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PM walks China-Japan tightrope

- Twin bilateral summits lined up for September before us visit
Narendra Modi

New Delhi, July 24: Prime Minister Narendra Modi has lined up back-to-back summit meetings with his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping in a tightrope walk between two crucial allies that are both trying to wean India away from the other.

Modi will visit Tokyo in the first week of September for a trip that was initially scheduled for early July but had to be put off because his new government had to present its first budget in Parliament, senior Indian and Japanese officials confirmed to The Telegraph.

He will return to New Delhi to almost immediately host Xi, who Indian officials said is likely to visit India in the second week of that month in what would be the Chinese President’s first trip to the country since he took charge in Beijing at the end of 2012.

The twin bilateral summits, Indian officials said, have been scheduled keeping in mind the sensitivities of both China and Japan, East Asian powers with a tense history and a bitter, ongoing territorial dispute.

Modi’s visit to Tokyo and Xi’s visit to New Delhi would also just precede a trip by the Indian Prime Minister to Washington for summit talks with US President Barack Obama at the White House on September 30.

Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and (above) Chinese President Xi Jinping

“The Prime Minister has made it clear that he views relations with both China and Japan as top priorities in his foreign policy and we’ve got to be careful to take the concerns of both those allies on board while strengthening our ties,” an official said.

India’s balancing act is — and has been — tricky.

The Indian Navy invited Japan this year to join military exercises it normally holds with the US. The naval exercises began today in a bay off the southern Japanese island of Kyushu.

A 2007 invite by India to Japan for these exercises had drawn a protest from a prickly China, but Japan last year demonstrated a desire to strengthen military ties with India like never before. It agreed to sell India a military version of the US-2 amphibious planes, tweaking its decades-old policy of not selling armaments that was rooted in its American-drawn post-World War II constitution.

India is also counting on Japanese investment along the Bangalore-Chennai industrial corridor it is constructing. Growing ties with Japan also help India’s negotiating strength with China on their differences.

But India does not want to alienate or anger China — its second-largest trading partner and a nation New Delhi is desperately tapping for investments in infrastructure and manufacturing. The neighbours also share common geopolitical positions at key international forums on myriad subjects ranging from the environment to world trade rules that make them natural allies as the world’s two fastest growing emerging economies.

Modi, as chief minister of Gujarat, had visited both China and Japan on economic missions to ink pacts and attract investments to the state he then headed. On his visit to Japan, he met Abe, and the strong, nationalistic strand in their public posturing has led to comparisons between the two. Modi is one of only three people Abe follows on Twitter.

When Modi, after becoming Prime Minister two months back, signalled his intention to make Japan his first bilateral foreign destination outside India’s immediate neighbourhood in early July, his move had drawn wide smiles in Tokyo and led to concerns in Beijing.

His decision to postpone the Japan visit triggered speculation about Chinese pressure influencing Modi, but senior government officials insist the change in plan was solely because of the budget session of Parliament and that Beijing was not a factor.

The postponed visit has, however, allowed Modi to ensure that while he keeps his promise to Japan, he doesn’t upset China.

Although Japan would still be the destination of Modi’s first bilateral trip outside India’s immediate neighbourhood, the Prime Minister has already met Xi on the margins of the BRICS summit in Brazil’s Fortaleza earlier this month.