Much has been achieved during Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s current visit to India and much has not. In reiterating a clear intention to strengthen bilateral ties, the visit has been a success, though in breaking new strategic ground concretely, the results could have been better.
Honouring Abe as chief guest at our Republic Day celebrations was politically significant. Such invitations are either intended to convey a desire to forge closer ties with a country or to indicate that relations had already reached a high level of entente. In other words, either an investment in the future or a celebration of success already achieved. Abe’s visit would fall in between these two categories.
The joint statement mentions the resolve of the two leaders to jointly contribute to peace and stability “taking into account changes in the strategic environment”- an indirect reference to the strategic issues raised by China’s rise and its increased assertiveness, as no other change in this environment has occurred that would disturb both India and Japan.
No doubt both countries are Asian democracies that share the values of freedom, democracy and rule of law, a feature of particular importance for Abe. But then, India and Japan have been liberal democracies since decades, without this providing a political glue all these years. If today there is a felt need to highlight this shared attachment to liberal values, it is to differentiate themselves from China’s authoritarianism. Uniting on the basis of universal values of democracy avoids the impression that the two are coming together on any explicit anti-China platform.
The issues thrown up by China’s expansive claims in the South China Sea, the Senkaku imbroglio and the ADIZ announcement could not have been ignored in the joint statement. They find indirect mention- the most that could be done realistically- in a reference to freedom of navigation, unimpeded commerce and peaceful settlement of disputes according to international law, as well as the importance of freedom of overflight and civil aviation safety.
Abe’s ambition to loosen some defence related constraints imposed on Japan after 1945 has found endorsement in our PM’s appreciation of his “Proactive Contribution to Peace” regionally and beyond. This boosts Abe as Japan manoeuvres against mounting Chinese pressure. In this broad context, the decision of India and Japan to institute a dialogue at the National Security Advisers level and their determination to “further strengthen bilateral defence cooperation” becomes significant. So does the satisfaction expressed with the regular trilateral India-Japan-US dialogue, the resolve to increase the frequency of bilateral naval exercises, and, most notably, given our reluctance on this score until now in deference to Chinese sensitivities and our aversion to be seen as drifting towards “alliance” configurations, to invite Japan to participate in the next multilateral “Malabar” maritime exercise. Japan’s offer to sell its US-2 amphibious aircraft- an important political step no doubt- is deficient from India’s viewpoint in that it is being offered as a civilian aircraft and not a military one because of Japan’s policy of not exporting military equipment.
The opportunity of Abe’s visit was missed for signing the civil nuclear agreement. The officials of the two sides have again been directed to “exert further efforts” towards an early conclusion. The Japanese demand that India yield more to it on the “nonproliferation” front that we have yielded to the US is both unreasonable and unrealistic. India yielded as much as it could politically to the US - the lynchpin of international nuclear sanctions on us- for a bilateral civilian nuclear deal as well as an NSG exemption for which the US lobbied with several recalcitrant countries, including China. Japan is not required to change the international nonproliferation paradigm for us; it has only to overcome some domestic resistance to the India deal. We have already reached an agreement with Canada on some issues raised by Japan, even though Canada has been particularly difficult with us on nuclear issues because of its grievance that it was its transfer of nuclear technology that enabled India to conduct a PNE in 1974. That solution is available. Abe’s commitment to support India’s full membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the Missile Technology Control Regime, the Australia Group and the Wassenaar Arrangement is, of course, to be welcomed.
The joint statement omits any mention of space cooperation- a strategic lacuna. Both India and Japan have great strengths in space technology, as demonstrated in India’s moon and Mars missions and Japan’s participation in the International Space Station. India’s launch capabilities and Japanese robotics can be imaginatively married in some eye-catching space mission, without the MTCR impediment.
Investment, finance and technology, central to the bilateral relationship, form the hard core of the joint statement. Bilateral currency swap arrangements, generous Official Development Assistance, additional loans for the Delhi Metro, the Western Dedicated Freight Corridor, the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor, IIT Hyderabad, the planned Chennai-Bengaluru Industrial Corridor, a joint feasibility study for a high speed Mumbai-Ahmedabad railway system, cooperation in energy-efficient and energy-saving technologies, an India-Japan ICT Comprehensive Cooperation Framework, a possible Japanese Electronic Industrial Township in India, Japanese investments in National Investment Manufacturing Zones, the rare earths project, cooperation in advanced technologies, all figure in the joint statement.
Some statements made during the visit stand out because of their great import. Our Prime Minister’s affirmation that “Japan is at the heart of India’s Look East Policy” gives a new geopolitical meaning to this policy, initiated when Japan was not a part of India’s calculus. Prime Minister Abe’s remarkable statement that “the relations between Japan and India have the greatest potential of any bilateral relationship anywhere in the world” speaks for itself.