The significance of the victory of Donald Trump in the US presidential election will be felt in real time in South Block.
The countdown has begun for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Japan. The startling news from Washington radically reframes the regional context in which the meeting between Modi and his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe will be taking place in Tokyo on Friday.
No country is going to be as profoundly affected by the Trump presidency as Japan is. The future of the United States’ rebalance strategy in the Asia-Pacific region hangs in the abyss.
The worst fears are coming true for Abe, who was hoping to be one of the first world statesmen to visit Washington as early as February to congratulate Hillary Clinton and to jointly choreograph the future trajectory of the US’ pivot to Asia.
On the contrary, Turmp has made no bones about the fact that he intends to bury the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, which the Barack Obama administration had conceived as the flagship of the rebalance strategy aimed at isolating China.
Japan had pinned high hopes on the Agreement as the last train leaving the station before China’s Bullet train races through the track overtaking all else.
The abandonment of the Agreement means that Japan has to come to terms with the reality of a Chinese economic locomotive that outpaces it comprehensively.
The Agreement was supposed to be the underpinning to rally the Association of Southeast Asian Nations region behind US-Japanese leadership. Japan and the US, on the other hand, are already watching with great unease that the ASEAN countries prefer to come to terms with China’s rise in their own way without tutelage by third parties.
The leaderships in the Philippines and Malaysia have begun dealing with the Chinese leaders directly. Thailand also is moving away from the US orbit toward China and is hoping to purchase Chinese submarines. Chinese warships docked at Cam Ranh Bay naval base in Vietnam two weeks ago.
In short, the Trump presidency is appearing in regional politics at a juncture when the entire US-led alliance system in the Asia-Pacific is beginning to look wobbly.
The Trump twist
Taken together with Trump’s pronounced disinterest in interventionist policies, and his emphasis on "America First" – read near-obsessive focus on America’s domestic affairs – the US’ allies in the Asia-Pacific such as Japan are facing an era of uncertainty.
Suffice it to say, the setting for the Modi-Abe summit cannot be any gloomier than this. The general expectation up until today has been that the summit promises to be a landmark event that may shift the power dynamic throughout Asia. The two countries have been assiduously moving in such a direction for the past decade.
Of course, the leitmotif is China, with both Japan and India convinced about the inevitability of a strategic competition with the emergent superpower. Both Japan and India apprehend that China’s rise may inexorably marginalise them as Asian powers and, perhaps, even challenge at some point their territorial possessions.
Japan and India’s only hope so far of escaping from their so-called China dilemma was through forging a new system of regional alliances. But, clearly, there aren’t many takers in Asia for such an idea as increasingly China has become the principal driver of growth in the Asian region and the countries of the region are unwilling to bandwagon with Japan or India, their unease over China’s rise notwithstanding.
This is where Trump’s appearance infinitely complicates matters. For, the anchor sheet of any regional alliance for Japan and India would be their all-important security relationship with the US.
Trump, on the whole, has expressed disinterest in the US continuing with the "free ride" of allies in Europe and Asia on America’s defence train. He does not think that Pax Americana paid for by American taxpayers made economic sense while the US’ share of the world GDP has shrunk to 22%. Trump was fairly forthright on that score when he said:
“My foreign policy will always put the interests of the American people, and American security, above all else. That will be the foundation of every decision that I will make. Our allies must contribute toward the financial, political and human costs of our tremendous security burden. But many of them are simply not doing so. They look at the United States as weak and forgiving and feel no obligation to honor their agreements with us.”
Focus on economics
From such a grim perspective, given the great fluidity that is bound to ensue out of Trump’s election victory, the Abe-Modi summit may have to reset its focus.
One way of doing this creatively and pragmatically – and in mutual interest – will be by the Indian and Japanese leaderships concentrating more on the bilateral relationship, leaving on the back-burner any regional agenda for the present.
It will be interesting to see what the joint communiqué issued after the Modi-Abe summit would have to say on regional politics, especially the territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
Fortunately, the summit as such is in no great peril, since it is assured of substantial bilateral content anyway.
The two countries have successfully resurrected the moribund deal of Japan selling 12 Shinmaywa US-2 amphibious aircraft to India at a bargain price of less than $1.6 billion.
If the remaining sticking point about the Shinmaywa dual-use aircraft over Japan’s willing ness to technology transfer can be sorted out, this will be the first-ever breakthrough in defence ties between Japan and India. India has already written to Japan for more details about its Soryu-class submarines.
Similarly, all indications are that the recent visit by the Japanese Deputy Foreign Minister Shinsuke Sugiyama to Delhi aimed at putting the finishing touches on a civil nuclear deal, which in turn will enable American and French nuclear power companies to start sourcing reactor vessels for their upcoming plants in India.
The challenge today lies in galvanising the economic relationship. The best bet for India will be by providing an alternate manufacturing base for Japanese industry, which could be looking for a diversification away from China.
However, so far it has been a dismal picture of deeds not matching the words. During Modi’s high-profile 5-day tour of Japan in August 2014, his first visit abroad as prime minister, Abe committed to invest $35 billion in projects in India.
Modi promptly responded by announcing that a special monitoring cell for the implementation of the projects would be set up in the Prime Minister’s Office. That is the last we heard on the subject.
We may have to wait at least another generation to see the first Japanese-built bullet train speeding through the vast Indian spaces. And the less said the better about the "smart cities" to be built by Japan.
We have not even figured out yet how a "smart city" ought to look like on paper. The less said the better about the Ganges, which continues to flow stoically carrying all the accumulated filth of the subcontinent and its human debris.
The tragedy is that in Abe, India has a genuine friend who is passionately devoted to the idea of a Japan-India relationship. The fault lies entirely with us – too much emphasis on geopolitics and scanty attention to economic diplomacy.
The priority should have been the other way around – how India could make use of Japan’s seamless friendship to carry forward our development agenda and modernise and transform the country as a regional power.
Geopolitics must take a back seat for the conceivable future. Trump’s election should stimulate new thinking on India’s "Act East" policies.
In a regional environment where a US-led containment strategy against China has no future, there is urgency to reset the sights and rethink old assumptions.
MK Bhadrakumar is a former ambassador.