With Abe gone, can Modi lead an Asian anti-China front?

By Bharat Karnad

Just how nonexistent gun violence is in Japan can be guaged from the astonishingly lax security provided the former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. There was no security cordon worth the name  with the few tasked with protecting him, apparently standing around the place unconcerned, letting the assassin approach from the most open and vulnerable entirely unsecured area behind Abe. The manifestly unprofessional Japanese security police are blameworthy, of course. But the fact is the use of guns is entirely unknown in Japanese society (except by the yakuza  the criminal underworld, who gun down each other). Even so, there was just ONE gun use-related death in Japan last year compared, say, to some 15,000 deaths in India (and according to CNN, 45,000 in the US)! The loss to Japan of Abe is immeasurable and on several counts. First, he ended the era of apology, of 70 years of Japanese remorse, for World War Two excesses, which China relentlessly milked. The Nanjing wartime massacre was perennially used as a moral cudgel to beat up on Japan and to extort from Tokyo hundreds of billions of dollars in reparations post-1945 in the form of cash, grant-in aid and assistance, massive investments to build up the Chinese economy, and of technology transfers.  Think Shinkansen Japanese high speed rail technology that the Chinese ingested, developed further, and applied to now field, perhaps, the largest high-speed railway network in the world! No more bowing and scraping to Beijing, Abe decreed, leave alone paying China exactions! Secondly, and with more long lasting effect that had China sweating with fright, he spearheaded the successful effort to get the Japanese Diet in 2014 to reinterpret the non-belligerancy clause Article 9 in the so-called ‘peace Constitution’ imposed by the US, which prohibited Japan from arming itself with offensive weaponry, to now permit the government more flexibility in the use of the Japanese Self-Defence Forces, preemptively if necessary and in support of allies and friendly states.  Considering the absolute unreliability of its ally US’ extended deterrence, it paves the way for Japan sometime in the future to go in for nuclear weapons. This, from India’s perspective, will be a very good thing to happen. But most importantly, Abe conceptualized the ‘security diamond’ later formalised into what is now the Quadrilateral of Japan, India, Australia and the US. He did so publicly in a 2007 address to Indian Parliament, indicating at once just how much significance he attached to having India as one of the four pillars of a collective security scheme he was putting together to secure Asia’s future and blunt China’s coercive edge. His immense respect, regard, love and warm feelings for India were for intensely personal family reasons. Shinzo Abe was the scion of a powerful political dynasty with pre-War roots founded by his maternal grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, who was the economic czar of the Japanese puppet regime of Manchukuo that the imperial Japanese government established in the 1930s to colonize eastern China.  Kishi barely avoided being branded a war criminal by the post-War International Military Tribunal in Tokyo the Asian version of the Nuremberg Trials, which decided to imprison/hang a dozen of the senior most Japanese wartime leaders. Of the eleven judges on the Tribunal, only the Indian judge, Justice Radhabinod Pal, refused to return a guilty verdict on the Japanese leaders, earning for himself and for India eternal gratitude of the Japanese nation. Indeed there’s a monument to Justice Pal at the controversial shinto Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo where the war dead are venerated, and which temple Abe made it a point as PM to visit (as few of his predecessors in office had dared to do). Kishi’s career revived in the 1950s; he founded the Liberal Democratic Party and as Prime Minister led the country for three years, 1957-1960. His father, Shintaro Abe, was a leading member of LDP and foreign minister in 1982-1986 and was among the first to evince substantial Japanese interest in strong ties with India. The fact is Shinzo Abe was the strategic brain and the driver of the Quadrilateral  the one person most responsible to try and get the disparate interests of the four pillar countries of the Quad to mesh. US President Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia” and Washington’s interest since in containing China through such an arrangement was in no small measure due to Shinzo Abe’s private and public Quad advocacy and persistence in pitching this arrangement as a much needed strategic and economic counterweight to the emerging colossus in Asia and the world  China. Moreover, the successful policy of Japan joining India to provide quality infrastructure buildup on concessional credit terms but minus potential debt traps to African countries to compete with China’s Belt and Road Initiative, has made inroads and manifests Abe’s foresight. His keenness to make India a hefty maritime power eventuated in his offering India the US-2 multi-role flying boat inarguably the finest such fighting machine in the business, complete with its manufacturing technology and processes that included the shifting of the entire Shinmaywa design and production capacity and plant to India, to set this country up as the sole producer of this aircraft in the world. In a pinch, Abe would have gladly arranged the funds to subsidize this entire deal. But then the Indian Navy stepped in, rejecting the aircraft deal in a mind boggling show of such utter shortsightedness as to make the decision reckless, bringing into question that Service’s basic intent and institutional mindset. No explanation was available from the Defence Ministry other than that the deal exceeded the Navy’s requirement of 12 such aircraft!! This when there’s no better weapons and transport platform anywhere with potential for immediate strategic impact in the Indian Ocean region, and good for all sorts of maritime ops ranging from island defence, anti-piracy action, dropping Indian Navy’s marine commando on a dime in the vast oceanic expanses for any purpose, shutting down contraband trade by interdicting smuggler vessels/dhows, to anti-ship strikes besides the more mundane roles ferrying crews to oil rigs, search & rescue missions, etc.. As the sole manufacturer of this plane, moreover, the prospect was for all countries with seaward exposure lining up to buy ithe US-2. The point to make is the Modi government could have reversed the Navy/MOD’s idiotic there’s no other word for it  decision and plonked for the Shinmaywa transaction as a ready made building block of an indigenous arms industry that the Prime Miister has been talking about from his earliest days as PM. But there was no one, not a single person anywhere in the extended Indian government’s security apparatus and in the military or even the Coast Guard, with a small fraction of the strategic sense of Shinzo Abe to see the merit in this deal and to seal it! (Instead, the billions of dollars in Japanese funds are being invested in Modi’s vanity project  the Shinkansen high speed Mumbai-Ahmedabad rail link, which after all these years of construction is stuck, unable to acquire some piece of land.) Indeed, the rejection by the Indian Navy of the US-2 available on the most favourable terms imaginable ranks with the Indian Air Force’s even more incomprehensibly foolish rejection (first detailed in my 2002 book  Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security) of the Tu-22 Backfire strategic bomber that was offered by the Soviet Union as far back as August 1971 to top off, as it were, the Treaty of Cooperation and Friendship signed at the time that made the unhindered prosecution of the Bangladesdh War possible, notwithstanding the US attempt at military coercion (USS Enterprise aircraft carrier Task Group in the Bay of Bengal). If the legendary Admiral of the Fleet of the Soviet Navy, and Defence Minister, Sergei Gorshkov, was the man who failed in his efforts to gift the Tu-22 longrange strategic bomber to the Indian Air Force think how this would have beefed up the Indian nuclear deterrent vis a vis China, it was Shinzo Abe’s proffered gift of the US-2 the Indian Navy turned down earlier in the new millennium. Talk of spurning gift horses! And this is the Indian military that aspires to be strategic, and wants to be taken seriously as a strategic force? And this is the Modi government that hopes to carry strategic weight in international councils make India a power of strategic consequence? Really? Little wonder then that the Indian government under Modi, as under previous prime ministers, remains as stubbornly unstrategic as the Indian Navy and the Indian Air Force, and has simply not risen to the scheme that Shinzo Abe articulated and, other than bilateral and multilateral naval exercises (Malabar) and endless jaw-jawing at ministerial and foreign ministry official levels, has done nothing of note in operationalizing the Quad or, over the years, realizing a hard Indian and collective Asian response to China’s interminable provocations and acts of belligerance. This trend is something Abe no doubt regretted to his last day. What to speak of military countermoves, the Modi government refuses to curtail Chinese exports to India touching Rs 7.02 trillion in 2021-2022  a 45% increase over the previous year! And Chinese firms operating in India are repatriating profits totaling billions of dollars without much let or hindrance. So, the situation is Beijing, military-wise, slapping India silly but below an all-out conflict threshold, and is rewarded with letting its companies make outlandish profits! How could things be any better for Xi? Why would China want to change the situation even a bit? Let me illustrate the problem. The Modi government has got up the gumption, finally, to at least do innocuous things that Manmohan Singh regime didn’t do because Beijing frowned upon them. So recently HH the Dalai Lama was felicitated on his 87th birthday by Modi, and his trip to Ladakh is being facilitated by the government. This is fine. But Beijing studiously takes no notice of Indian concerns about Pakistan’s sponsorship of terrorism and is bent on easing that country out of the Financial Action Task Force’s Grey List, and will likely succeed the next time FATF meets in Paris.  It continually burnishes Pakistan’s military capabilities with top-end advanced radar and avionics suites for its PAF’s JF-17 fleet, and augments the Pakistan Navy with Type 054 frigates (Taimur and Tughril) with sophisticated sensors and anti-ship and anti-submarine weapons. It is also hellbent on somehow completing the CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) to take a stranglehold on the Baloch coastline radiating east and west from the Gwadar port.  Further, despite the Pakistan army’s reluctance, one hears Beijng has succeeded in armtwisting Islamabad into stationing a Chinese security force in Pakistan to protect Chinese engineers and expat CPEC labour force. This force can become a nucleus of an expeditionary Chinese formation inside Pakistan that India may have to contend with, and is a troubling development. And in eastern Ladakh, it launches taunting aircraft sorties that have repeatedly flown over Indian posts and deep into the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control. This is the context in which Beijing publicly berates Delhi for bilateral relations taking a dive. The Modi regime. meanwhile, rather than instructing the Indian forward air defence units to shoot down any intruding aircraft as warning to China and to show India’s willingness to escalate, swallows these insults, and is content with the army and IAF’s inaction. On the diplomatic front the Modi dispensation is just as passive. It hasn’t reacted by, say, the PM inviting the Taiwan ambassador (passing off as trade representative) for tea at 7, Race Course Road, and the external affairs minister S. Jaishankar or even the NSA Ajit Doval initiating a chinwag in Taipei as an incentive for Xi Jinping to order the PLA to vacate the 1,000 sq kms of Indian territory it has occupied on the Galwan and in areas northeast of the Y-Junction on the Depsang Plain. So India’s image in the Chinese mind as an easily intimidated dormouse around a snorting and stomping dragon is cemented, motivating still more outre Chinese behaviour. The irony is the strategic space in southern Asia is daily becoming less receptive to Chinese interests a situation Delhi should speedily exploit. Consider Sri Lanka not too long ago a leading Chinese outpost. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s fleeing from his official residence in Colombo in the face of protesters breaking through the security cordon means an end to the Rajapaksa family government that over the last decade reduced Sri Lanka to penury, not little owing to the debt racked up with China to fund rank unprofitable projects in the Rajapaksa home ground around Humbantota, including modernizing the port that sees little traffic. Wisely, the Modi government has been generous in routing energy supplies to that country and opening multi-billion dollar lines of credit to enable essential purchases of foodgrains, etc. But Jaishankar & Co. in MEA have to ensure that whatever the agreement signed with the new Colombo government, it should ruthlessly require the ditching of accords with China that permit Chinese naval and other forces to access Sri Lankan bases or to stage out of them, and to begin zeroing out the Chinese economic presence from that country. The question is will Delhi move rapidly and with great resolve to help Sri Lanka become independent of China for good to India’s strategic benefit? The despiriting reality, however, is that while India has been presented with ample opportunities to strategically discomfit China, Modi has not availed of them because, for some unfathomable reason, whenever Beijing hoves into view the Indian government seems to get cold feet. The sturm and drang that Modi so effortlessly summons to beat up Pakistan, rhetorically and otherwise, turns to jelly when confrontng China. In the event, is it even fair to expect that Modi will suddenly shake off his apprehensions and the deep down unwarranted fear of China to tackle Beijing boldly, for a change donning Shinzo Abe’s mantle, and taking up where his good friend left off, as leader getting up an Asian coalition to pin China down?

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