During his speech at the Africa Development Bank meeting on May 23, PM Modi highlighted an Asia-Africa growthcorridor in collaboration with Japan. This follows Delhi’s decision to skip the Belt and Road Forum (BARF)highlighting Delhi’s partnership with Japan as a credible response to Beijing led connectivity corridors across the Indo-Pacific. India’s partnership with Japan is increasingly acquiring a distinct strategic angle. It is a reaction to a changing security environment in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region facilitated by converging strategic interests of Delhi and Tokyo. The 2016 Joint Statement between Prime Ministers Modi and Abe is an excellent starting point to understand the increasing strategic economic partnershipbetween India and Japan.
Building new connectivity corridors and infrastructure development are priority areas in the Indo-Japanese relationship. While infrastructure development within India is not new, Delhi and Tokyo are now looking to extending this bilateral partnership to the regional level. Beyond cooperationin South Asia, India and Japan are keen to collaborate in Africa and the Indian Ocean region. Tokyo’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy” focuses on improving “connectivity between Asia and Africa through free and open Indo-Pacific, and promote stability and prosperity of the region as a whole”. The free and open Indo-Pacific concept addresses two critical points for Japan – maritime security and regional connectivity. Where Tokyo is limited in its military engagements, it has been a leading player in infrastructure development across Asia and Africa, much before Beijing announced the Belt and Road Initiative. On the maritime front too, it is in Tokyo’s strategic interest that China does not become a dominant player in the Indo-Pacific given its unilateral actions in the East China Sea and the South China Sea. Tokyo’s strategic emphasis is on “free and open”, a counter to Beijing’s initiatives considered as exclusive and sometimes unilateral. In shaping the concept, Japan has placed India at the centre aimed at building a strategic partnership “which has a historical relationship with East Africa as well as the US and Australia.”
On the maritime front, Tokyo and Delhi have discussed building ‘smart islands’, which focuses on infrastructure development but has obvious strategic implications, especially in the current maritime environment in the region. If Japan is concerned about Chinese behaviour in Southeast Asia, Delhi is very much concerned about Beijing’s increasing footprint across the Indian Ocean. The smart islands project appears to be in the planning stage with both sides “initiating consultations to identify technologies, infrastructure, development strategies and management processes…” While there is little to no clarity on the selection of the islands and the geographic scope of this project, it is very likely that the initially identified islands would either be in Japanese or Indian territory. To this effect, developing the Andaman and Nicobar islands are a good possibility considering its strategic importance, the urgent need for better connectivity and infrastructure within the islands and the political will in Delhi to transform these islands into a maritime hub. At the trilateral level, India and Japan have identified the “development and connectivity” for the port of Chabahar through trilateral consultation. India’s presence in Chabahar is important in light of Chinese presence in neighbouring Gwadar. In terms of maritime cooperation, Japan is sending JS Izumo, its largest warship signalling its seriousness in collaboration in the maritime domain.
At the domestic level, Japan’s engagement in Northeast India is a significant development. India has long ignored its border regions with poor connectivity across the physical and digital space. Chinese claims on Arunachal Pradesh has been a reason for keeping the Northeast closed to foreign investmentsand increased security and sensitivity in the region. However, Delhi finally appears ready to embrace a policy of integratingits border regions with the rest of the country. Beyond infrastructure development, Japan is also looking to build acultural link with the region which physically connects India to Southeast Asia. The Japanese Ambassador to India, Kenji Hiramatsu took a delegation of 38 Japanese companies based in Delhi to Imphal, Manipur on May 20-21 to encourage investments in the region. The visit was in particular to mark the commemoration of the 73rd Anniversary of the Battle of Imphal, fought between Japanese Army and the Allied Forces in 1944. The Ambassador in his speech pledged to invest and develop the region moving forward from the devastating effects of the war. The Ambassador is particularly keen to invest in Assam, Manipur and Nagaland, states, Japan shares a “historic emotional link”. Japanese presence in building roads, railways and other infrastructure in Northeast India is testimony to the strong element of trust in the Indo-Japan relationship.
Infrastructure development and regional connectivity is a priority for the current Indian government. While China’s Belt and Road initiative is an ambitious project with large capital, there is massive strategic mistrust in the India-China relationship. Whether India should join the BRI or not is a debate in itself, Delhi definitely needs a strategy of its own to develop its infrastructure while deliberating Beijing led commercial initiatives. The converging economic and strategic interests in the India-Japan relationship could not have better timing. While partnering with Japan is not a rivalry to Chinese led initiatives, it most certainly is India’s best response to a changing strategic environment in Delhi’s neighbourhood. Japanese economic presence in the region and its expertise in infrastructure development are significant factors in building the bilateral strategic partnership. The most important of all however is the presence of trust and political will on both sides at a time when India is only beginning to step out of its inhibitions on strategic partnerships and closer collaborations. Delhi must tap into this momentum and engage Japan to its full potential in advancing its connectivity and infrastructure goals.