Narendra Modi-Shinzo Abe summit: Sky is the limit for India-Japan ties but New Delhi must close gap between promise and delivery

The real juice in bilateral ties lies elsewhere, but the bullet train has inadvertently become the focal point of all attention around India and Japan’s strategic friendship, the latest iteration of which will be on display when Prime Minister Narendra Modi lands in Tokyo for a two-day visit from Sunday. This will be his third trip to Japan marking the fifth annual summit meeting between the two sides and the 12th meeting between Modi and Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe.

 Narendra Modi-Shinzo Abe summit: Sky is the limit for India-Japan ties but New Delhi must close gap between promise and delivery

File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and with his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe. PTI

In some ways, the brouhaha around the $17 billion-project is understandable. The bullet train, based on Japan’s ‘Shinkansen’ technology, was supposed to be the symbol of deepening bilateral engagement and a successful marriage between India’s need for world-class infrastructure and Japan’s willingness to provide it through a considerate and transparent mechanism.

Instead, Modi and Abe’s flagship project linking Mumbai and Ahmedabad through a 316-mile line has become a hot button political issue after running into land acquisition problems. No surprises there. Latest media reports indicate that another set of deadlines are about to be missed in an already delayed start. Around 1,000 farmers from Gujarat have approached the state high court, claiming that they are unwilling to part with their land for the project citing unhappiness with compensation. They have threatened to move the Supreme Court.

The project, which spans over 300 villages, has run into similar issues in neighbouring Maharashtra, and state officials have warned in a report that the December 2018 deadline for completion of survey and acquisition will face “imminent delay” due to inability of the NHSRCL (National High Speed Rail Corporation Limited) to acquire private plots.

Meanwhile, Japan, which is supposed to fund 81 percent of the estimated project cost through a 50-year soft loan at 0.1 percent rate of interest, has already released the first instalment of Rs 5,500 crore through Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). What we see here, therefore, is a good example of the issues that other countries face in partnering with India on infrastructure and connectivity projects.

For instance, the 1,700 km-Trilateral Highway — one of India’s main connectivity projects with the ASEAN connecting India, Myanmar and Thailand — was scheduled to be completed by 2016 but after repeated delays, the deadline has been pushed back to 2020. In contrast, China finishes its projects well ahead of schedule.

For key maritime powers in the Indo-Pacific who look upon India as a geopolitical balancer, New Delhi’s resource constraints, political climate at home and chronic inability to keep its end of the bargain on projects hamper its rising economic profile and interfere with the nature of its strategic partnerships with like-minded powers despite shared interests and concerns on China’s rise.

These delays have consequences in strategic partnerships. Japan is rapidly scaling up its ties with India and the cooperation is attaining a deeper and sharper edge across various domains. Abe recognises the centrality of India’s position in his “free and open Indo-Pacific” concept but what these hurdles do is place a spanner in the scope of strategic coordination.

Not that Japan is likely to air its anxiety. But in the words of Kenji Hiramatsu, the Japanese ambassador to India, there was a subtle stress on the importance of meeting deadlines. Calling the bullet train project “symbolic” and “very important”, Hiramatsu during a recent Brookings India briefing in New Delhi hoped that “Indian government will find a way to ensure this land acquisition issue is amicably and mutually settled”.

As mentioned before, it is rather unfortunate that the high-speed railway project has monopolised the discussion because real juice in the burgeoning India-Japan ties lies in the close strategic embrace that is becoming progressively dynamic leaving aside an indifferent past. Modi and Abe must be complimented for bringing ties out of cold storage and engineering a dovetailing of interest in Japan’s FOIP (free and open Indo-Pacific) strategy and India’s Act East policy, but there is still immense room for strategic collaboration between both sides.

For India, at least, it is probably the only strategic relationship that comes unattached with political baggage at home. The two nations have no strategic conflicts, share complementary interests and while Modi has called Japan the “cornerstone” of India’s Act East policy, Abe has been vocal about how a strong and capable India is in Japan’s interest and how New Delhi may play a pivotal role in securing supply chains and ensuring fair access to resources in Indo-Pacific.

The trust is mutual. As Tan Ming Hui and Nazia Hussain write in The Diplomat, “Japan is the only country New Delhi has allowed to tread in the politically sensitive region of northeastern India… Tokyo has been providing official development assistance (ODA) loans in the fields of energy, water supply, forestry, and urban development in India’s northeast since 1981. Also, New Delhi has for the first time allowed for foreign investment in the strategically critical Andaman and Nicobar Islands."

While much of the recent collaboration in areas of defence and security has been caused by strategic anxiety over China’s rise, it will be unfair to case the partnership only in a reactionary mould. Modi-Abe’s personal chemistry has played a big part in cementing the ties — both ‘strong’ and popular leaders who have a clear idea about the trajectory of ties.

Abe is laying out the red carpet for Modi as he arrives in Tokyo on Sunday. Media reports indicate that the Japanese prime minister will host a private dinner for his Indian counterpart at his holiday home in the picturesque Yamanashi prefecture, which is home to Mount Fuji, in a rare gesture.

Apart from the symbolism, regional security will be high on agenda when Modi meets Abe. The buzz about an impending military logistics pact between India and Japan have grown in recent times to complement the growing military cooperation and intelligence exchanges between both nations. Called the Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSA), the agreement is expected to make it easier for both militaries to share their naval bases for refuelling, replenishment and supplies. A close synergy between the two navies may allow Indian warships, operating off the coast of China, to access Japanese facilities while Japanese ships may access major Indian naval bases including the Andaman and Nicobar islands that lies proximate to the Malacca Straits (the route for Japan and China’s trade and fuel imports).

If ACSA is indeed signed during Modi’s visit — it is not a conclusive decision but still a matter of negotiation — then India would have added Japan to its list of countries with whom it has signed similar LSA (logistics support agreement) pacts such as the US, France and Singapore.

India and Japan may also sign (or at least initiate discussion on signing a Maritime Domain Awareness agreement that will facilitate information exchange between both navies. This has huge implications for both countries that are grappling with China’s hegemonic behaviour in the maritime domain.

As Ajai Shukla writes in Business Standard on the importance of MDA, “If a Japanese P-1 maritime patrol aircraft detects a Chinese submarine in the Indian Ocean, it would pass on the information to the Indian Navy. An MDA agreement puts more eyes on the job of monitoring an oceanic area of interest.”

China remains the elephant in the room no matter where Abe or Modi decides to meet. Significantly, the Japanese prime minister is paying a rare visit to China and will return just in time to host the Indian prime minister. India is adamant that Abe’s China visit — the first by a Japanese leader to Beijing in 11 years — won’t impact bilateral ties. “Not only will there be no impact of (Abe’s China) visit, but India welcomes the improvement in ties between China and Japan, because an Indo-Pacific that is inclusive and brings every country on board is something Prime Minister Modi has spoken off,” foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale told reporters on Thursday.

Yet the hedging strategy would have missed no one — necessitated as much by China’s revanchist behaviour as the uncertainty ushered in by Donald Trump’s protectionist policies. India, which engineered a “reset” with China in Wuhan has been trying in its own way to navigate the choppy geopolitical waters in the neighbourhood.

Yet the larger strategic logic of a closer India-Japan embrace remains imperative if only to ensure as Brahma Chellaney writes in Japan Times, that Abe-Modi summit contributes “to the larger U.S.-initiated effort to build strategic equilibrium, power stability and maritime security in the Indo-Pacific.”

When Modi lands in Tokyo, he will be aware that the levers of Asia’s most important strategic partnership are in his, and Abe’s hands.

Updated Date: Oct 26, 2018 19:15:36 IST