Modi’s Japan journey: Why Delhi-Tokyo strategic connect matters


japan-modi-abe-poseTOKYO: The Tokyo-Delhi connect is set to acquire a deeper strategic dimension with the hoped-for signing of a transformational nuclear deal and a host of initiatives to enhance maritime security cooperation during the November 10-12 visit of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Japan.

It’s probably the last foreign visit by Mr Modi in this diplomatic calendar year, but it looks set to be the most significant one, given the growing congruence of strategic and economic interests between Asia’s two leading democracies. The visit will be not only closely scanned in New Delhi and Tokyo, but most importantly in Beijing, which continues to nurture containment anxieties and has already red-flagged its concerns over a possible Delhi-Tokyo axis on the South China Sea.

What’s on agenda: The Big Deal

japan-modi-abe-newMr Modi will spend barely 48 hours in Tokyo, but much will be accomplished during his annual summit meeting with his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe in Tokyo on November 11. If the latest indications are anything to go by, the visit will see the transformative moment as Japan moves beyond years of strategic vacillation to sign the much-awaited nuclear deal that will pitchfork the India-Japan ties on another plane. The signing of the nuclear deal will transform all key areas of the relationship and bring multiple benefits to both sides, Prof. Srikanth Kondapalli, a long-standing Japan-watcher at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi told India Writes Network.

Given the powerful nuclear lobby and its pacific constitution that emanates from its experience as the only nation to be attacked by atomic weapons, the signing of the nuclear deal will be a major leap of faith for Japan’s political-diplomatic establishment and will lock the two countries into a tighter strategic embrace.

japan-nuclear1The deal will enable the export of Japanese nuclear technology and equipment to an India hungry for clean energy and will spur the implementation of the India-US civil nuclear deal. It will mean billions of dollars in business for Japanese nuclear giants like Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. and Hitachi Ltd, which have been severely hit by the post-Fukushima scenario.

US-2: Make in India

Besides the nuclear pact, the other big-ticket deal that will be in spotlight is the closure of tortuous negotiations on the purchase of the US-2 amphibious aircraft by India. Reliable sources disclosed that the deal is ready for signing, with the pricing issue finally settled. If all goes well, the two sides could sign a memorandum of understanding on India procuring 12 amphibious rescue aircraft from Japanese manufacturer ShinMaywa Industries.

japan-us2The deal is estimated to be around $1.4 billion. The details of the deal are not clear as there is still uncertainty about whether India will get the civilian version of the aircraft and in what form. Japan’s Constitution currently bars the sale of defence weaponry to a foreign country.

If it goes through, this will be the first defence sale deal by Japan in its post-war history, and will signal strong political will by Japan to move beyond the comfort zone to forge a special military and strategic partnership with India. India is insisting that out of 12 aircraft, it wants two of them in fly-away condition and the rest are to be manufactured in India under the Make in India project. Given huge costs involved in co-manufacturing, the Japanese side is weighing its options.

Partnering India’s development journey

japan-modi-bullet-pactStrategic issues will be high on the agenda, but equally important will be the ongoing thrust on enhancing the quality and quantum of economic partnership. Mr Modi has rightly identified Japan as a top investor and partner in India’s ongoing growth story, and will be looking to raise the bar for trade and investment.

The two sides are expected to review progress in implementing projects under the $33 billion fund,  announced by Japan during PM Modi’s landmark visit to Tokyo in August, 2014. The second generation economic reforms undertaken by the Modi government, including easing of foreign investment in crucial sectors like defence, insurance, retail and real estate and the passing of the path-breaking GST legislation have given an added shine to the India narrative in Japan. Surveys done by Japan Bank of International Coop (JBIC) have rated India as the most attractive and promising investment destination for Japanese manufacturing companies.

Mr Modi is set to highlight India as an investment destination during his talks with Mr Abe and in his other speeches in Tokyo and Kobe, Osaka. Infrastructure, manufacturing, energy, real estate and e-commerce have been identified as core areas by India for Japanese investment. Japanese conglomerate SoftBank has already unveiled around $20 billion investment in the infrastructure sector in India, including roads, highways, railways, ports and airports. To fix trade imbalance, PM Modi is expected to pitch for Japanese investors to participate in   National Investment and Infrastructure Fund (NIIF) to transform the infrastructure landscape in India.

On fast-track: Bullet Train

japan-bulletBuilding on the ongoing success story of the Delhi Metro, one can expect tangible progress in discussions on Japanese funds and assistance for Phase IV of the Metro. With the signing of the agreement on Japan’s assistance in the building of the first bullet train in India on the Mumbai-Ahmedabad route during Mr Abe’s visit to Delhi last year, India is quite keen to rope in Tokyo as its prime partner in building high-speed train network on other routes.

Sources said that there is a possibility of a pact on Japan’s involvement in another bullet train on a different route. Japan’s International Cooperation Agency (JICA), for one, is upbeat about funding the second bullet train. Japan would like to win contracts for all other six high-speed corridors identified by India, but this could take time given huge costs involved.

The Chinese Puzzle: Sea of Troubles

Talking of India-Japan relations against the current backdrop of the conflicted regional landscape, China remains a looming shadow. Both India and Japan have denied any gang-up or containment vis-à-vis China, but several planned initiatives in the maritime sphere are set to fuel apprehensions in Beijing about the hidden agenda behind the deepening Tokyo-Delhi connect.

The July verdict by the Hague-based international tribunal and China’s rejection of the ruling has whetted anxiety in the region, with India and Japan coming out with near identical statements on the resolution of the dispute through diplomacy and respect for the UNCLOS (UN Convention on Laws of the State).

During Mr Abe’s visit to New Delhi, the India-Japan joint statement for the first time contained a pointed paragraph on South China Sea and freedom of navigation. This time around, they can push the envelope by explicitly mentioning the Hague verdict and enjoin on all parties to respect UNCLOS- a formulation that is going to be deeply resented by China. Although both India and Japan are not party to the dispute in South China Sea, China’s expansionist ambitions affect both countries as they have long-running territorial disputes with China. Hence, issues relating to South China Sea and maritime security will figure prominently in the Modi-Abe talks in Tokyo.

Another important theme of the summit talks in Tokyo will be in the form of exploratory discussions on Japan’s possible role in the Indian Ocean and proactive assistance by Japan in enhancing investments in infrastructure in India’s north-eastern states, some of which border China. This Japanese-assisted infrastructure building will spur the integration of the north-east states with ASEAN countries and could provide an alternative to the China-backed One Belt, One Road project, albeit on a much smaller scale.

One can also expect tangible discussions on collaboration in space and in the Ballistic Missile Defence system. Tokyo is keen on acquiring BMD capability and looks at New Delhi as an important partner, especially after India successfully conducted test firing of upgraded anti-ballistic missile system. These disparate but interlinked initiatives will take time to fructify, but they show the soaring ambition of the India-Japan military and strategic partnership, animated by shared threats and goals.

Japan-India Moment

japan-modi-abe-selfieIn many ways, the current geo-strategic and geo-economic situation have created a conjunction of India’s Japan Moment and Japan’s India moment. Mr Modi and Mr Abe, who have famously forged a personal chemistry, are ideal partners to propel this partnership to new heights.

The nuclear issue is the last albatross holding back the full potential of this mutually fecundating relationship, and if the nuclear deal is signed in Tokyo, expect a major upsurge in India-Japan relations across the spectrum and an added ballast to the narrative of an inclusive Asian Century.

(Manish Chand is Founder-Editor of India Writes Network, www.indiawrites.org, an e-magazine-journal focused on international affairs. He is in Tokyo to report on and analyse Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Japan).

Author Profile

Manish Chand
Manish Chand is Founder-CEO and Editor-in-Chief of India Writes Network (www.indiawrites.org) and India and World, a pioneering magazine focused on international affairs. He is CEO/Director of TGII Media Private Limited, an India-based media, publishing, research and consultancy company.