as ASEAN and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad for short, composed of US, India, Japan and Australia).  

The trip will likely come before a formal gathering of leaders from the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue that is to be hosted by Japan, in an attempt to coordinate the India-Japan security strategy anticipating Chinese aggression in the region. In particular, Tokyo and New Delhi find common ground on the fragility of the security on their respective borders, in Taiwan and in the Himalayan region respectively. Moreover, the two leaders will be looking to consolidate a contingency plan as Beijing watches over the events in Ukraine and adapts its plans depending on the international community’s response. 

What is Driving Modi?

Answer: Modi attempts to oversee a shift away from non-alignment and champion the assertion of India as a key global player. 

Indian foreign policy, since the end of British rule, has been about the preservation of national sovereignty by fostering economic interdependence, allowing the country to attain considerable international status through high economic growth. New Delhi’s partnership with Japan has been a key component of its strategy in the post-Cold War era given their shared concerns over the rise of China and its expansion in their neighbouring countries. Modi sought to build upon the two countries’ economic complementarity by initiating a formal ‘2+2’ arrangement, a significant development that signalled a decisive shift in the bilateral relationship, enabling integration beyond just economic spheres and toward defence, intelligence and security. 

Modi has, in the recent past, sought to double down on India-Japan relations by considerably expanding naval exercises to strengthen the security commitment between the two allies.  At the same time he has further fostered economic investment, with FDI seeing a ninefold increase since 2007. The strengthening of ties with another regional power could be a result of Modi’s radical shift away from India’s pillar of “nonalignment” – which it has maininted since gaining independence in 1947 – towards one of asserting India as a major world power. This was signalled by his 2015 appeal to Indian diplomats worldwide to “help India position itself in a leading role, rather than just a balancing force, globally.” As things stand, however, Modi certainly cannot accomplish his ambitions without first asserting his country firmly at a regional level. Working with an ally holding aligning geostrategic interests provides India with added scope and leverage in both its economic and military capabilities. 

Moreover, Modi is undoubtedly concerned by the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor – which forms a part of Beijing’s broader Belt and Road Initiative – and believes that such projects are aimed at encircling the Indian subcontinent with Chinese zones of influence. Consequently, the leader has sought to leverage the relationship with Tokyo to finance the development of infrastructure in countries where China acts as a direct competitor, such as Bangladesh and Bhutan, enabling New Delhi to compete with Chinese investments in the region. 

New Delhi’s desire to champion the Indo-Pacific region is also hampered by its considerable trade deficit with Beijing that grew by nearly $20 billion between 2020 and 2021. Reducing economic dependence on China, therefore, is becoming an increasingly pertinent part of Modi’s agenda. The 2020 tensions in Ladakh furthered this resolve and increseard Indian apprehension toward China. This is epitomised by its exclusion of Chinese firms from building 5G networks, and instead assigning this responsibility to Japanese firms. According to an Exim Bank Study, in fact, overall trade between the two partners increased to $18 billion in 2019. 

What is Driving Kishida?

Answer: Kishida seeks to counterbalance the shifting military balance in favour of Beijing as the invasion of Ukraine raises questions about the future of Taiwan. 

Kishida, much like his Indian counterpart, is seeking to counterbalance Chinese tensions at its borders as well as diversifying its sources of trade. China has become considerably more aggressive in Taiwan and threatens not just Japanese trade, but also the Senkaku Islands which Beijing has claimed to be its own. Naval expansion with India, therefore, provides Tokyo with yet another ally in the event its sovereignty comes under threat. Both leaders re-pledged their commitment to a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” region. Kishida is also concerned with North Korea’s recent flurry of missile tests and even called upon the support of India to resolve the Pyongyang issue. Similarly,  its active participation in the ‘Quad’ has been motivated by the same concern, and is becoming central to national security. 

The Russian invasion of Ukraine will undoubtedly have engendered further angst for Japan and Kishida given some similarities for Taiwan in China. Of particular importance is Beijing’s consideration that, like Ukraine, Taiwan is a part of China. Although undoubtedly these events do not allude to an imminent invasion, it could signal to the world’s authoritarian powers a crack in the armour of a US-led order. In particular, it is likely that China is waiting to see how the US and EU respond to the invasion to assess opportunities it may have in Taiwan. That being said, Beijing is certainly aware that the US’ commitment to Taiwan is vastly superior to that of Ukraine, with Washington reaffirming this on the 26th of February by sending a warship through the Taiwan Strait. Kishida will aim to maintain that difference and build upon the relationship with the ‘Quad’ countries and India, in particular, through their upcoming meeting. 

Finally camaraderie with Modi comes at a time where Japan seeks to reduce its economic dependence on China, with exports to China accounting for 22% of its overall share. Trade volume between the two nations was also the highest ever recorded making evident that in an escalation with China, the Japanese economy would be significantly hampered. India, therefore, becomes a potentially critical outlet to divert from this trend, with Kishida recently affirming that his visit to India comes at “an appropriate time.

What is Kishida Doing?

Answer: The Japanese PM has sought to deepen ties with India which has yielded results in the past, based of the Indo-Pacific Vision 2025.

Kishida’s unconventional rise to power implies that domestic political stability is a precondition of his political continuity. Undoubtedly, one of the key pressure points is East Asian Security. Well before Kishida held Japan’s top office, Tokyo recognised India’s importance in its foreign policy calculus which culminated in the Indo-Pacific Vision 2025 in 2015. The agreement stipulated an ‘action-oriented partnership’ which called for coordination both bilaterally and with other countries to enhance regional economic linkages and build a coordinated defence capacity.  Kishida, at the time, was Japan’s foreign minister and played a pivotal role in establishing this relationship.

In fact, in Modi’s first conversation with Kishida as Japanese PM, the two leaders affirmed their commitment to building off on the progress made by the Vision 2025.  The leader has sought to maintain momentum in this developing relationship with a continued expansion of both investment and military exercises, including the annual joint military drill that will be conducted from February 27th to March 10th. Kishida acknowledges that this relationship with Modi is more pressing than ever before because the realities of the post-COVID world have exacerbated the need to include India in Tokyo’s security calculus. De-risking supply chains is one such example and the establishment of the India-Japan-Australia Resilient Supply Chain Initiative (RSCI) epitomises the role of India. 

Moreover, the pandemic has made evident the need for responsible debt financing that Japan is achieving through its cooperation with India on third-country projects. Finally by consolidating the security apparatus between India, Japan and the US as per the Vision, Kishida and Modi can assume a greater role in maritime stability that is in the best interest of both powers. 

What does this mean for you?

Answer: Having a strong Indo-Pacific alliance that can deter China will be crucial to peace, not just in the region, but globally too. 

Although undoubtedly the Indian-Japanese relationship is rooted in history, in recent times the two countries have found common ground on the emergence of China and its economic and military expansion. Both Tokyo and New Delhi have been involved in tensions with Beijing on their border. Their ability to take countermeasures has greatly been constrained by Chinese entanglement with the countries’ respective economies and have, consequently, sought to diversify. Investment outflows from Japan into India have fostered economic cooperation between the two countries that has grown over time. The arrival of Modi to the scene has only strengthened this relationship and has even included a military element. 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has raised eyebrows about what that might mean for the future of Taiwan, which will likely be a central point of Modi and Kishida’s meeting. The peace in the region is undoubtedly very fragile, and China’s aggression in Taiwan on the same day as the invasion of Ukraine is certainly concerning. Consequently, a strong alliance in the region that can further deter China is essential. The ‘Quad’ alliance, which encompasses economic and military relations, is another avenue that counterbalances Beijing and its influence in the Indo-Pacific region. As more interests become entangled in the region, the cost of tensions increases. Therefore, a strong relationship between the two leaders is essential not just to their individual ambitions, but also to the balance of power in the region.