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Modi E-play on Beijing

New Delhi, Sept. 1: Narendra Modi today took his first swipe at China as Prime Minister and nudged India strategically closer to a US-Japan alliance, agreeing to a clutch of diplomatically tricky proposals by Tokyo that are likely to leave Beijing uneasy.

Speaking to the Japanese chamber of commerce and industry in the morning, Modi cited the growing global consensus that the 21st century would be “Asia’s century”. But he added that Asia’s future would hinge on the growth strategy its powers adopt.

“Some — democracies like India and Japan — believe in growing following the path of peace, the path of Buddha,” Modi said.

“But there are some other nations that are still pursuing the expansionist policies of the 18th century, encroaching on the land and in the waters of other nations.”

Later, after a two-hour meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Modi outlined a series of signals and concrete plans that enhance New Delhi’s defence and strategic cooperation not just bilaterally with Tokyo but also with the US and Japan as a trio.

The Indian Prime Minister did not name China but his statement will be interpreted as being aimed at Beijing, especially since he reused a word from his last public comment critical of China.

Electioneering in Arunachal Pradesh earlier this year, Modi had asked China to shed its “expansionist” approach.

The Global Times, a Chinese state-owned newspaper, had only yesterday accused Abe of trying to drive a wedge between New Delhi and Beijing. Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to visit India later this month.

China and India share a contested 4,000km boundary in the icy Himalayas where they often accuse each other of violating what each considers its de-facto border, the Line of Actual Control. But the LAC has remained largely peaceful, without any firing by either side for three decades now.

In contrast, East Asia has emerged as one of the world’s tensest theatres in recent years, with Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam each locked in a dispute with China over patches of sea and tiny barriers and islands that Beijing claims.

The US “pivot” to the Pacific Ocean in 2011, coupled with New Delhi’s greater cooperation with Washington and Tokyo under former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, had triggered concerns in Beijing about the emergence of a US-India-Japan axis to contain its growth. Washington has since 2011 nudged India towards an alliance that includes Japan.

India, while insisting that East Asia’s disputes must not impede maritime movement and must be resolved peacefully, has so far also argued that the differences between these nations should be sorted out bilaterally — thus, in effect, staying out of these battles. Officially, that position stays intact.

But Modi and Abe, in their joint statement issued this evening, described the India-Japan partnership as not just important — the terminology previously used — for the region’s peace and prosperity but as “indispensable”.

The words weren’t mere symbolism. The joint statement sought to ensure Japan’s “continued participation” in the India-US Malabar exercises — something China had in the past objected to.

Japan did participate in the maritime exercises this year on an invitation from India, but the joint statement is the first signal that Tokyo will now take part in the navy drills every year. China had in 2007 formally protested the inclusion of Japan, Singapore and Australia in the Malabar exercises.

“We have a deep, shared interest in ensuring maritime security,” Modi said in a separate statement after his meeting with Abe.

India, Japan and the US have held a trilateral dialogue over the past two years but only at the level of foreign office joint secretaries. Abe and Modi have decided to try and elevate these talks to the ministerial level.

Bilaterally too, India and Japan today inked a “memorandum of cooperation and exchanges” in defence that will allow the two nations’ militaries to explore joint efforts at manufacturing or exchanging equipment.

The joint statement called the two countries’ partnership “indispensable” for peace and stability, “in particular, in the interconnected Asia, Pacific and Indian Ocean regions”.

Modi’s statement in Tokyo and his signals at exploring an elevation in the US-India-Japan trilateral alliance are likely to worry Beijing, which has blamed Abe for the region’s heightened tensions.

“Beijing’s improving maritime strategies and the development of China-India strategic relations will inevitably exert far-reaching influence upon Japan’s strategic resources, channels and markets,” China’s Global Times wrote yesterday. “Consequently, dividing China and India has become a key issue for Abe.”