The agreement between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his visiting Indian counterpart Narendra Modi to deepen economic and security cooperation came in the wake of Abe’s visit to China last week, where he expressed hopes to lift Japan-China relations into “a new era.” Right after returning from the three-day trip to China, Abe welcomed the Indian leader to his vacation home at the foot of Mount Fuji. They agreed on launching the so-called two-plus-two meeting of foreign and defense ministers of the two countries, resuming a currency swap accord to the tune of $75 billion and more than ¥300 billion in yen loans to finance India’s infrastructure projects including a high-speed railway using Japan’s shinkansen system.
The progress in Japan-India relations in recent years has often been viewed as an effort by both countries to counter China’s expanding economic and political influence in Asia. The latest Abe-Modi talks, however, was preceded by Abe’s China visit — the first official one by a Japanese prime minister in seven years — in yet another indication of the improvement in Tokyo-Beijing ties that had once been severely strained by the dispute over the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture. Abe agreed with top Chinese leaders on a wide range of cooperation, including joint infrastructure-building projects in third countries, and expressed hopes to shift the bilateral relations from “competition to collaboration.”
The key for Japan-India relations going forward will be whether the two countries can elevate their ties to new stages on the basis of their latest agreements, instead of as a counterweight to China’s rise. Abe hailed Japan-India ties as having “the largest potential for development for any bilateral relationship anywhere in the world.” Whether the two countries can realize that potential will be tested from now.
Relations between Japan and India — the world’s largest democracy that has experienced rapid economic growth these years — have indeed seen steady progress. Unlike the relationship between Japan and China, in which top-level diplomacy has frequently been put on hold as political ties became disrupted over the Senkakus and other issues, Japan and India have had mutual visits of top leaders almost every year since 2005 to promote economic, diplomatic and security cooperation. This was Modi’s third visit to Japan as India’s leader, and he became the first foreign head of state whom Abe entertained as prime minister at his holiday home in Narusawa, Yamanashi Prefecture.
In a symbolic development in bilateral economic cooperation, India decided in 2015 to adopt Japan’s shinkansen system for its first, 500-km rapid railway linking Mumbai and Ahmedabad in western India — roughly half of the ¥300 billion yen loan will be used to fund the project. The following year, Japan concluded a civil nuclear cooperation agreement with India — a nuclear weapons power that does not belong to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty — that could pave the way for the export of Japanese nuclear power plant technology to India. The Maritime Self-Defense Force has engaged in joint drills with the U.S. and Indian navies. A joint statement released by Abe and Modi also called for greater cooperation to promote entrepreneurship and research and development in high-tech fields such as artificial intelligence, as well as joint efforts for infrastructure development in third-party countries in Southeast Asia and Africa.
The agreement reached between Abe and Modi to launch the two-plus-two ministerial meeting, which had earlier been held at the vice ministerial level, is part of efforts toward closer security cooperation along the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy” advocated by Abe, which calls for rule-based order, territorial integrity and rights to free flight and sea navigation in the India-Pacific region. It constitutes a part of the broader security cooperation also involving the United States to keep China’s aggressive maritime postures in the region in check.
How that fits with Japan’s avowed shift from “competition to collaboration” with China remains to be tested. But it must be noted that India, despite its caution over the movement of the Chinese Navy in the Indian Ocean, also attaches importance to its relations with China, which is its largest trading partner. India cooperates with China and Russia as fellow members of the BRICS emerging powers, and formally joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organization last year. China is also Japan’s largest trade partner.
Abe’s talks with Modi right on the heels of his visit to China may have been a balancing act on his part. But Japan and India do not need to pursue closer relations to serve as a counterweight to China. Japan should seek deeper cooperation with India as part of a diverse and broad-based diplomacy in Asia.