It is utterly misleading to assume that the sum and substance of Shinzo Abe’s visit to India for the 12th Indo-Japan Summit is a ‘bullet train’. Funded by soft loan from Japan, the multi-billion dollar high-speed rail project connecting Ahmedabad to Mumbai has expectedly garnered most of the spotlight. It is one of those high-on-hype schemes that attract easy media attention. That isn’t to say that India has no use for Japan’s shinkansen technology but we need not worry right now about a project that will fructify in 2022-3 (few will bet on the deadline, given India’s track record in implementing infrastructural projects). More pressing issues demand immediate attention.
Abe’s visit to India for the 12th Indo-Japan annual summit comes at a particularly interesting time. Both nations are grappling with the trajectory of China’s rise and struggling to keep pace with a geopolitical order thrown into turmoil over doubts about America’s role as a global security guarantor. And as if the world needed a dash of more uncertainty, the tinpot from North Korea has decided that this is the right time to test a hydrogen bomb and threaten Donald Trump.
These rapid variables have forced India and Japan to snuggle closer, and both nations appear on the cusp of a major upgradation in bilateral ties. Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe wasn’t bluffing when he called both nations as “natural partners” in 2015. The intervening two years have only pushed the two democracies closer.
China’s powerplay is, of course, a huge factor but it’s not the only issue that is driving India and Japan’s bonhomie.
In terms of personal bond between Modi and Abe, their leadership style, synergy in domestic compulsions, commonality of national interests, shared strategic vision, greater military cooperation, expansion of development partnership, respect for rules-based international order in foreign policy and in the urge to provide an alternative development model for Asia and Africa (Asia Africa Growth Corridor), both countries have more in common with each other than with anyone else.
In each of these areas, Modi and Abe have shown a willingness to push the envelope, and the effort is sure to have far-reaching implications. China is well aware and is keeping a close eye on proceedings as Abe landed in India on a two-day visit and proceeded to break bread with Modi on a rooftop restaurant in Gujarat on Wednesday.
A columnist in China Daily, for instance, warned India on Wednesday to steer clear of US-Japan chessboard where he claimed New Delhi would be treated as no more than a sacrificial piece.
Foreign policy is shaped to a large extent by domestic needs. Here, too, both nations have a similar stimuli. After neglecting for decades the need to develop maritime advantage that is offered by its huge coastline, India is only waking up to the fact that China has beaten it to the game.
As author and Carnegie India director C Raja Mohan has written in his Indian Express column: “India had taken its regional primacy for granted all these decades. China had never accepted the proposition that the Subcontinent is India’s exclusive sphere of influence. It now has the will and resources to challenge that premise on a routine basis. That leaves India scrambling to restore its economic and strategic centrality in the region.”
As if neglecting its backyard wasn’t enough, India had long miscalculated its role in the region under a belief that the strategic interests of the smaller nations around it will be defined by its own interests. This arrogant misconception has led to interventionist foreign policies with the result that countries such as Sri Lanka, Nepal harbour a deep resentment towards for the ‘big brother’ despite being firmly within India’s sphere of influence.
The Modi government has sought to change this policy. India has started to adopt a more consultative and friendly approach towards neighbours but the course-correction provided enough space and time for China to butt in. It is rapidly striking sea port deals with countries around India such as Sri Lanka and Myanmar. The elaborate nature of the projects and the deep debt funding allow Xi Jinping a virtual free hand in building sustained economic (and even military) influence.
India badly needs to counter projects such as the ones in Hambantota or Kyaukpyu but it doesn’t have the economic bandwidth to match geopolitical needs. This is where Japan comes in. Shinzo Abe wants to restore Japan’s influence in the Indo-Pacific region to achieve greater economic and strategic security, and his ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy’ synergises well with Modi’s Act East policy. There is a lot of space here for cooperation between the two nations. Options may range from joint development schemes to partnerships based on maritime security.
As Titli Basu, associate fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, reminds us: “There is India-Japan Maritime Affairs Dialogue since 2013 where maritime security including non-traditional security threats, prospects of cooperation in shipping, marine sciences and technology, marine bio-diversity are discussed. There is a 2+2 dialogue framework between the Foreign and Defence Secretaries of both countries since 2010, as mandated by the Action Plan to Advance Security Cooperation concluded in December 2009.”
Abe’s visit could see an institutionalisation of this framework. The groundwork was laid during former defence minister Arun Jaitley’s recent meeting with his Japanese counterpart Itsunori Onodera this month where talks were held on closer collaborations on joint defence production, India’s purchase of ShinMaywa US-2i amphibious aircraft from Japan (long-awaited deal) and strengthening of the defence and security cooperation.
Japan is eager for a greater commitment in the bilateral relationship because Abe has put nearly all his foreign policy eggs in the US basket, developing an antagonistic relationship with China. Trouble is, Trump is a mercurial personality and an unreliable ally. A stronger relationship with India is crucial for Japan to hedge against Chinese aggression.
A report in Wednesday’s edition of Japan Times, for instance, reveals that upgrading security talks with India to ministerial-level dialogue within a two-by-two framework will be high on Abe’a agenda. “Tokyo,” says the report, “put forward a similar proposal in 2014, but it did not come to fruition as New Delhi opted to avoid irritating Beijing, a diplomatic source said. Given the recently deepening security cooperation among Japan, India and the US, Japan has judged that the time is ripe for pushing for the new framework again.”
The signals are strong from Japan that it wants India to emerge from ennui and show greater dedication in nurturing the ties. For a country that considers strategic autonomy as a cornerstone of foreign policy (a step up from non-alignment), it won’t be easy for Modi to break the mould. A lot will depend however, on the personal chemistry between the two leaders. Modi reportedly trashed protocol to receive Abe at the airport. It is possible that we may witness a new chapter in bilateral ties.