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India's Prime Minister Builds Stronger Relationship With Japan


India's new prime minister is in Japan this week. Narendra Modi is talking with Japanese leaders about building stronger economic and defense ties. If you want to know one reason why, look at a map and consider the giant country that lies roughly between India and Japan. That would be China. We turn now to NPR's Frank Langfitt who's covering this story from Shanghai. Hi, Frank.


INSKEEP: What are India and Japan worried about?

LANGFITT: Well, one of their biggest concerns appears to be a rising China. When Mr. Modi was in Tokyo yesterday, he was talking to business leaders. And while he didn't mention China by name, he was really blunt. He said, quote, "everywhere around us, we see an 18th century expansionist mindset encroaching on another country, intruding in others' waters and invading other countries and capturing territory." Now, it was clear to pretty much everybody in Asia that he's talking about China.

INSKEEP: Isn't that what the United States is also worried about, an expanding China?

LANGFITT: The U.S. is also very concerned about this. And while we don't know if the U.S. has any hand in kind of helping to draw India and Japan together, it's probably quite happy to see this because it is concerned about a rising China. It has said it's stopped trying to block China. It wants China to be, you know, a responsible stakeholder. But it is concerned particularly because China has had a lot of territorial disputes in the East and the South China Sea with American allies.

INSKEEP: OK. So you have two Democratic countries broadly friendly to the United States getting together - at least the leaders of them - getting together in Japan. What is it that India and Japan want specifically from each other?

LANGFITT: Well, there are some economics here. India's hungry for infrastructure investment; Japan has just promised about $35 billion worth of it. But they're also talking about more defense alliances and just getting closer together. You know, when we talk about some of these territorial disputes, it's worth remembering that India has territorial disputes with China as well.

Up in the Himalayas, the Indians have been complaining about military incursions over the years. In 1962, India and China did fight a border war. And so India, while the disputes there with China are nowhere near as severe as they are in the East-South of China Sea, they can relate a little bit to some of the problems that China's neighbors are having with the country.

INSKEEP: So you have the prime minister of India in Japan making this remark that you say is clearly interpreted as being about China elbowing its neighbors a little bit. How are Chinese officials responding to all of this?

LANGFITT: Well, they're not saying anything yet. There's not been much coverage in the state media. The government did take some jabs at Japan and India. One of the state media pointed out that China's economy is five times the size of India. So it seemed to be sort of down-playing the significance of the prime minister's trip to Tokyo. And what The Global Times - this is another Chinese state-run media paper - said is if Japan attempts to form a united front centered on India, they called it a crazy fantasy. So they are aware of this. They're not trying to put a lot of attention on it. But from a Chinese perspective, they seem to see this as one more country kind of beginning to maybe gang up on China.

INSKEEP: Is that a serious worry in Beijing, that all of the other countries in the neighborhood, or many of them anyway, would be uniting against China at some point?

LANGFITT: I think there are at least two schools of thought here. There's some people who think that China is doing the right thing by getting aggressive. They feel that a lot of this territory was always there. They were weak in the past. Now they can assert themselves. And they think they're going to be the biggest economy in the world and they can make this kind of fait accompli.

There are others in the foreign-policy world who feel that Beijing has been too aggressive. And it's kind of confirming their neighbors' worst fears about how China is going to handle its rise. And there was one foreign-policy analyst in the Chinese press today who was talking about India being sort of part of an Asia-Pacific quadrangle - naming Japan, Australia, India and the United States - all kind of getting together to counterbalance China. So there is that concern even among foreign-policy analysts here that the Chinese government may be overplaying its hand.

INSKEEP: Frank, thanks as always.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Frank Langfitt in Shanghai. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.