Abe’s South Asia Diplomacy – Analysis


After hosting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Japan, Japan’s Prime Minister Abe Shinzo embarked on his overseas sojourn to the 48th and 49th countries the day after Modi departed Japanese shore. He made a three-day visit to the South Asian continent from 6-8 September 2014, first travelling to Bangladesh and then to Sri Lanka. The trip was the first by a Japanese premier to Bangladesh in 14 years and to Sri Lanka in 24 years. The last Japanese Prime Minister to visit Sri Lanka was Abe’s grandfather Nobusuke Kishi, who paid an official visit in 1957 to the island then known as Ceylon.

Abe seems to be following up on his South Asian overdrive to place Japan in one of the world’s promising emerging markets and investment destination. Since coming to power in December 2012, this was the most for a prime minister in the history of Japanese politics. Junichiro Koizumi visited 48 countries during his premiership between 2001 and 2006. Abe’s trip to Beijing for the APEC summit in November would be his 50th trip to a foreign country as prime minister.

Last January, he was in New Delhi as the Chief Guest in the Republic Day celebration. Interestingly, a day after his return from Japan, Modi hosted the Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, during which both leaders clinched the landmark nuclear deal. Then while Modi is going to receive the Chinese President Xi Jinping later this month and then he travels to Washington for a summit meeting with President Barack Obama, both Modi and Abe travel to Beijing in November for the APEC meeting as well as to Brisbane for the G-20 meeting.

What do all these travel by top leaders in this part of the world mean when everyone is trying to reach the other and with such frequency? This analysis shall make an attempt to demonstrate Abe’s foreign policy activism and the factors that drive Abe’s attempt to reach out to leaders friendly to Japan.


One explanation being floated is that by choosing to travel to Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, the globe-trotting leader was trying to offset China’s mounting influence in South Asia and thereby assert Japan’s interests. First, while hosting Modi in Tokyo, Abe and Modi agreed to raise bilateral ties to a “new level”. Acknowledging the growing influence of both Bangladesh and Sri Lanka in the economic and political domains, Abe’s wanted to boost economic and security ties with both these countries. With this objective, Abe was accompanied by 50 top corporate executives, ranging from infrastructure to safe water hoping to do business with Bangladesh.

So, what did Abe deliver in Bangladesh? Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina termed Abe’s visit as a milestone in bilateral ties and hoped to win Japanese investment for infrastructure projects including a railway bridge and a tunnel under the Brahmaputra river. Earlier when Hasina had visited Japan in May 2014, Japan had announced $6 billion aid for Dhaka, a real boost as she came months before to power amidst opposition boycott. In August, Japan had announced to lend $4 billion for an ambitious 1,350 megawatt coal-fired power plant project, which includes a deep-sea terminal.

Japan is already Bangladesh’s largest bilateral donor and a promising export-destination. Japan plans to provide some 600 billion yen ($5.71 billion) in official development assistance to Bangladesh over the next four to five years, starting in fiscal 2015.

With a population of more than 150 million and its gross domestic product growing at a 6 percent-plus annual clip, Bangladesh is an attractive potential market for Japanese companies. Japanese ODA is likely to be directed towards construction of an industrial zone along the Bay of Bengal, as well as for other public infrastructure as power grid and roads.

It seems three countries – Japan, China and South Korea – are competing for investment in Bangladesh. Though Bangladesh plans to set up an industrial park for Japanese investors, thus far Japanese investment is far below than that of by China and South Korea. Abe is trying to catch up. It appears that Abe is keen to sculpt a comprehensive partnership with Bangladesh. The Bangladesh Board of Development (BOI), Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FBCCI), and Japan External Trade Organisation (JETRO) are jointly tasked to promote bilateral trade and attract Japanese investment in Bangladesh. Since its establishment of diplomatic ties with Bangladesh in February 1972, soon after Bangladesh’s independence, Japan has emerged as Bangladesh’s largest bilateral development partner. Its aid has come in the form of grant, aid, technical assistance, and soft loans. The total grant and aid reached $11 billion in 2013. Japan is getting concerned that it has ceded influence to China lately and is therefore trying to make amends.

Coming in the wake of Modi coming to power with his demonstrative intent to play an active role on the world stage as was indicated by his invitation to regional leaders to his inauguration in May 2014, and followed by world leaders engaging with India one after another, great-power diplomacy in Asia is suddenly stirred up to life. First Abe hosted Modi and pledged to invest $35.5 billion in India over the next five years and launched a “special, strategic and global partnership” to deepen security cooperation, to be followed by his travel to India’s backyard. Then Modi hosts the Chinese President who also travels to Sri Lanka, possibly with the objective to wean back the country from the Japanese embrace. Will the pendulum swing back and forth? These are interesting times to watch as each try to outdo the other in spreading their sphere of influence.

Even when Modi is “weaving a complex tapestry of relations with Asia”, as observed by Dayan Jayatilake, former Sri Lankan diplomat, Beijing is assiduously cultivating India’s neighbours by seeking to recycle some of its vast surpluses in foreign investments in resources and infrastructure in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka both to feed its industrial machine and to extend its sphere of influence. As China continues to invest in development of ports in these two countries, India perceives the Chinese moves as a part of creating a “string of pearls” that surrounds it, thereby threatening its security.

As Japan and China have territorial and historical issues that remain unresolved, on its part Japan is trying to reach out to India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka to check China’s growing influence in the South Asian region. Japan is pursuing to achieve such objective by economic engagement strategy as well as deepening security cooperation with the three countries. The recent visits of Abe to Australia, Modi’s to Japan and Abbot’s visit to India may be seen as a means to find common interests to coordinate a common regional security strategy for the Asia-Pacific region. Even some of Abe recent policy decisions on the issue of Japan’s exercise of the right to collective defence and relaxation of weapons exports may be seen from this broader perspective.

Does this mean Modi has joined Japan and Australian in an ‘alliance’ to check China? Two interpretations are crowded in a series of analyses that appeared in various forums and websites recently. One is that Modi sent a stern warning to Beijing to desist from its “expansionist” policies during an election campaign speech in Arunachal Pradesh and that each inch of the territory of the state belongs to India and India would defend to the core. Those who take the same view also take note of Modi’s remarks in Tokyo when he criticised countries with an “expansionist” mindset, a code jibe against Beijing’s assertive behaviour in South China Sea.

Ahead of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to India, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj clarified that Modi’s “expansionist” remarks in Japan did not refer to China. She clarified that India wants China to “understand and appreciate” its “sensitivities” regarding Arunachal Pradesh as New Delhi respects Beijing’s position on Tibet and Taiwan. Saying that it was media’s guess, Swaraj observed that Modi spoke only about 18th century expansionism and clarified that India-China relationship is all about “cooperation and competition”.

Those who take a contrary view say that Modi’s China policy would focus mainly on economic engagement and therefore pragmatic. When Modi was Chief Minister of Gujarat, he had developed a personal equation with China and engaged economically with the state. This personal bonhomie was well reciprocated by the Chinese leadership. Now as prime minister, he is seeking closer ties with Japan and Australia as well. Whether such an approach will come into conflict and coalesce with India’s broad foreign policy paradigm remains to be seen when President Xi visits India later this month. A multi-tiered Asian architecture in Modi’s foreign policy may be discerned, whereby India’s foreign policy weight is likely to be distributed evenly without tilting towards any single country. Such a fierce independent stance has remained as the foundation of India’s foreign policy and is unlikely to be eroded under Modi’s dispensation without any possibility of being tilted towards any single country.

As regards Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, both shall hugely benefit if the region’s larger economies generate more wealth, thereby bringing in more investment and promote export and thus foster economic integration. During his visit to Dhaka, Abe committed to invest 600 billion yen over the next four to five years. Bangladesh is developing its Bay of Bengal industrial belt and some of the Japanese ODA money will go towards improving infrastructure and transportation in this project. With a population of 150 million, Bangladesh’s garment industry has been growing and is also likely to get a fillip, as an increasing number of Japanese firms have started opening offices there.

What did Abe get in return from Bangladesh? Bangladesh agreed to withdraw its candidacy for a non-permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council for 2016-17 in favour of Japan for which elections are scheduled to be held in October 2015. Earlier Japan had urged Bangladesh to drop its bid, aiming to push for Security Council reform within the important panel and win permanent membership along with Germany, Brazil and India through the reform. The year 2015 shall also mark the 70th anniversary of the United Nations.

Japan is keen to take the lead in efforts to bring in reform to the world organisation in a way that reflects to the new situation of the 21st century. It thus transpired that Japan becoming the only candidate in the Asia-Pacific region to seek a non-permanent seat at the UN Security Council is a result of Abe’s successful diplomatic strategy. It is a normal practice to prevent the election from becoming competitive by coordinating non-permanent member candidates in each region beforehand. In the past, Japan has been elected as a non-permanent member 10 times, more than any other UN member nation. Japan lost in membership race to Bangladesh once in 1978 and that remained as a bitter memory for some time.

United Nations member countries seeking the non-permanent seats require the approval from more than two-thirds of all voting members of the UN General Assembly.

Abe and Hasina also agreed to strengthen relationships between the two countries in the diplomatic and security fields, and hold a vice-foreign ministerial meeting in early 2015. The last Japanese Prime Minister to visit Bangladesh was Yoshiro Mori in 2000. Abe explained his government’s recent decisions to reinterpret the pacifist Constitution, which was a major policy shift allowing Japan to defend allies under armed attack. Both the leaders also discussed on the issue of freedom of maritime navigation and aviation as well as peacefully resolving conflicts in accordance with international law.

Sri Lanka

By visiting Sri Lanka, Abe became the first Japanese Prime Minister to visit the country in 24 years. Japan acknowledges that Sri Lanka holds a strategic position on the Indian Ocean between the Middle East and Africa on one hand and South-east and East Asia on the other and therefore strengthening partnership in maritime security was a priority for Abe during his discussion with President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The main points in the joint statement that was issued were (a) Japan to provide patrol vessels free of charge to improve Sri Lanka’s coast guard capabilities, (b) cooperation between Japanese Maritime Self Defence Forces and Sri Lanka Navy, (c) cooperation in maritime security affairs with participation of foreign ministry director general or equivalent officials, and (d) Japan to provide up to about 13.7 million yen to assist Sri Lanka in building broadcasting facilities based on Japan’s terrestrial digital broadcasting format. Sri Lanka is also to develop the Colombo international airport and build a new passenger terminal with the help of a $330 million Japanese development loan.

Abe felt that Sri Lanka had yielded space to Beijing, having surpassed Japan in the sheer amount of aid it has been offering and therefore offered assistance in such fields as fostering human resources to demonstrate Japan’s contributions. Maritime cooperation is a major strategic priority in Abe’s South Asia policy.

As many as 3,000 tankers and other vessels carry natural resources from the Middle East to Japan annually. These cargo vessels have been attacked by pirates in the past causing considerable damage to trade. Therefore strengthening Sri Lanka’s Coast Guard capabilities to help smooth maritime navigation and thereby securing Japan’s economic interests is a priority for Japan. In fact, with its ODA programs, Japan has been providing patrol vessels to the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia with similar objectives. This was for the first time Japan has offered such help to a country in the Indian Ocean. But is this kind of help by Japan is just to secure smooth maritime commerce or there are other strategic imperatives that drive Abe’s South Asia policy?

The aim of Abe’s recent visits to Bangladesh and Sri Lanka in succession is to blunt China’s moves to expand its presence in the Indian Ocean, in addition to ensuring the safety of Japan’s sea lanes. In recent years, China has been engaged in construction of ports in many countries on the Indian Ocean by investment a lot of money as China too considers such moves as strategically important region for maritime traffic. Along the sea lanes towards the Middle East, China is engaged in port development activities with Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Pakistan. (See the map). Security analysts see such Chinese moves to secure ports and other facilities through such activities as building a ‘String of Pearl’ around its traditional regional superpower and rival India. By using its bulging wealth, China has assisted with repairs at Gwadar port in southern Pakistan and Chittagong port in Bangladesh. China is also developing the Sittwe port in Myanmar.

China has also aided Sri Lanka to develop the port at Hambantota, thereby converting it into one of the largest ports in South Asia in 2010. As the Chinese President Xi Jinping also visits Sri Lanka after his India visit, he is also likely to offer a bigger economic package. It seems both Japan and China are cognizant of each others’ strategic objectives in reaching out to Sri Lanka with basket of aid. For many years, Japan was Sri Lanka’s largest air donor but China overtook Japan in 2009. This worries Japan as it has yielded space to China.

As China’s maritime influence spreads, this causes a sense of unease among small nations as Chinese maritime advance has an element of aggressiveness as its stance on South China Sea would demonstrate. Japan, therefore, is offering assistance by strengthening Coast Guards, dispatching officials to provide practical training on the enforcement of international maritime laws and risk prevention measures. China’s increasing maritime presence in the Indian Ocean region overwhelms not only Japan but also other countries in the region. There is of course a qualitative difference between Japanese and Chinese aid: while China provides only material assistance, Japan’s consist of immaterial aid such fostering human resources and therefore more important if seen from a long-term perspective.

In view of Sri Lanka’s positioning in a midway point on one of the world’s busiest international shipping lanes, Abe is keen to deepen maritime links with Sri Lanka and for open and safe seas in a move seen as countering China’s influence in the region.

Like Modi who first visited Kyoto to strike a historical bond and remind the civilizational linkages between India and Japan during his visit to Japan, Abe also visited a historic Kelaniya Rajamaha Buddhist temple, offered flowers and worshipped for about 40 minutes before wrapping up his visit. Buddhists believe that Buddha himself visited the temple more than 2,500 years ago. Abe also paid tribute to a former Sri Lanka President Junius Jayewardene, who was cremated at the temple grounds in 1996. Like his visit to Kolkata in 2007 to meet and thank the son of Justice Radha Binod Behari Pal for his dissenting judgment during the Tokyo trial, Jayewardene had made an impassioned plea on behalf of Japan at the 1951 Peace Treaty signing in San Francisco and declined compensation from Japan, though Japan had carried out several aerial bombing raids in Colombo and at the eastern port city of Trincomalee, a strategic staging post for allied troops.

Concluding Observations

The great-power diplomacy in the Asian theatre is stirred into life since the assumption to power by Narendra Modi who showed his new style of diplomacy in inviting the regional leaders to his inauguration in May 2014. This single initiative led to a flurry of visits by leaders of other countries. Countries in the region started revisiting and re-analysing their strategic space and begun to recast their foreign policy priorities. Seen from this perspective, what transpires from Abe’s discussion with Hasina and Rajapaksa is that Japan’s security and economic cooperation with Bangladesh and Sri Lanka would be strengthened in the coming years, making Japan as an important player in Asia. Though Sri Lanka accepted Chinese financial aid of some $500 million for the port terminal in Colombo that was opened in 2013 as a part of efforts to build a ‘21st century maritime silk road’, it is not likely to be sucked into the Chinese orbit and is likely to welcome Japan both as a donor and investor as well as a counterweight to China. On its side, Japan is not likely to be embroiled in any geopolitical contest with China. That would be the official version on the surface but the deeper meaning is definitely different. That is the danger that the Asian visionaries ought to deal with.

Japan has developed adequate expertise to effectively use the ODA as a non-military option to seek solution either to keep countries out from conflict or as a means to uplift the nations through developmental projects. This twin-prone strategy has always served Japan’s own national interests and Abe’s policy towards South Asia needs to be appreciated from this perspective. Though such a policy may also address to the short-term situation to check growing Chinese influence perceived to be affecting Japan’s interests, Abe’s globe-trotting diplomacy does contain a deeper element to serve Japan’s long-term national interests in conformity with the changing international environment.

Dr. Rajaram Panda

Dr. Rajaram Panda, Former Senior Fellow at Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, a think tank under the Ministry of Culture, Government of India, Former ICCR India Chair Professor, Reitaku University, Japan, and former Senior Fellow, IDSA, New Delhi E-mail: [email protected]

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