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FOCUS: Behind shinkansen diplomacy, Japan, India seek to counter China

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his Indian counterpart
Narendra Modi were all smiles at a commencement ceremony Thursday for
a railway project employing Japan's "shinkansen" bullet train
technology.

It was an opportunity to show off bilateral economic
cooperation, but the two leaders also sought to affirm cooperation in
another area: countering the assertiveness of China, although they
did not mention the country by name in a statement released after
their meeting.

Rajaram Panda, a leading expert on Japan-India relations, said
Japan and India face a common security challenge in China.

Japan is embroiled in a territorial row with China over the
Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, a group of uninhabited islets
controlled by Tokyo and claimed by Beijing.

India, meanwhile, has long-standing border disputes with China.
On Sept. 5, Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to work
toward improving ties following a 10-week border standoff over the
disputed territory of Doklam in the Himalayas.

But critics described the move as a tactical maneuver by Xi
aimed at ensuring the Indian prime minister showed up at the summit
of the BRICS grouping of five major emerging economies in the
southeastern Chinese city of Xiamen early this month.

"These are bilateral issues. But at the regional level, such as
in maritime security and in particular on the South China Sea, both
India and Japan share common concern about China's behavior," said
Panda.

China has territorial disputes with Brunei, Malaysia, the
Philippines and Vietnam over its claims to most of the South China
Sea.

"The coming together of India and Japan as two major Asian
powers is to be seen as a stabilizer of regional order and would be
welcome to other Asian nations," said Panda, adding that bolstered
bilateral ties would create a "win-win situation for the rest of
Asia."

Abe and Modi also slammed North Korea in the strongest terms
over its nuclear and missile tests and urged the international
community to apply "maximum" pressure to the country, according to
their joint statement.

But Takenori Horimoto, a visiting professor of international
politics at Gifu Women's University in Japan, questioned the
effectiveness of the bilateral framework in addressing North Korea.

India seems unwilling to get involved in the issue so as not to
irritate China, India's neighbor and a major ally of Pyongyang, and
complicate New Delhi's friendly ties with Moscow, according to
Horimoto.

In their meeting in Gandhinagar, western India, Abe and Modi
also agreed that Japan and India will continue to promote trilateral
cooperation through maritime military exercises involving the U.S.
Navy, as part of efforts to urge Washington to do more in the Asia
region to check China.

Horimoto said Japan and India are turning to the United States
as it is seen as the only country able to counter the country's
rising assertiveness.

Meanwhile, the cooperation on the high-speed railway project
appears to work for both leaders.

In a show of their strong personal bond, Modi invited Abe to the
groundbreaking ceremony in Ahmedabad, which will be connected with
the western major city of Mumbai by 2023. The two leaders hailed the
launch of the construction work and Japan's offer of 100 billion yen
($905 million) in low-interest loans for the project.

"This is a historic day...Japan will share freely its knowledge
concerning railway safety, including the shinkansen, and work
together in ensuring the safety of railways across India," Abe said
in a speech.

Horimoto believes their motives for the high-speed railway
project were to boost their popularity through diplomatic
achievements in the run-up to respective national elections.

"Mr. Abe can say Japan's shinkansen technology will expand
overseas further, and Mr. Modi can appeal (to voters), saying his
initiative will make public transportation more convenient," said
Horimoto, adding the infrastructure deal was the "visible" result of
the summit. (Sept. 15)