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Japan Must Ask if India Is Really a Trusted Partner

India — which may be about to change its name to Bharat — is friendly to Japan. But can it be a trusted partner given its commitments to Russia and China?



Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi welcomes Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov upon his arrival for the G20 Summit in New Delhi, India September 9, 2023. (©Russian Foreign Ministry/Handout via REUTERS)

The Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida regards it as his most grave duty to remind the world that the threat of the use of nuclear weapons is unacceptable. That stark message was the central theme of the G7 summit in Hiroshima. The summit took place in May, in the wake of threats by Vladimir Putin to escalate the conflict in Ukraine. A clause on nuclear weapons was included in the joint declaration of the G20 summit in New Delhi, India, which took place on September 9 and 10. From the perspective of Japan, that was a significant diplomatic achievement — particularly as India is a nuclear-armed state.

However, I sense that there will be frustration among Mr Kishida and his advisors regarding the meeting's final communique. It did not include any direct criticism of Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, or its horrifying threats to take the war nuclear

The Communique

Vladimir Putin did not attend the G20, as travel outside of Russia could trigger his arrest for war crimes. The Russians were therefore represented by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, a keen friend of China and India. He praised the summit for its "milestone" agreement on the wording which he claimed was "a step in the right direction." Ukraine, which was not invited to attend, said the communique was "nothing to be proud of." 

Prime Minister Kishida gave a pragmatic analysis.

At a press conference in India on Sunday, he said it was significant that the declaration was adopted, despite the widening gap over Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

"It was a major outcome for all the G20 nations to agree in the declaration that member countries firmly maintain the principles of the United Nations' Charter regarding Ukraine, which include fair and permanent peace, territorial integrity, and sovereignty," said Mr Kishida, according to a translation by NHK.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at a press conference in India on September 10. (©Kyodo)

Is Bharat the New Name for India?

From my perspective, the most striking aspect of the summit was that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ministers now refer to their country as Bharat. 

This has led many people to wonder if the official name of the country is about to be changed. Bharat is an ancient Hindi term for India and chimes in with the name of Mr Modi's party, Bharatiya Janata, or the BJP. 

Critics say a new name is a signal of the leader's political vanity. They are particularly worried about the way in which Hindu extremists carry out vigilante attacks on Muslims. Another concern is that the free press is sometimes hassled by police at the behest of the government. 

Teachers speak of political and religious indoctrination in school classrooms. Secularists describe Modi as a totalitarian leader who uses religion to manipulate the masses. Historians point to worrying parallels to the way the Shinto religion in Japan was politicized and corrupted at the beginning of the 20th Century. 


However, some of my Indian friends maintain that Bharat is a charming Asian name for their land. They say that it suits their homeland's proud, postcolonial identity. One friend showed me old maps of Asia. They reveal that not so long ago, Siam and Fermosa were countries before they became known as Thailand and Taiwan.

Name changes are possible, she told me, even if they require some getting used to.

Chinese Premier Li Qiang shakes hands with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the G20 summit opens on September 9. (©Kyodo)

Questions to Consider

Given the pressure on journalists to toe the BJP line in the press, I was not surprised to read many media stories over the weekend praising the G20 as a huge success. It is understandable that national pride swells when the world's attention is focused on one's land. 

However, as a friend of India and Japan, I would like to raise a few concerns which I think are significant for both countries. 

Firstly, I'd like to know whose side and how committed the Indians are to a free and open Indo-Pacific. The Indians are involved in various forums that connect them with Japan, the United States, and Australia.

But would an Indian prime minister allow the navy to become involved in a standoff with China's PLA? I noticed that when Narendra Modi met Xi Jinping at the BRICS summit in South Africa in August, they agreed to do their best to avoid any problems along their lengthy land border. Of course, I am relieved they are aiming to keep the peace in the mountainous region where they actually fought a war a few generations ago. 

But I can't help but wonder if the Indians are sometimes muted in their response to the aggressive actions of the Chinese in the seas of Asia because they're worried about clashes with their neighbor high in the hills. 

Leaders including China's President Xi Jinping and India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi pose for a BRICS family photo on August 23, 2023. (GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo)

Meeting Putin by the Back Door 

Xi Jinping did not attend the G20 meeting. Instead, China was represented by Premier Li Qiang. Typically, he avoided any interaction with foreign media. But my intuition told me that he was probably asking everyone else to water down the final communique and redact any strident language about Moscow's invasion of Ukraine.

So that raises the question of whether countries that do deals with India are actually doing deals with Vladimir Putin via the backdoor. Much is made of India's growing economic growth. However, this is fuelled by Russian oil, purchased in the face of international sanctions. The Indian army carries Russian guns.

I believe that Prime Minister Kishida is right to be somewhat ambivalent about this new India — or Bharat. It is not unfriendly to Japan and indeed, I can see several significant areas where the national interests of the nations coincide. Yet ultimately, India is a rival to Japan. And at the G20, Narendra Modi showed he was prepared to assimilate the wishes of leaders who are leading the world down a dangerous path. 


Author: Duncan Bartlett, Diplomatic Correspondent

Mr Bartlett is the Diplomatic Correspondent for JAPAN Forward and a Research Associate at the SOAS China Institute. Read his articles and essays on JAPAN Forward.


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