LONDON – Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was in New Delhi last week to take part in the 9th annual Japan-India summit with his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi. Both leaders evaluated the state of their “special strategic and global partnership” and reviewed the implementation of various decisions taken over the last year on the economic and trade front.
During Modi’s visit last year, Japan had announced doubling of its private and public investment in India to about $34 billion over a period of five years. The two leaders wanted to ensure that the momentum in economic ties is maintained. And they did not disappoint.
The biggest announcement during Abe’s visit was India’s decision to adopt Japanese bullet-train technology for its first high-speed railway. The 505-km corridor linking Mumbai with Ahmedabad will be financed by a Japanese loan at just 0.5 percent interest.
This is significant for both Japan and India. Earlier this year, Japan had lost out to China in bidding to build a high-speed railway in Indonesia. And India is concerned about China’s growing role in infrastructure development in South Asia over the last decade.
This decision brings Japan to the center stage of infrastructure development in India. Abe underscored this by expressing his commitment to support India’s efforts by sharing Japan’s advanced skills and technologies, and through the active mobilization of Japanese public and private sector involvement, including Japan’s Official Development Assistance, of which India is one of the largest recipients.
In line with the Modi government’s “Make in India” initiative, a broader defense agreement underpinning joint development of weapon systems was unveiled. The framework will enhance Japan-India defense and security cooperation by making available the defense equipment and technology necessary to implement joint research and joint production. Japan will also now permanently join India and the United States in the annual Malabar naval exercises.
The two nations signed a pact to share classified intelligence that is likely to be a precursor to the long-pending deal to jointly produce Japan’s ShinMaywa US-2 search and rescue amphibious military aircraft. This defense partnership between the two Asian powers is embedded in their “unwavering commitment to realize a peaceful, open, equitable, stable and rule-based order in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond,” as well as the need to “uphold the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity; peaceful settlement of disputes; democracy, human rights and the rule of law;” and pointedly, “freedom of navigation and overflight.”
Though the much awaited nuclear deal between the two nations remains a work in progress, Japan has now agreed to the principle that it can conclude a civil nuclear cooperation agreement with India, making an exception to its rule of not conducting nuclear commerce with any state that is not a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Last month, Japan’s most powerful business lobby, Keidanren, submitted a proposal to the government calling for an early signing of the treaty. The pact remains the subject of intense negotiations between the two countries’ bureaucracies, but Modi and Abe’s personal ties have given it new momentum.
The relationship between India and Japan is perhaps the best it has ever been, largely because both countries have prime ministers who view the region and the world in very similar terms. 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.
Modi has underlined that India and Japan share a “fundamental identity of values, interests and priorities.” Japan’s economic and technological development has inspired Modi to emulate the Japan model, with a flexible and bold fiscal policy that encourages private investment in infrastructure and technology.
Abe, a long-standing admirer of India, has been a strong advocate 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 neighbors, seems most willing to acknowledge Tokyo’s centrality in shaping the evolving security architecture in the Indo-Pacific.
The U.S. is playing a significant role in bringing India and Japan closer as well. The three nations held their first trilateral meeting at the foreign ministerial level in September. This was followed up by the six-day Malabar 2015 naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal in October, which reflected the priorities of the three nations and a convergence of India’s Act East policy, Japan’s growing focus on freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and the Obama administration’s “strategic rebalance” toward the Indo-Pacific.
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.
Proposed first by Japan and adopted with enthusiasm by Australia in particular, the framework has gained considerable currency, with even the U.S. now increasingly articulating the need for it. Though China views the framework with suspicion, many Chinese are acknowledging that the Indo-Pacific has emerged as a critical regional area for India and that China needs to synchronize its policies across the Indian Ocean region and the Pacific.
These developments underscore the changing regional configuration in the Indo-Pacific on account of China’s aggressive foreign policy posture as well as a new seriousness in India’s China policy. Modi’s outreach to Japan has been a significant part of his government’s foreign policy and strong security ties with Tokyo are now viewed as vital by Delhi. Abe’s visit has further reinforced these trends and if nurtured seriously they can pay great dividends to both India and Japan.
Harsh V. Pant teaches in the Defense Studies Department at King’s College London with a focus on Asian security.
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