Foreign Policy: India’s Role is Key in Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy

May 18, 2018

Asia Pacific Bulletin No. 424

India’s Role is Key for Including Central Asia in Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy

By Shutaro Sano

Central Asia has become an increasingly important region for the international community including Japan. Tokyo initially pursued bilateral relationships with each of Central Asian country through its “Silk Road Diplomacy” in the late 1990s, but started to strengthen the relationships by initiating the multilateral “Central Asia plus Japan” Dialogue in 2004. Since then, Japan has striven to become a “catalyst” for regional cooperation that would enable the Central Asian countries to achieve “open, stable and autonomous development.”

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A more developed and secure Central Asia is also expected to provide Tokyo with a reliable alternative source of energy supply such as oil, natural gas and rare earth metals including uranium. Japan’s growing acknowledgement of Central Asia was highlighted by Prime Minister Abe’s visit in October 2015, when he became the first Japanese leader to visit all five Central Asian countries.

Today, Japan’s cooperation covers a broad range of areas, including regional security arrangements (nuclear non-proliferation, countering terrorism and narcotics), trade and investment, development (disaster reduction and maternal and child health), and people-to-people and cultural exchanges. Notably, cooperation in energy and socio-economic infrastructure has been the immediate priority for Tokyo as strengthening the connectivity inside and outside Central Asia would enhance overall regional development, thereby promoting stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific as a whole.

Yet Japan’s involvement in the landlocked region has been marginal compared to countries such as Russia and China. The gross disbursement of Japan’s ODA to the Central Asia and the Caucasus, for instance, has increased over the years, but it accounted for only 2.5 percent of the total ODA in 2015. In this respect, India, which seeks to play a more active role with Japan through the Special Strategic and Global Partnership, has become a promising partner for Tokyo.

New Delhi not only shares civilizational heritage with Central Asia from the Mughal period, but also has been more engaged in regional cooperation and security arrangements through its “Connect Central Asia Policy.” Indeed, the development of Iran’s Chabahar port and Afghanistan’s Zaranj-Delaram Highway, in which India played a critical role with the support of Japan, have begun to provide Tokyo and New Delhi valuable access to energy-rich Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan bypassing Pakistan. Furthermore, India’s proposal to integrate land routes in Central Asia with the International North-South Transport Corridor, to which Japan could also contribute, would expand the geographical scope of connectivity to include not only Central Asia, Caucasus and South Asia but also Europe.

However, Japan’s engagement in Central Asia faces challenges. First, Japan needs to balance its policies towards Central Asia and China in a very sensitive manner with India in mind. This is particularly important as Tokyo is now willing to cooperate, under certain conditions, with China’s $1 trillion cross-border infrastructure development project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The initiative, which includes the development of Central Asia, poses considerable challenges to New Delhi, which clearly sees the BRI as part of Beijing’s long-term strategy to contain India; notably with the establishment of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Furthermore, the dominance of China and the presence of Pakistan in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) may limit India’s role in the organization. Therefore, Tokyo would need to alleviate New Delhi’s concerns by, for example, linking its own regional connectivity efforts with the BRI with an aim to strengthen regional integration in the Indo-Pacific as a whole rather than any projects that could be seen as isolating any specific country including India.

Second, Japan is entering an already-crowded region of competition including regional rivalries such as between Russia and China. So far, China has adroitly refrained from developing an extensive hard security footprint in the region, but the regional imbalance of power has widened significantly in favor of Beijing as China’s trade with the five Central Asian countries spiked over the past decade, nearly doubling the amount of Russia’s by 2016. Meanwhile, Iran has also become more involved with the region as it reportedly seeks to build a “Persian axis” in the heart of Central Asia as well as to stop the flow of Afghan illegal drugs. Furthermore, the Central Asian countries have not necessarily been on the same page as illustrated by the energy inequality among the regional states as well as by membership in the SCO; in which Turkmenistan refuses to become a member.

In light of these events, Japan would need to avoid becoming embroiled in the new “Great Game” which also includes the United States, and continue its low-profile political engagement which has been welcomed by the regional states. Specifically, Japan should exert its effort exclusively in strengthening regional connectivity without developing strategic ambitions in Central Asia. It is also important that Japan continue to refrain from imposing democratic reforms to the Central Asian countries as a condition for economic cooperation.

Third, Japan will need to give considerable attention to the security conditions not only in Central Asia but also in Afghanistan. After gaining membership in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in 2007, Afghanistan has become a potentially vital economic hub connecting Central and South Asia in trade, transport and energy. Kabul also lies at the center of the Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation Program which links markets in 11 countries with six corridors.

However, the fight against the Three Evil Forces (terrorism, ethnic separatism and religious extremism) remains a huge challenge for regional integration as well as Japan and India’s involvement in Central Asia. Therefore, Japan together with India would need to continue its engagement in Afghan reconstruction and help Kabul fill the security vacuum that may be exploited by armed groups. Meanwhile, Japan and India need to pay substantial attention so that cooperation in Afghanistan will not jeopardize the India-Pakistan relationship.

Given the growing significance of Central Asian, it is essential that Japan strengthen its policy towards the region by seeking greater cooperation with India. Consequently, this will promote Japan’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy” which aims to provide assistance to the region’s long-term stability and sustainable development. Japan’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy” is not just applicable to the vast maritime space, but also to the Eurasian landmass of Central Asia.

Shutaro Sano is Professor and Deputy Director at the Center for International Exchange, in the National Defense Academy of Japan. He can be contacted at


APB Series Founding Editor: Dr. Satu Limaye | APB Series Coordinator: Peter Valente

The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the East-West Center or any organization with which the author is affiliated.

The East-West Center promotes better relations and understanding among the people and nations of the United States, Asia, and the Pacific through cooperative study, research, and dialogue. Established by the US Congress in 1960, the Center serves as a resource for information and analysis on critical issues of common concern, bringing people together to exchange views, build expertise, and develop policy options.


Modi’s Gulf Diplomacy: Signs of a changing world

February 26, 2018

Modi’s Gulf Diplomacy: Signs of a changing world

by  Balbur Puni

Modi’s upholding of the two-nation solution in Palestine was timely not only to rebalance India’s  diplomacy in the most turbulent region of the world but also to silence his critics back home

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While the national media is naturally focused on banking scams adding to thousands of crores, a major development with far reaching consequences for the country has passed unnoticed. Laying of a foundation stone for a Hindu temple in Abu Dhabi at the hands of visiting Prime Minister Narendra Modi signals that the winds of change are beginning to blow even in the arid region of the Gulf. This event  in the Islam’s conservative cauldron has more than a symbolic value both for the hosts and the distinguished guest.

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Prime Minister Modi and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu

Consider also the other highlights of Modi’s recent Gulf foray. One, it comes right against the background of his rolling out the red carpet for  Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu —one of the most die-hard Jew whom the world perceives as the obdurate obstructionist in the  establishment of an enduring peace in the region.

Despite the impression this red carpet carried for the international community, Modi was in Palestine soon after reinforcing the Indian stand all these years that the two state arrangement is the only enduring solution to the Palestine problem-the soaring  gangrene of the Gulf.

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The Indian Prime Minister’s upholding of the two nation theory in Palestine was timely not only to rebalance India’s  diplomacy in the most turbulent region in the world but also to demonstrate to his critics back home, that their Prime Minister is a deft player in international diplomacy in dealing with a tough Isareli counterpart or in assuaging wounded pride of the Islamic two third of the Gulf and even in winning and retaining their confidence in him as much as in gaining new military and industrial ties with Israel.  Not just the Jewish nation but the upholders of Islam’s dominance of the region are also counting on India’s growing role in adding to the peace process there.

On two counts Modi’s diplomacy has placed India in a beneficial position in the region. One is in supporting Israel as a growth agent of the area that needs the great talent of technology that the Jewish nation has which is so vital for a whole region that will now have to address itself to a de-cremental role of its most major source of wealth and well being-that is the oil.

It is obvious that oil is losing it’s pre-eminent position as a major source of energy in the world. There is emerging a shift from dependence on oil and gas as source of energy to solar based energy. There are clear signals of this shift the world over, including India.

Modi’s commitment of his Government to this shift in domestic energy policies, in modernising a traditional society into the digital era is also a point of criticism for his domestic opponents. But by standing abreast with global leaders in reversing climate change, in taking big strides in using solar energy and in awakening his own people to pollution whether in dealing with human waste to becoming a people aligned to digital transformation, there is this leadership role closely working with each change agent as a do or die transformation.

The Prime Minister’s Gulf tour was also well timed and well-paying for his country. The way he was received and country after country from Jordan to Iran have sought and got a wide ranging Memorandum of Understandings (MoUs) from him must have silenced his domestic critics now made to eat their words questioning the “chaiwala’s” diplomatic capability.

The Gulf tour comes also in the wake of an ASEAN Summit held in New Delhi where South-east Asian nations were not hesitant to express their apprehensions about China’s growing hegemonic rule.  Their determination to resist such hegemony whether in the South China Sea or in Indian Ocean island countries was evident as the Malé political crisis broke out as the world perceived China as using economic leverage gained through large scale “loosening of its purse” as diplomatic correspondents put it in Malé or Pakistan to push forward its policy of encircling India.

Communalism was an old theme. It got a boost when his Government backed the apex court taking up the issue of human rights in the battle it launched against the Muslim practice of triple talaq.  But wherever elections were held Muslim women appeared to back the Government rather than the orthodox mullahs who sought to give a religious backing to a simple  human rights violation issue. That even as Narendra Modi touched several Muslim majority countries no one mentioned the campaign against triple talaq as anti-Islamic.

In these very countries there other signs of change. Like in Saudi Arabia women being given the privilege of driving the family car and relaxation is the rigid stand in the name of religion that women cannot go out without being accompanied by a male close relative.

Behind the curtain of black cloth women in Islamic majority countries might have read Modi’s campaign against triple talaq as a word of hope for them though there may not have been any opening for them to give expression to their feeling. Within the country itself more and more signs are there of Muslim women breaking the barriers and asserting their rights. For instance, in Kerala Muslim women are attending Friday prayers and here and there even asserting their right to lead them.

At the same time the threat to world peace from the violence breathing Islamic States (IS) and terrorism spewing Pakistan are getting isolated day by day. If Pakistan had assumed that by playing Beijing’s puppet it would corner India, Modi has by getting Oman to voluntarily give India access to Oman port of  Duqm for  military purposes also with this port within sight of the Iranian port Chabahar on the Iranian coast developed by India with a clear security angle for Indian access to Afghanistan and central Asia

What is mystery in this great diplomatic achievement is not so much India’s quiet diplomatic triumph in now having a naval presence at the mouth of the Red Sea and the vital maritime route from Indian Ocean to Mediterranean through the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea but also big blow to China’s move to encircle India by infiltrating into Maldives’ political  power structure. The mystery is why the Indian Press failed to highlight this diplomatic triumph of Narendra Modi in an area of bitter inter-Islam conflict and IS influence.

(The writer is a political commentator and a former BJP Rajya Sabha MP)