Moving towards a stronger India–Japan partnership at the Tokyo summit

Author: K.V. Kesavan, ORF

The India–Japan partnership has matured into an important component of the new security and economic architecture of the Indo-Pacific region.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh accompanied by his wife Gursharan Kaur, is greeted by a Japanese official upon his arrival at Tokyo International Airport on 27 May 2013 (Photo: AAP).

For a long time, the partnership was centered on economic matters such as development loans, trade and investment. But it has diversified to cover a wide spectrum of interests including security, counter terrorism, sea-lanes, UN reforms, energy security and climate change. This year’s bilateral summit in Tokyo reflects this trend.

The Tokyo summit is best viewed in the context of a resurgent Abe administration. Both Abe and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh know each other well, having met at the 2006 and 2007 summits. These two meetings contributed a great deal to the evolution of the multi-dimensional nature of the bilateral partnership that we see today, including the institution of annual summits.

The present visit took place at a time when both countries face serious territorial frictions with China. The recent Ladakh (Kashmir) crisis arising out of China’s controversial intrusion into the Indian territories inside the Line of Actual Control demonstrated the unpredictable nature of their bilateral relations. Though China agreed to withdraw to its earlier position after India’s rather tough stance, the incident left a long trail of bitterness. Many believe that Beijing’s withdrawal was due to its concern to see that Prime Minister Li’s scheduled official visit to India was not affected in any way.

Japan continues to face tremendous pressure from China in the maritime sphere, particularly since 2010 when a Chinese ship rammed a Japanese coast guard vessel. China’s relentless pursuit of its claims to the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands became far more intense after September 2012 following the Japanese government’s purchase of three of the islands. On almost a daily basis China’s surveillance ships intrude into Japan’s territorial waters around the islands and Chinese air forces have also violated Japanese air space in the area.

In the context of this security situation, it is important to note the salience given to bilateral security and defence issues at this year’s summit. Singh spoke of the multiple challenges posing ‘continuing threats’ to peace and stability in the region. His statement that India also sees Japan as ‘a natural and indispensable partner in [India’s] quest for stability and peace in Asia’ underscored that India views its relationship with Japan as going beyond just economic development. One of the responsibilities of the partnership, Singh said, ‘is to foster a climate of peace, stability and cooperation and to lay an enduring foundation for security and prosperity’. Stating that India’s ‘Look East’ policy has acquired more strategic content in recent years, he called on both India and Japan to enhance their cooperation in three areas: the promotion of regional mechanisms and forums for consultation and cooperation; regional economic integration and connectivity to ensure balanced economic development of the region; and the promotion of maritime security by strongly supporting the freedom of navigation and commerce in accordance with international law.

Alongside concern over security issues, there was a great deal of expectation in India that both countries would come to an agreement on the issue of civilian nuclear cooperation during the Summit. Both leaders discussed the issue and reiterated the importance of bilateral cooperation in this sphere. Both affirmed that nuclear safety is ‘a priority’. They agreed to ‘accelerate the negotiations’ for an early conclusion. But while Singh is ‘hopeful’ India and Japan will sign an agreement ‘before long’, many analysts feel it may take some time to materialise. There are concerns that the old question of linking the agreement with India’s adherence to the non-proliferation treaty and the comprehensive nuclear-test-ban treaty will complicate negotiations. Much would also depend on the outcome of the July Upper House election in Japan. If Abe wins a convincing victory he can muster enough political will to push through the agreement.

Even with security and nuclear issues prominent on the agenda, economic relations remain the core component of the Japan–India bilateral partnership. The Joint Statement highlights Japan’s deepening involvement in India’s infrastructure development projects including metro rail systems in major cities like Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai and Mumbai. In addition, Japan is involved in the implementation of two flagship projects — the Delhi–Mumbai freight corridor and Delhi–Mumbai industrial corridor. It is also deeply interested in assisting in the new Chennai–Bangaluru Industrial Corridor.

Japan has also signed fresh ODA loans amounting to Y4.24 billion for various projects including the Mumbai metro. India has been the biggest recipient of Japanese aid since 2003 and it is worth noting that at a time when Japan’s overall aid volume is declining, it has maintained its aid to India at a high level.

There is a strong impression on both sides that the economic potential of the relationship has not been fully tapped. For instance, the total volume of bilateral trade in 2012 amounted to only about US$18 billion despite the fact that the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) came into effect in 2011. Similarly, Japan’s investment in India, though increasing, needs to be accelerated. Singh and Abe both stressed the importance of making continued efforts to enhance trade and investment, and this issue will likely remain on the agenda for future summits even if other issues fade or are resolved.

Professor K.V. Kesavan is a Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi, and a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington D.C.