India-Japan Summit: Not Yet an Alliance

Date: September 15, 2017 | Publisher: The Economic Times

By Hemant Krishan Singh
The 12th India-Japan annual bilateral summit – and fourth between Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Shinzo Abe – held in Gandhinagar on September 14, 2017 has marked some further progress in their “Special Strategic and Global Partnership”.  The summit showcased PM Modi’s unprecedented personal diplomacy and his extraordinary rapport with the Japanese leader.  

The summit was held against the backdrop of China’s “historical” claims, unilateral assertions and military expansion which are destabilizing Asia.  No one knows this better than India and Japan.  Amidst uncertainties about US engagement with Asia as a long-standing resident power, both Modi and Abe have invested in their respective relations with US President Donald Trump.  However, it is clear that going forward, India and Japan will need to make much greater contributions towards Asia’s stable balances and multipolarity.  Only their combined strategic weight, economic heft and credible military power can help moderate Chinese behaviour and promote a rules based order in the Indo-Pacific.  In this context, it is disappointing that the summit failed to mark any significant progress.   

In their joint statement, the two leaders affirmed commitment to their “values-based partnership in achieving a free, open and prosperous Indo-Pacific region where sovereignty and international law are respected, and differences are resolved through dialogue, and where all countries, large or small,” enjoy freedoms of the global commons, development and trade.  In order to play a central role in such a rules-based order, they also agreed to align Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy with India’s Act East Policy, as well as to enhance defence and security cooperation.  In terms of specifics, however, there was no major breakthrough on progressing defence relations beyond additional training exercises.  Bilateral cooperation on defence equipment and technology remains just a work in progress.  After four years, Japan’s offer of the US-2 amphibian aircraft is still under negotiation.

In the absence of a much more robust defence relationship, there are little prospects for an India-Japan “quasi-alliance”.

On regional and global challenges, the summit witnessed closer alignment on the respective neighbourhood concerns of India and Japan, from North Korea to cross-border terrorism.  There was also a strong endorsement of ASEAN’s unity and its centrality to regional architecture.  References to other issues, including trilateral cooperation with the US and Australia, were anodyne.  

The summit saw considerable focus on joint efforts to enhance connectivity in India and with other countries in the Indo-Pacific region, including Africa.  A transparent and non-exclusive approach towards connectivity initiatives based on international standards was reaffirmed.  However, the main outcome was a decision to invigorate connectivity initiatives in India’s northeast through the setting up of a Japan-India Act East Forum.  

Japan is today unquestionably India’s preeminent economic partner.  For PM Modi as a committed modernizer of India’s social and economic landscape, the inauguration of the Ahmedabad-Mumbai high speed rail project carries special significance in the building of a “New India”.  The project will lead to a quantum jump in technology, skills and domestic capacity at the highest ends of manufacturing.  Operationalising the now ratified India-Japan civil nuclear cooperation agreement can bring similar inputs into India’s energy sector.  

It is evident that domestic constraints and limitations are now becoming a dampening factor in advancing India-Japan strategic and defence ties.  In Japan, even with PM Abe at the helm, a combination of alliance fixations and pacifist public pressures weigh down heavily on bureaucratic decision making.  In India, the defence bureaucracy is simply failing to prioritise strategic decision making over process and procedure.  With PM Abe’s political fortunes somewhat subdued and PM Modi facing elections in 2019, it would appear that political caution on both sides has begun to manifest itself.  In terms of the warmth of interactions and mutual trust, this latest summit was quite remarkable.  In the post Doklam environment, however, it was also an opportunity missed.  

The author is a former Ambassador to Japan and is currently Director General, Delhi Policy Group.

Courtesy: The Economic Times