Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi, on a five-day visit to Japan through Wednesday, reached broad agreements to expand bilateral economic ties and security cooperation. It is indeed a positive development for Japan to pursue what the leaders termed a “special strategic and global partnership” with the world’s largest democracy, which has a huge market of 1.2 billion people. Still, Japan and India may find themselves talking at cross purposes if Tokyo is seeking closer ties with New Delhi as a means to counterbalance China’s growing influence and assertiveness in the region.
During their meeting on Monday, Abe and Modi agreed to consider upgrading the framework of their foreign and defense talks and to regularize joint exercises between the Maritime Self-Defense Force and the Indian Navy. Abe pledged to extend ¥3.5 trillion in Japan’s public and private investment and financing to India, including official development assistance, and double Japanese direct investments in India — both within five years.
Abe and Modi welcomed the accord on a commercial contract for production and supply of Indian rare earths to Japan, a move that would help reduce Japan’s reliance on China for the supply of minerals vital to the production of high-tech products. They confirmed that the two governments would expedite talks for early conclusion of a bilateral civil nuclear cooperation pact that paves the way for export of Japan’s nuclear technology to India.
On the defense front, the two leaders said they would speed up working-level talks for exporting the MSDF’s US-2 amphibious aircraft to India. Their joint statement called for maritime security, freedom of navigation and peaceful settlement of disputes under international law — an apparent reference to China’s maritime disputes with several countries in the East and South China Sea.
Behind the efforts to step up Japan-India security cooperation is China’s increasing maritime assertiveness and military buildup. Along with their longtime bilateral border disputes, New Delhi is wary of China’s growing presence in the Indian Ocean. Japan’s relations with China remain deeply strained in recent years over the territorial dispute over the Senkaku Islands as well as other issues related to wartime history.
But while Abe has not been able to hold a summit with Chinese leaders since he returned to office in December 2012, Modi met with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the July BRICS summit of emerging powers held in Brazil. Japan was the first country that Modi visited outside the Indian subcontinent for bilateral talks since he took office in May, but Xi is set to be the first leader of a major country to travel to India for talks with Modi when he visits there later this month.
The government reportedly sought an agreement to upgrade the foreign and defense meetings with India, currently held at vice-ministerial levels, to Cabinet-level discussions during the Abe-Modi talks, but eventually only confirmed that they would “seek ways” to beef up the consultative framework. It is speculated that India hesitated to the upgrade because it did not want to antagonize China.
During the July talks in Brazil, Modi and Xi are said to have agreed that the two countries need to resolve the border disputes. Modi also called for Chinese investments in India’s infrastructure projects. He also reportedly said India would positively consider an invitation by Xi to join the China-led initiative to create Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank — of which Japan and the United States are wary — as a founding member. Xi invited Modi to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Beijing in November, although India is not a member of the APEC group.
China is one of India’s most important trading partners, with bilateral trade roughly four times larger than Japan-India trade. Modi appears to be trying to balance his country’s security needs with its economic interests. Japan also has a crucial stake in mending its relations with China — its largest trading partner — and will have to do it on its own.