On 13 December, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe concluded a three-day visit to India, building on the public rapport that he had established with his counterpart, Narendra Modi, last year. The two leaders share conservative, nationalist, and at least rhetorically reformist leanings, while their respective states share a steadily growing concern over the implications of growing Chinese power and assertiveness.
No surprise, then, that the visit was replete with floral language — Modi hailing a 'truly historic' visit and Indian commentators reciting century-old Tagore verses extolling Japanese civilization — and a string of prominent deliverables.
Three are worthy of elaboration. First, Japan offered US$12 billion of financing for investment in India – a smaller but surely more plausible sum than the US$20 billion committed to India by Xi Jinping last year — branded as part of Modi's pet 'Make in India' initiative. As part of the broader Japanese support for Indian infrastructure, Japan agreed to provide high-speed rail technology for the Mumbai-Ahmedabad route, providing a much-needed boost to Tokyo after it lost a US$5 billion Indonesian contract to China in October.
The devil will be in the implementation but, as Dhruva Jaishankar points out, 'this is beginning to emulate the scale of investment that allowed the Chinese and Southeast Asian economies to take off in the 1980s and 1990s'. Sanjaya Baru, advisor to Modi's predecessor Manmohan Singh, has gone as far as to suggest that 'Japan and India can build road and rail connectivity across the Eurasian landmass, running parallel to China's own One Belt, One Road (OBOR) project'. Emulation is utterly implausible, considering the vastly greater scale of Chinese resources and ambition. But it does raise the question of whether such cooperation might give India the confidence to resist signing on to OBOR, which is viewed by many Indian officials and analysts (though not all) as vaguely ominous.
Second, Japan and India reached broad agreement on civil nuclear cooperation after five years of wrangling. If some technical details are worked out, this will clear the way for American firms — which source key equipment in Japan – to sell nuclear reactors to India, bringing to fruition the process kicked off by President George W Bush over a decade ago. Commerce aside, this agreement is also symbolically important because Japan was one of India's most vocal critics after New Delhi's 1998 nuclear tests.
This is therefore part of India's bumpy, decade-long process of progressive nuclear rehabilitation (in which Australia's own nuclear deal with India has played a key part). Although a minor Italy-India spat has held up India's application to join the Missile Technology Control Regime, another relatively cosmetic mark of international nuclear respectability, the pattern is clear: India is leveraging its web of bilateral relationships (with the US, Japan, Australia, the UK and many others) to advance its broader effort to deepen its role in multilateral institutions.
Third, the security relationship took an important step forwards. This includes new linkages between the Indian and Japanese air forces and coast guards, Indian training for Japan's counter-terrorism capabilities and agreements to share classified military information. But the most significant aspect of this was probably India's decision to invite Japan as a 'formal partner' — presumably meaning permanent — to the US-India Malabar naval exercises (for background, see my earlier post for The Interpreter).
Given China's previous sensitivities to Japanese participation, and taken together with the India-Japan joint statement's prominent (and first-ever) mention of 'unilateral actions' in the South China Sea, the message to Beijing is unambiguous: its rivals will not be deterred from moving closer together to present a more coherent — though not quite collective — grouping that, albeit cautiously, will passively balance Chinese power. This comes on top of the inaugural US-India-Japan trilateral at the foreign minister level in October and a US-India-Australia trilateral at a slightly lower level in June. While all these states disclaim any intention to contain China, their willingness to publicly raise shared concerns over Chinese behavior in joint settings is a highly significant trend.
Finally, it is worth noting that Abe's visit to New Delhi comes at a moment of extraordinary diplomatic churn.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was concluded on 5 October followed by the Paris Agreement on 12 December. India has watched these developments guardedly. Japan was central to the TTP but India was excluded (New Delhi has pushed for what would be a much less reform-intensive Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership instead). As for Paris, Indian analysts have greeted the deal with unenthusiastic caution. In both these areas, trade and climate change, India's fear has been that large powers will cut deals over its head, re-shaping the regional and global economic architecture in ways that will limit New Delhi's room for maneuver while the country is still at an early stage of its rise. To these economic issues we could add the problem of Afghanistan, where the US endorsed Chinese efforts to broker talks between Afghanistan on the one hand, and Pakistan and the Taliban on the other, leaving India increasingly isolated.
In this broader context, Modi's Act East policy — of which the India-Japan relationship is a core strand — is important not just for boosting investment and signaling to China. It is also to strengthen India's voice in regional debates, whether on economic or security issues, such that India will be in a position to shape emerging economic and security architectures as they form, rather than accommodate to them afterwards. The dilemma is that this will pull India in directions it may not wish to go, at least not yet. As a recent RAND study noted, 'Southeast Asia sees India primarily as a security partner, while India primarily sees Southeast Asia as a trade partner'. This is exaggerated, but it gets the point across. The more that India accepts the garb of security partner, the more pivotal its role in Asia and its voice in debates. But greater, also, are the demands that will be made of it when crises erupt and countries expect solidarity from their partners.
Photo by Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images