The Pulse

India and Japan Boost Ties During Abe Visit

Tokyo and New Delhi get serious about deepening their partnership.

India and Japan Boost Ties During Abe Visit

US, Japanese and Indian ships during Exercise Malabar 2009.

Credit: US Navy Photo

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was in India last week to take part in the 9th annual India-Japan summit talks with his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi.

Both leaders evaluated the state of their “special strategic and global partnership” as well as 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 the 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 the Indian decision to adopt Japanese bullet train technology for its first high-speed railway. This 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 lost out to China in bidding to build a high-speed railway in Indonesia. And India has been 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 advanced skills and technologies and through the active mobilization of Japanese public and private sector involvement, including Japan’s Official Development Assistance (ODA), 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 Indo-Japanese defense and security cooperation by making available defense equipment and technology necessary to implement joint research and joint production. Japan will also now permanently join India and the United States for the annual Malabar exercises.

The two nations also signed a pact to share classified intelligence, which is likely to be a precursor to the long pending deal to jointly produce the 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.”

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Though the much awaited nuclear deal between the two nations still 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 a state that is not a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Japan’s most powerful business lobby, Keidanren (Japan Business Federation), had submitted a proposal last month calling upon the government for an early signing of the treaty. This pact still remains highly contested between the bureaucracies of the two nations, but Modi and Abe’s personal relationship has given it a new momentum.

The relationship between India and Japan is perhaps the best it has ever been, largely because they have prime ministers who look at 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 futures 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 flexible and bold fiscal policy that encourages private investment in infrastructure and technology.

Meanwhile, 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 neighbors, seems most willing to acknowledge Tokyo’s centrality in shaping the evolving security architecture in the Indo-Pacific.

The United States is playing a significant role in bringing India and Japan closer as well. The three nations had their first trilateral meeting at the foreign ministerial level earlier this year 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 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 remains 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 United States now increasingly articulating the need for it. Though China views the framework with suspicion, many in China are acknowledging that the Indo-Pacific has emerged as a critical regional space for India and 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 own China policy. Modi’s outreach to Japan has been a significant part of his government’s foreign policy so far as strong security ties with Tokyo are now viewed as vital by Delhi. Abe’s visit has further reinforced these trends and, if nurtured seriously, can pay great dividends to both India and Japan.