Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to New Delhi last weekend resulted in a fairly long list of advances in the strategic partnership between India and Japan. I’ve so far discussed the ramifications of the security and defense aspects of Abe’s meeting with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, including the positive momentum on the US-2 amphibious aircraft sale. One development that came out of last weekend is being pitched as a economic advancement but has important strategic implications in the increasingly complicated India-Japan-China triangle: India reportedly invited Japan to invest in overland infrastructure in its northeastern region, particularly in the state of Arunachal Pradesh, which is disputed almost in its entirety by China.
A report in The Times of India states that “Japanese companies will have the opportunity to help the development of the northeast specially to build roads, and aid agriculture, forestry and water supply and sewerage in these states.” Developing infrastructure has been an oft-stated priority for India’s central government but it has largely been unable to deliver to the extent necessary in the country’s remote northeast. By contrast, China has made a point of developing roads and infrastructure on its side of the disputed border in an attempt to demonstrate value to the local population.
In late November 2013, Indian President Pranab Mukherjee traveled to Arunachal Pradesh and affirmed India’s sovereignty over the region; the visit was later condemned by China. Mukherjee told the Arunachal Pradesh legislative assembly that “The northeast of India provides a natural bridge between us and South East Asia. The essential philosophy of our ‘Look East Policy’ is that India must find its destiny by linking itself more and more with its Asian partners and the rest of the world.” Mukherjee mostly focused his visit to Arunachal Pradesh on promising additional development and infrastructure support from New Delhi. Inviting Japan to invest in the state sends a positive signal at this point and solidifies the India-Japan partnership (at China’s expense in this case).
Japan is already a major partner for India in several infrastructure projects across the country such as the Dedicated Freight Corridor (DFC) and the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DMIC). Japanese firms will also help develop a new port facility in Chennai. It remains to be seen if Japanese involvement in Arunachal Pradesh could drive China farther away from India and Japan; while both countries import heavily from China, neither have particularly positive political ties with China. India and China fought a war in 1962 and are engaged in multiple territorial disputes. Japan and China are also engaged in a territorial dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea that has grown increasingly heated over the past year.
China refers to Arunachal Pradesh as South Tibet and claims upwards of 90 percent of the state’s territory as its own. Currently, India actively discourages Chinese investment in the region. In 2007, China blocked a loan requested for the state by India at the Asian Development Bank on the grounds of the dispute over Arunachal Pradesh.