The excitement surrounding the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to India for a routine annual summit underscores the growing dynamism of India-Japan bilateral relations. Delhi and Tokyo have been coming closer for quite some time now, but it cannot be denied that under Abe and Narendra Modi, the relationship has acquired a trajectory that bodes well for its future. This is the fourth annual Abe-Modi summit meeting, and it is being held in Gandhinagar.
The highlight of this visit will be the initiation of work on India’s first high-speed rail project between Ahmedabad and Mumbai. The train, which is expected to be commissioned by the year 2022, will significantly reduce travel time between the two cities.
The two leaders carried out a first-of-its-kind roadshow from the city’s airport to the iconic monument, Mahatma Gandhi’s Sabarmati Ashram, as well as visit to Siddi Sayyaid ki Jaali, a 16th century mosque built in yellow sandstone in eastern Ahmedabad.
Vision of a ‘Broader Asia’
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Japan in 2016 had resulted in Japan supporting India’s membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), easing of Indian student visas, training of 30,000 Indians in Japanese-style manufacturing practices, and merging of India’s “Act East Policy” with Japan’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy”.
The signing of the civil nuclear deal was the biggest item on the agenda, as Japan made an exception to its rule of not conducting nuclear commerce with any state that is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
India-Japan ties have got a boost from the personal camaraderie of Abe and Modi.
Both leaders are emblematic of a new, ambitious and nationalistic Asian landscape. They have decisive mandates to reshape the economic and strategic future of their respective nations. Since serving as the Chief Minister of Gujarat, Modi has enjoyed a close relationship with Abe. Abe, a longstanding admirer of India, has been a strong votary of strategic ties between New Delhi and Tokyo.
For Abe, “a strong India is in the best interest of Japan, and a strong Japan is in the best interest of India.” He was one of the first Asian leaders to envision a “broader Asia,” linking the Pacific and Indian oceans to form the Indo-Pacific.
And as he has gone about reconstituting Japan’s role as a security provider in the region and beyond, India, of all Japan’s neighbours, seems most willing to acknowledge Tokyo’s centrality in shaping the evolving security architecture in the Indo-Pacific.
Japanese Investment in India
Modi has used his personal connection with Abe to consolidate national ties. India is the largest recipient of Japanese foreign aid. Japanese investment in India is booming with the Japanese making record investment in private equity and venture capital in India.
The Japan International Cooperation Agency has been involved in the funding of Delhi Metro, India’s biggest subway system, and has agreed to fund the next phase of the Mumbai subway.
Japan is expected to play a major role in a number of high profile infrastructure projects, including completion of the ambitious Delhi Mumbai industrial corridor, a Chennai-Bangalore industrial corridor, and a dedicated freight project in southern India.
India has also invited Japan to invest in infrastructure projects in India’s northeastern region, where tensions with China loom large.
The US-India-Japan trilateral engagement is gaining momentum. The three countries held their first trilateral meeting at the foreign ministerial level in September 2015, followed by the six-day Malabar 2015 naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal a month later, which reflected a convergence of India’s Act East policy, Japan’s growing focus on freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, and America’s “strategic rebalance” towards the Indo-Pacific. India has now made Japan a permanent invitee to the Malabar exercises.
Other trilateral configurations are also emerging with Japan, Australia and India interacting at a regional level. There is a growing convergence in the region, now that the strategic framework of the Indo-Pacific is seen as the best way forward to manage the rapidly shifting contours of Asia.
In this context, growing defence ties between Japan and India assume significance with a focus on not only importing, but also domestic production the ShinMaywa US-2 amphibious aircrafts from Japan.
Countering China’s Belt and Road Initiative
What is striking about the India-Japan relationship today is that it is fast becoming more than a bilateral engagement and acquiring a global profile. The two nations are working on an ambitious programme, the Asia Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC), which will find place in the Abe-Modi summit. With a Japanese commitment of $30 billion and the Indian commitment of $10 billion, the project is aimed at capacity building and human resource development in Africa as well as developing infrastructure and institutional regional connectivities.
While it is simplistic to view this as a response to China’s BRI, as some have suggested, it reflects that growing bond between Asia’s two major powers, and a convergence at the level of ideas and institutions, which is quite rare in global politics. This global partnership is also reflected in the two nations working closely on the joint development of the Chabahar port in Iran.
While the structural challenges facing the two nations in the form of a rising China and a relatively disinterested America may be bringing India and Japan closer, it is a tribute to the persistence of the political leaderships in the two countries that the relationship is fast emerging as one of the most formidable partnerships in Asia.
This commentary originally appeared in The Quint