Modi–Abe love affair drives India and Japan closer

Author: Purnendra Jain, University of Adelaide

As demonstrated by the September summit between Shinzo Abe and Narendra Modi, the strengthening of Japan–India ties is continuing apace. Breaking the tradition of holding summits in the national capital, Modi welcomed Abe to Ahmedabad, the main commercial city for Modi’s home state of Gujarat, where he served as chief minister from 2001 to 2014.

Abe’s arrival in Ahmedabad was well timed for him to witness the ground-breaking opening ceremony of India’s first high-speed rail project between Ahmedabad and Mumbai. The project is funded mainly through Japan’s official development assistance and is backed up by its state-of-the-art bullet train technology.

India has now become Japan’s largest aid recipient — a rank that China enjoyed in the 1980s and 1990s. With Abe announcing further development assistance for a number of infrastructure projects, Japan’s ‘aid diplomacy’ is nowhere as salient as it is in India.

At each summit meeting, the two prime ministers have issued a joint statement where past achievements are recorded, new announcements are made and goals are set for the following 12 months. At the last meeting in Tokyo, the two nations signed a nuclear agreement discussed in detail at the 2015 summit. This was a huge diplomatic coup for India and — in spite of the continuing anti-nuclear campaign in Japan — highlighted Tokyo’s exceptional treatment of a country which has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

This year’s highlights in the joint statement were the commencement of work on the Ahmedabad–Mumbai bullet train and the announcement of further yen loans for new infrastructure projects to connect Africa, Southeast Asia and India’s northeast through a multi-billion dollar Asia–Africa Growth Corridor program. Further cooperation in defence and security was also noted, including trilateral cooperation involving the United States and Australia.

The Japan–India partnership has witnessed a sharp upward swing since Abe became Japan’s Prime Minister in 2012. That trajectory received an even stronger tailwind with Modi’s election as India’s Prime Minister. Modi has been a great admirer of Japan ever since he was Gujarat’s chief minister and made Japan his first port of call as Prime Minister outside of the South Asian region.

Similarly, Abe has had a strong admiration of and affinity with India. In his 2007 joint address to the Indian parliament entitled ‘Confluence of the Two Seas’, Abe introduced the idea of a ‘broader’ or ‘expanded Asia’ constituting both Pacific and Indian Ocean countries which share the common values of democracy, freedom and respect for basic human rights.

Abe thus became the first Japanese leader to implicitly refer to the Indo-Pacific as a new geopolitical domain. This narrative finds its most explicit expression in the September summit’s joint statement titled ‘Toward a Free, Open and Prosperous Indo-Pacific’.

While both India and Japan see mutual economic advantage through their partnership, the bilateral relationship today is primarily driven by geopolitical considerations, with one eye firmly fastened on the strategic implications of China’s military assertiveness.

Japan has ongoing security tensions in the East China Sea where Beijing claims sovereignty over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, which are currently administered by Japan. India’s long-standing territorial disputes with China recently turned ugly with months of military standoff on the Doklam plateau — the three-way junction of India, Bhutan and China. In a rare diplomatic statement, the Japanese Ambassador to India lent support to India’s action, which China swiftly condemned.

Even Japan’s public funding for the bullet train has a strong tinge of geopolitical strategy. Having lost out to China in its attempt to fund bullet trains in Indonesia, Japan refocused to India, offering the best possible financial and technical terms to win the project, which India accepted without a competitive bid process.

At this year’s summit, an agreement was made to establish an India–Japan Act East Forum to advance infrastructure projects for the development of India’s northeast, with Japan committing 38.6 billion yen (approximately US$350 million) in loans. While these projects would bring an underdeveloped northeast into India’s development map, hidden in the text is an attempt to forestall Beijing’s advancement near Indian borders, most recently seen in the Doklam area.

While several memoranda of understanding were signed and while new aid and investment projects were announced, one critical deal remains unresolved. For years, India and Japan have been negotiating the sale of the Japanese amphibious aircraft ShinMaywa US-2. This US$1.3 billion defence equipment deal was reported to have received the final approval from both sides and was ready for announcement during Abe’s visit. But a final deal remained elusive at the summit, receiving just a brief mention in the joint statement that the two governments would continue ongoing discussions.

While the two prime ministers discussed and agreed on a range of bilateral matters and announced cooperation at trilateral and even regional levels in defence, security and infrastructure, a critical question is whether India and Japan are trying to bite off more than they can chew. For example, how can India — as highlighted in the joint statement —possibly play a role in dealing with North Korea’s behaviour?

Further, for the two to undertake connectivity and infrastructure projects in Southeast Asia and Africa they must compete with China’s Belt and Road Initiative. This will be challenging, but If successful, such connectivity may turn out to be a powerful project for stimulating growth in both Japan’s and India’s economies.

Purnendra Jain is professor and head of the Asian Studies Department at the University of Adelaide.

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