PM Abe’s visit: Opening new vistas in India-Japan special ties

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The 9th annual summit meeting between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and PM Narendra Modi this weekend is not going to be a usual get-together. Abe told Modi last month at Kuala Lumpur at the 13th ASEAN meeting that bilateral relations exhibit “greatest potential of any bilateral relations in the world”. Many events in the past indicated to that direction, but the pace is substantially increasing recently both in quantitative and qualitative terms.

Global context: High stakes in Asia-Pacific

First, the global and regional context has been pushing these two largest and effective democracies and second and third largest economies in Asia to come together in the last decade and half. With the end of bipolarity and rise of China, the Asia-Pacific/Indo-Pacific region today is witnessing acute traditional and non-traditional security challenges that pose threats to the very stability of Asia. The global commons in maritime, cyber and space domains are increasingly encroached and enclaves are being created, shrinking space for other rising countries in the region.

While India and Japan woke up late, they are now trying to instill confidence in the rule of international law, freedom of navigation and over-flight, peaceful resolution of disputes and the like. They also realise that their individual efforts in their vicinity – such as collective self-defence or neighbourhood first– is not enough to cope with emerging challenges, underlining the need for pan-regional initiatives.

Elevating Ties: Step-by-Step

Second, India and Japan enhanced the level of their interaction step by step to give space for each other’s views, and digest the other’s requirements. In hindsight, given the domestic political compulsions – for Japan, its constitutional limitations on arms sales and nuclear issue and for India the deadlock in the Parliament on reform measures – this provided much needed space for consensus building to enhance bilateral relations. The first breakthrough came in during PM Mori’s visit when with PM Vajpayee both initiated “Global Partnership” in August 2000. Within a few years these were further elevated to “strategic and global partnership” in December 2006. By the next decade, during PM Modi’s visit to Japan in September 2014, such relations were termed as “special strategic and global partnership”. These are by no means semantics but underscored a qualitative churning out political process with bi/multi- partisan consensus in both countries.

Thirdly, both have intensified institutionalized contacts with each other so that they could cushion bilateral ties from any external or internal vagaries. Annual summit meetings between the two leaders of India and Japan has been going on almost uninterruptedly since 2005. Russia is the only other country with which India had such calendar events, with the exception of the last two years, which saw two-way visits by the leaders of India and the United States.

As issues are complex and sometimes the top-heavy bureaucracies tend to drag their feet, summit level meetings provide quick political directions and help set the agenda domestically.

New Vistas

Apart from these, both India and Japan were quick to diversify and include other stakeholders and usher in broad based responsive system. An annual Strategic Dialogue at foreign ministerial-level commenced in 2007. Eight security dialogues were conducted in the last decade. The two Asian countries launched a 2+2 dialogue process involving foreign and defence ministries. Coast guard joint exercises commenced recently, in addition to naval exercises. Both are now discussing defence exports, with the US-2 amphibious aircraft going through “working level consultations”. While there may not be any spectacular result for the short to medium term due to domestic factors, including on the nuclear issue, both have synchronised their views on the subject. Besides, PM Modi’s announcement in Singapore recently about substantial opening up of the defence industry for investments from abroad could open new avenues for Japan.

To keep the United States in loop, a trilateral foreign ministerial meeting began this September, in addition to a trilateral naval exercise last month. They intend to achieve interoperability through the Malabar and RIMPAC exercises over a period of time, in addition to the bilateral exercises.

To further cement bilateral ties, an economic dialogue began in 2010, in addition to signing a comprehensive economic cooperation agreement in 2012. Trade and investments flows are increasing, with India receiving the largest low interest loans from Japan. Iconic projects like Delhi Metro, proposed Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor, Dedicated Freight Corridor and the $8.1 billion hi-speed railway have cemented ties further.

More than 50 percent of the aid projects are also in clean energy fields. To reduce any red tape and fast track projects, for the first time, a “Japan-plus special management team” was established in the Indian Prime Minister’s Office. Of the required $1 trillion in infrastructure projects in India, Japan’s contribution is substantial. While bilateral trade is less than $20 billion, trade deficit is not very high, in addition to the fact that Japan invested around $20 billion in India, besides over $100 billion in outlays for corridor projects.

With bilateral relations free of any historical rancour or political differences, PM Abe’s visit to India is expected to further consolidate ties and chart out a road map for two key players in the Asian region at large.

(Srikanth Kondapalli is Professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University)