India’s vulnerabilities over Doklam and Japan’s worry over North Korea will figure in the talks.
Prime Minister Modi and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met in Ahmedabad this week, their fourth summit since the Modi government took office in 2014. In the past three years, India-Japan relations have been truly transformed. The most important demonstration of this was the successful conclusion of a Civil Nuclear agreement between the two countries after difficult and sensitive negotiations. The agreement is unique since it is the first such agreement Japan has concluded with a country which has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). It was all the more remarkable coming as it did in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster which turned Japanese public opinion against nuclear energy reinforcing the public sentiment against nuclear weapons. Japan having been the only country in history against which nuclear weapons have been used, there was an acute sensitivity about the country engaging in nuclear cooperation with a country which had become a nuclear weapon state defying the NPT. In this sense, For Japan to conclude this agreement with India required greater political capital than the US had to deploy to make the Indo-US nuclear deal possible. India should recognise and appreciate this Japanese gesture.
The other important marker of the transformed India-Japan relationship is the proposed Ahmedabad-Mumbai bullet train project which flagged off by the two leaders at Sabarmati station. It is a 500-kilometre project, financed by a Japanese credit of US$ 17 billion payable in 50 years and carrying a nominal interest rate of 0.1%.The project promises to expose India to state-of-the-art technology in materials, electronics and sensors but also sophisticated management processes which running a bullet train network demands. There will be a very sharp learning curve but its impact will not just be on railways but in India’s industrial economy as a whole. With proper planning, it may help create an entire new ecosystem of high performance in the country. Let this not become yet another island of excellence insulated from the continuing underperformance of most sectors of our economy.
The third important initiative which reflects both strategic intent and resolve is the ambitious India-Japan Asia-Africa Growth Corridor. This a US$40 billion initiative, with Japan likely to contribute $30 billion and India $10 billion over the next several years to build connectivity between Asia and Africa, contribute to infrastructure, capacity building, agricultural growth and public health in African partner countries through bringing together their respective strengths and assets. This imparts an important global dimension to India-Japan collaboration and complements the agreement between India and the US, too, to work together on projects in Africa. In order to make an impact, India will need to revamp its delivery system, ensure quick implementation and match Japanese efficiency in every aspect.
India-Japan defence relations have witnessed a quantum jump in the past decade. As should be expected, the focus of security cooperation is the maritime domain and bilateral naval exercises as well as multinational exercises under the Malabar series are helping the two countries to build familiarity and comfort between their respective forces. Maritime security is one area where there are compelling reasons for India and Japan to work together and to reach out to South East Asian countries. Without their more active role in the region we may well end up, by default, with a Chinese-dominated security architecture.
Abe’s visit takes place under the shadow of two important developments in the region. For India, there has been the potentially dangerous confrontation between Indian and Chinese forces in Bhutan’s Doklam plateau near the India-Bhutan-China trijunction. While this has been defused for the present it has served to underscore India’s vulnerability to pressures from an ascendant China. Japan, too, has been facing such pressures and now has the added threat of a nuclear armed North Korea. It is unlikely that North Korea’s nuclear weapon and missile delivery capability can be reversed though the US continues to provide a nuclear umbrella to Japan under its bilateral defence alliance. If there appears to be any doubt about the US commitment then there may be great pressure on Japan to acquire its own nuclear deterrent. The capability is there and a sufficient stock of separated plutonium stocks are also there. It has recently been announced that Japan will reopen its Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant next year and this will make available additional fissile material to Japan. If Japan decides to go nuclear in the face of the grave security threat it confronts, what will India’s reaction be? These are questions which could become unavoidable. For this reason, too, the two sides need to engage in serious and candid conversations about the emerging security landscape in our shared region of the Indo-Pacific.
India-Japan relations have not yet acquired the balance and density which a true partnership demands. There is more progress in their security relations, less in their economic and commercial relations. Their bilateral trade, at US$15 billion, continues to languish and has even declined over the past couple of years. It is only a quarter of India-China trade. Japanese investment has increased but Japan is only the third largest investor in India. We have not seen the kind of large scale and sustained Japanese investment which played such an important role in accelerating growth in China in its post-reform period after 1980. Despite strong cultural affinities, people-to-people relations remain thin and student exchanges have remained modest year after year. It is these areas which need serious reflection and remedy.
Shyam Saran is a former foreign secretary, senior fellow CPR and the author of How India Sees the World