The finalisation of the Indo-Japan nuclear deal will be the main takeaway for most people of this year’s summit meeting between the two prime ministers, Narendra Modi and Shinzo Abe. There is no getting away from the importance of this agreement. One, because reactor cores in almost every nuclear plant made in the world come from Japan and so such a deal is a necessity for nuclear commerce with almost everyone else in the world. Buying a reactor from the US or France is impossible without Tokyo’s concurrence. Two, India’s ambitious carbon emission targets under the Paris agreement have brought nuclear power back into the energy equation. Solar and wind cannot provide baseload power. Nuclear is the only carbon-free way to satisfy that all important need.
However, what is more striking about the present state of the relationship between New Delhi and Japan is the degree of ambition of both agreements. Like most friendly bilateral relations there is a lot about trade and investment, naval exercises and high-level dialogues in myriad areas. In each of these areas, Japan has shifted into a much higher gear than most other countries and in a much shorter time. Japanese aid and investment in India total $5 billion a year – more than the cumulative total of, say, China. Given its pacificist background, Japan has also become unusually militarily engaged with India even if the two struggle to finalise their first actual military equipment sale.
What makes the Indo-Japanese relationship distinct from many of the other bilateral ties that New Delhi has is how the two countries also seek to use the other to transform themselves domestically. Tokyo has designed and is helping build and finance huge industrial and freight corridors across India. These corridors are not just about faster moving containers, they are designed to provide a concrete foundation for India to have an export-oriented, competitive manufacturing base – something its economy sorely lacks today. Tokyo’s involvement in smart cities, high speed trains and other 21st century infrastructure projects are also about lifting India to a higher trajectory of growth, not just add a few billions to the governmental balance sheet. With this visit, Japan has added Skills India and other welfare programmes to its embrace.
It may not be evident how Japan benefits from closer ties with India. If anything, Japanese firms have struggled in India’s difficult business environment. India’s contribution lies in legitimacy. Mr Abe is determined to “normalise” Japan, in other words make it shed its post-war pacificism and become an autonomous diplomatic and military power in Asia.
However, Tokyo faces strong opposition from China and other victims of Japan’s imperial aggression. He sees an Indian acceptance of this new Japanese role as a crucial source of international legitimacy for his nationalist agenda. While there has been much written about the personal chemistry between Mr Modi and Mr Abe, what really binds them is a common determination to change the path and future of their respective nations.