Does Japan grow onions?

India brings home onions from Turkey to ease prices which in retail market stood at Rs 80-120 per kg.

The 2+2 format in inter-state relationships is an exotic thing — the raison d’être of foreign and defence ministers forming a caucus with their foreign counterparts as template of bilateral diplomacy.

The United States has a 2+2 format with Japan, which is probably because they are allies. But then, it is a rare exception, as the US doesn’t have such a format with most of its major allies. 

Although India is not an ally (yet), the US just began one with India. But it is yet to have one with Saudi Arabia — or Egypt, Turkey, Canada, Mexico or Brazil. 

Russia has an on-again-off-again 2+2 with France, which met twice in the past 6 years, but they are “frenemies”. Russia also has a 2+2 with Japan, another “frenemy”. Russia has no 2+2 with China, Vietnam or India, three Asian countries that are close and friendly.  

India-Japan are no great partners in the military, political or economic fields. Despite Herculean efforts, trade touched only US$ 15.7 billion in FY 2017-2018. (This compares with India-China bilateral trade of $95.54 billion.) What purpose does their new 2+2 format of November 30 serve?

The joint statement issued after the event in New Delhi wears that other-worldly look, which is increasingly typical of Indian foreign policy nowadays. It devotes two fulsome paragraphs to Pakistan and North Korea. The quid pro quo is clear — Japan feels lonesome vis-a-vis North Korea; India vis-a-vis Pakistan.  

Apparently, the India-Japan 2+2 was principally about China  — although for some reason best known to them, the joint statement wouldn’t bring itself to acknowledge it. The one substantive remark it makes is about the ongoing negotiations between the ASEAN and China on a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea. It says, 

“The Ministers also took note of the negotiations of a Code of Conduct and urged that it should be effective, substantive, and consistent with international law, including the UNCLOS, ensure freedom of navigation and must not prejudice the rights and interests of the stakeholders using the South China Sea and freedoms of all states under intentional law.”

Now, what if the ASEAN and China ignore the above red lines? Will India and Japan go to war? Will they impose sanctions on ASEAN and China? 

The problem with such megaphone diplomacy is that whatever little capacity that Tokyo and Delhi would have to leverage the ongoing ASEAN-China negotiations is also being squandered away. 

Simply put, the COC has the potential to calm the waters of the South China Sea, and the ASEAN and China are also stakeholders in the freedom of navigation in South China Sea. 

Japan and India should not behave like “spoilers”. Placed in the ASEAN’s shoes, Delhi wouldn’t like such intrusive behaviour by onlookers claiming to be good Samaritans who become prescriptive. 

The 2+2 ministers paid a lot of attention to naval exercises. Presumably, they hope to frighten the PLA Navy. But is PLA Navy listening? 

Unlikely. Over an year ago, in September 2018, New York Times had featured a lengthy report on South China Sea entitled, China’s Sea Control Is a Done Deal, ‘Short of War With the U.S. It quoted the head of the United States Indo-Pacific Command, Adm. Philip S. Davidson testifying (before US Congress prior to assuming his new post), “In short, China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States.” 

Such being the ground reality, will India and Japan step up? This is the whole point. Or else, these old samurais are only putting on display their mixed emotions over China’s rise — envy bordering on fury on one extreme and petulance stemming out of impotency on the other extreme. 

Curiously, on substantive issues, the joint statement remains silent — for instance, India’s longstanding request to acquire the P-3C anti-submarine and maritime surveillance aircraft. The India-Japan annual defence ministerial dialogue in Tokyo in July last year had resolved to ramp up overall military engagement under the bilateral special strategic framework, but almost 18 months have passed since then. 

The two sides also agreed at that time to commence technical discussions for research collaboration in the areas of Unmanned Ground Vehicles and Robotics. Similarly, Indian Navy had plans to buy the US-2 ShinMaywa aircraft from Japan. 

Again, the joint statement blithely takes a de tour from issues that could be game changer for the India-Japan relationship. Above all, the 2+2 ministers avoided like plague PM Modi’s flagship project — the famous Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train that is supposed to begin running in 2023. The Shiv Sena apparently considers  that this project costing a mind-boggling figure of Rs. 1.1 lakhs crores is a misuse of scarce resources. 

Equally, there is not a word in the joint statement about the Indian Ocean, India’s soft underbelly, where, by the way, China, Russia and Iran plan to hold joint naval exercises later this month “to ensure collective security and help boost the security in the northern part of the Indian Ocean.” (South Africa is currently holding its first-ever multinational military exercises exclusively with the Chinese and Russian navies.) 

Isn’t the Modi government taking us through fantasyland? China is yet to react to this strange 2+2 event in Delhi. But, coincidence or not, the Chinese tabloid Global Times carried a tantalising report today that “even though there are still differences” between China and India, it is possible for China to make onion exports to India (where onions are selling at Rs 100 per kilogram), if only the Indian government would “submit a request with sincerity.”   

China, like India, is a big onion exporting country but “as the onion crops in south China can grow all year due to the warm weather in such areas as Southwest China’s Yunnan Province, there’s no problem producing onions.” 

Life is real. Does Japan grow onions?