What comes to mind is the tragic moment in William Shakespeare’s play when the titular character Julius Caesar says, “Et tu, Brute? – Then, fall Ceasar”. Like the Roman statesman who was betrayed by his friend, the Modi government, which began its diplomatic activities three years ago by glorifying the incoming Asian Century, seems destined to get back-stabbed.

The Asian Century is forging ahead for sure, but sans India. Japan, which was regarded by Prime Minister Narendra Modi as India’s ideal partner in a brave new world with Asia as its growth centre, seems to be edging closer to China, seeking a collaborative venture.

Tokyo hosted a major international conference on Monday and Tuesday under the rubric “Future of Asia”. The theme of the conference was “Globalism at a crossroads: Asia’s next move” and the sub-plot that inevitably took the centre-stage at the demi-official event was about Japan and China setting aside their historical distrust and current rivalry to lead Asia in tandem towards greater integration.

In his keynote speech at the conference, Singapore’s powerful Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong urged: “If Japan-China relations can move towards greater trust and cooperation, there will be a mutually-reinforcing effect on the other key bilateral relationships in the region.” Goh said there is a need to build greater interdependence among Asian countries and China and Japan should take the lead as Asia’s top two economies.

Interestingly, Goh lauded the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and China’s Belt and Road Initiative as fine examples of how Asia can build interdependence, champion free trade and further the integration process. Of these, India is not a part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement between 11 countries, is a reluctant participant in its rival free-trade zone, the proposed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and has outrightly boycotted the Belt and Road Initiative, among other reasons because a part of the project passes through Pakistan occupied Kashmir.

Coming closer

However, it is Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s inaugural address at the Tokyo meet on Monday that should make Delhi sit up.

Abe announced that Japan is ready to cooperate with China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a modern-day Silk Road linking corridors across Asia, Africa and Europe, which he lauded for its “potential to connect East and West as well as the diverse regions found in between.”

Abe spelt out certain conditions – OBOR, as the project is also known (short for One Belt One Road) should be in harmony with “a free and fair Trans-Pacific economic zone”, infrastructure development should be based on procurement that is transparent and fair and that projects should be economically viable and should not harm the debtor nations’ finances. However, he made it clear that Tokyo is “ready to extend cooperation.”

Before this too, there were many indications that Japan-China relations seem to be heading for a dramatic makeover. Toshihiro Nikai, secretary-general of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party who is known for his pro-China stance, attended the Belt and Road international forum (which India refused to participate in) in Beijing on May 14 and 15 and was received by President Xi Jinping. Nikai also handed over a “personal letter” from Abe. Xinhua reported that Xi took note that Japan has “clearly affirmed the [Belt and Road] initiative”. A fortnight later, China’s State Councillor Yang Jiechi visited Tokyo and met Abe to follow up on the “important guiding opinions on Sino-Japanese relationship” that Xi had earlier conveyed through Nikai.

Beijing has been quick to warmly respond to Abe’s path-breaking speech in Tokyo on Monday. The very next day, at a press conference in Beijing, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said:

“We have noted the statement by Prime Minister Abe [on OBOR]. In the course of developing the Belt and Road, China is committed to establishing a set of fair, reasonable and transparent rules for international trade and investment together with countries along the routes…The Belt and Road is an important international public goods, and an open and inclusive development platform, creating benefits for countries around the world including Japan. All parties are equal in terms of participating in, contributing to and benefiting from the Belt and Road. We believe that this initiative can serve as a new platform and test field for mutually beneficial cooperation and common development of China and Japan, and welcome Japan’s discussion with us on conducting cooperation within the Belt and Road framework…Chinese side attaches importance to and stands ready to improve its relationship with Japan…We have noted the remarks of Japan and hope that the Japanese side can translate their remarks and wishes about improving relations with China into concrete policies and actions.” 

New chapter

Clearly, there is willingness on both sides to turn the page. Japan realises that China finds itself in a stronger position today as compared to the period prior to the victory of Donald Trump as US president.

On the other hand, China too assesses that its surge as a superpower lately and its lead role in globalisation and free trade invest in it a special responsibility to be accommodative and explore the terms of a constructive engagement with Japan.

One way of looking at Japan’s rethink on OBOR is, arguably, its well-reasoned estimation that it is a matter of time before the US makes its move in the direction.

The US already took a lead over Japan by hinting at its intention to join the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, deputing a senior White House official to participate in the Belt and Road Initiative forum meet in Beijing last month, and with the American embassy in Beijing subsequently constituting a “working group” to discuss OBOR with the Chinese authorities.

Japan’s scepticism over the Belt and Road – with regard economic viability, funding and transparency, among others – is strikingly similar to India’s but its approach is radically different. Japan does not want to be left stranded at the station while the last train is all set to commence the journey. Therefore, Abe did the right thing by deputing Nikai as his special envoy to attend the Belt and Road Initiative forum meet with the expectation that he could build on the overture – potentially leading to a summit meeting with Xi. As things stand, a Sino-Japanese summit seems to be within the realms of possibility.

If for India, the boycott of the Beijing meet was an ego trip that highlighted its “muscular diplomacy” vis-à-vis China, Abe was coolly realistic and far-sighted and he most certainly acted with a big picture in view.

The stunning reality is that India is the only Asian country (except for Bhutan),which today stands outside the OBOR tent looking in. It is an ugly sight for any country when vacuous diplomacy and panache for grandstanding paint it into a tight corner from where it can only escape by crawling on its knees.

Odd man out

No matter the Indian establishment’s bravado of “strategic defiance” of OBOR, the fact remains that networking and engagement and extensive partnerships is the name of the diplomatic game in a globalised world. Abe’s – and Goh’s – creative thinking leaves Prime Minister Modi stranded as the odd man out,even as the ensuing trends in Asian realignment are gathering momentum and would increasingly make India look jaded and listless in its sheer lack of intellectual capacity and diplomatic acumen to adapt to the rapidly evolving geopolitics of the region.

It is useful to take the mind away from the desolate landscape of Indian diplomacy to recall Modi’s 37th Singapore Lecture in November 2015 when he made a stirring call to realise the vision of an “Asian century of peace, prosperity and stability.”

The Indian diplomacy is hopelessly stuttering today, hardly 20 months from that inspiring moment in Singapore when Modi had addressed an elite gathering of over a thousand people, flaunting India’s vaulting ambition to captain the ship of Asian Century.