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Dr Satoru Nagao: India’s influence in this region is necessary

Dr Satoru Nagao: India’s influence in this region is necessary

Dr. Satoru Nagao is a fellow (nonresident) at Hudson Institute, based in Tokyo, Japan. From December 2017 through November 2020, he was a visiting fellow at Hudson Institute, based in Washington, DC. Dr. Nagao's primary research area is US-Japan-India security cooperation. He was awarded his PhD by Gakushuin University in 2011 for his thesis, "India's Military Strategy," the first such research thesis on the topic in Japan.

Dr. Nagao also holds numerous other research positions, including director at the International Security Industry Council, senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies, specially-appointed research fellow at the Japan Forum on International Relations,  research fellow at the Security and Strategy Research Institute for Japan, senior fellow at the Institute of National Security Studies Sri Lanka, and senior research fellow of the Indian Military Review. In this interview with the ApEx, Dr. Nagao talks about Japan-Nepal relationship, Nepal's foreign policy, Indo-Pacific Strategy, China and more.

What is Japan's Indo Pacific outlook ?

The pioneer of the idea of Indo-Pacific instead of Asia-Pacific was former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. In 2007, he addressed the Indian Parliament where he proposed the idea of both Indo-Pacific and QUAD. Since then, these two have been the main strategy of Japan’s foreign policy. 

The integrated concept of Indo-Pacific is better than Asia-Pacific because this region is under threat of China’s domination. Indo-Pacific is better than Asia-Pacific when people talk about counter China strategy. QUAD, meanwhile, is a group of all influential powers in the Indo-Pacific, except China. 

Viewing these original reasons that Indo-Pacific and QUAD were formed to prevent China’s domination in the rising region, Japan decided to cooperate with the Indian Ocean region, especially India. The purpose of these concepts is strategic. China’s infrastructure projects under the Belt and Road Initiatives (BRI) created huge debt for recipients and expanded China’s influence in the Indo-Pacific region. China’s project does not purely support local recipients, and it is dangerous for development in this region. A typical example was Hambantota port in Sri Lanka. China’s interest rate was too high, and Sri Lanka could not pay. As a result, Sri Lanka gave China the right to control the port for 99 years. A similar situation happened in Djibouti, and China set up a huge naval base there. There are many similar cases in the Indo-Pacific. 

Thus, Japan has focused on tackling China by suggesting alternative choices for countries. One of the examples was the Matarbari port project in Bangladesh. When China suggested the Sonadia port project, Japan suggested the Matarbari port project to Bangladesh. In this case, the Bangladesh government accepted Japan’s Matarbari port project. Thus, if there is an alternative choice, governments should be careful and avoid falling in the debt trap of China. 

How do you see Japan's engagement with South Asian countries? 

Japan’s support projects in the South Asian region are based on good motivation, which contributes to the development of locals. But at the same time, currently, Japan is taking care of many projects worldwide and cannot share enough money to support locals. Due to global free trade and China’s intended manipulation of currencies, many factories have relocated to China. As a result, factories in other countries lost competition with factories in China. 

The size of China’s contribution is bigger than Japan’s. Therefore, Japan needs to coordinate with the US, Australia, EU, and India now. Japan believes that India’s influence in this region is necessary. For example, when we check the geographical situation, the Chinese side of Nepal is mountainous and difficult to trade, but the Indian side is flat and easy to trade. In this case, the development of Nepal's economy relies on India. Thus, Japan cooperates with India, and Japanese cooperation can contribute to Nepal's economy.

What are Japan's key priorities in Nepal? 

Japan wants to develop the Indo-Pacific as a stable and peaceful region, including Japan as a regional member. Japan does not have any national interest in building the Nagdhunga Main Tunnel. It is an honor for Japan to contribute to the people of Nepal. Cooperation with India has also been strategic for Japan. In this region, India’s influence is strong. However, China has not cooperated with any foreign countries. That is why China’s projects have created conflicts with India. Japan does not want to create such conflicts. Japan’s projects are contributing to the people of Nepal without spending time and resources on conflicts.

How does Japan view China’s engagement with Nepal?

An opinion poll in Japan indicates that 90% of Japanese people have a negative image of China. The Japanese view of Chinese engagements with other countries like Nepal is also very bad. While Japan wants to develop the Indo-Pacific as a stable and peaceful region, China intends to exploit the poor conditions of developing countries for its own gain. Nepal’s cooperation with China is also breaking India's trust. In the long run, China-Nepal cooperation will not be beneficial for both Nepal and India.

What are your suggestions to Nepal in the conduct of foreign policy ?

Nepal wants to be an independent country. That is why Nepali people worry about India’s strong influence sometimes. It is understandable. But in my opinion, cooperating with China was the wrong choice. What happened in Japan can be a good example. After WWII, Japan chose the US side for about 80 years. This is why the US started to trust Japan. A long-term stable relationship can bring mutual benefits. The US decided to export 400 of the latest Tomahawk cruise missiles to Japan, whilst knowing that long-range missiles could be a threat to the US itself. This was possible because of the trustworthy relations between the two nations. 

In South Asia, India-Bhutan relationship is similar. Bhutan gets much support from India because they have stable and trustworthy ties.