National narratives guiding India-Japan ties

Delhi Dec 13, 2019, 01.50 PM(IST) Written By: Jagannath P. Panda

File photo: Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe and PM Narendra Modi. Photograph:( Zee News Network )

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In the charged Indo-Pacific geopolitical scenario, Narendra Modi and Shinzo Abe have set an ideal example of using personal chemistry to forward mutually advantageous policy outlooks

Not many relationships in Asia have influenced the Indo-Pacific undercurrents as much as India-Japan relations have in recent times. If the annual leadership summits strengthened their political narrative, the recently concluded two-plus-two ministerial dialogue brought strategic substance, strengthening the narrative that both have been nurturing with frequent dialogues, official mechanisms and visits.  

Such a substantive and secured relationship should, however, be constantly emboldened with the changing nature of national growth and developmental planning. It should go in parallel with national security thinking, especially factoring in new-age technologies and changing geopolitics. India-Japan relations must also imbibe and secure their relationship with innovative ideas while keeping it parallel to their domestic developmental discourse.  

Under Shinzo Abe, Japan’s strategic reorientation in Asia is enduring constant change. This strategic reorientation holds significant implications for most countries, including India, at a time when Japan has moved to “Reiwa” era from its traditional “Hensei” era. “Reiwa” era complements Abe’s nationalist foreign policy, rebuking the Chinese traditional link with the Japanese system. In other words, Japan under Abe and its future leaderships is expected to employ a more autonomist, self-assured and pro-active foreign policy that is central to its quest to regain its lost glory. India should perceive this positively as it boosts a multipolar Asian power structure.  

As the longest-serving Prime Minister of Japan, Abe has inculcated an India legacy under his leadership. It was Abe’s 2007 speech in the Indian Parliament on “Confluence of the Two Seas” that set the tone for the present Indo-Pacific undercurrents. Abe’s arrival for a third term as the Prime Minister of Japan from 2014-2017 coincided with the arrival of parallelly strong leadership in New Delhi with Narendra Modi as the Prime Minister of India, translating into a ‘leadership friendship’ framework that has deeply guided their relationship. More importantly, they have begun revitalising the Quad in the Indo-Pacific narrative.  

Abe is also pursuing a more independent spectrum of security thinking. If not entirely a departure from its past “alliance structure” framework of international posturing with the United States, Tokyo’s attempt is to explore a new spectrum of security alignments through a fresh mode of policies and partnerships, including India in regional affairs. Japan’s vision of a harmonious regional order that Abe’s nationalist foreign policy is trying to emphasise through its “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” advocacy complements India’s nuanced Indo-Pacific outlook. Maintaining strategic restraint has become principal to strengthen national security and defence posturing and rebuilding ties with China is an important part of it. This further adds to India’s ‘inclusive’ Indo-Pacific construct that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been pitching to promote stable relations with Beijing.  

Likewise, Indian foreign policy is currently boosting a new level of confidence with Tokyo. The recent two-plus-two ministerial dialogue has certainly enhanced their strategic and economic strides. India under Modi 2.0 is set to overtake the United Kingdom as the fifth largest global economy in nominal terms and is positioned to overtake Japan by 2025 to become the second-largest economy in Asia-Pacific. India’s national narrative has imbibed a nationalist character – focusing on economic growth and technological progression with schemes like ‘Make in India’, ‘Skill India’, and ‘Aayushman Bharat’. Such schemes must encourage the participation of Japan as a serious and longstanding partner, especially in the field of technology.  

Technology was, in fact, a focal point during Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s visit to Tokyo in September 2019. While defence ties are on the upswing, the field of technology too offers a plethora of convergences. Aside from some joint projects (of which the Delhi Metro network, Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor, Mumbai-Ahmedabad High-Speed Rail project, and Western Dedicated Freight Corridor are few potent examples) and the acquisitions of Indian companies like Camlin by Japanese businesses, the technology business-business cooperation is still very low.  

Past ventures between Japan and India however, albeit less, have been extremely successful like Maruti Suzuki’s dominance in Indian automobile sector and the planned undersea cable from Chennai to Andaman-Nicobar. The 2018 technology partnership between Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology and Indian Institute of Technology, Hyderabad, is focused on major research in Artificial Intelligence (AI), and may further expand to 5G and robotics. 5G happens to be a potential key area of facilitation between the two and something that could be a focal point of cooperation. India plans on being an early adopter of 5G technology and Japanese aid could facilitate the same.  

Another possible avenue of discussion should be the Osaka Track, a policy proposal by Shinzo Abe at the G-20 summit in 2019 that calls for the creation of international guidelines and rules for free movement of data beyond country lines. However, there exists some friction with India seriously considering data localisation through legislative action and refusing to sign the statement affirming the Track. In an otherwise untarnished, uncomplicated and decades-old relationship, it is important for Japan to accommodate and resolve such issues, particularly at a time when both countries are looking for a greater international partnership, including renegotiation of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) to board India as a free-trading regional partner. Japan’s willingness not to exclude India from the RCEP is a testimony of this strengthened partnership. Further, a refreshed theory in multilateral cooperation vis-à-vis infrastructural and economic growth is called for. A renewed outlook by Japan, in lieu of Asian Development Bank (ADB), to become a member of Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) can be beneficial in improving India-Japan bilateral ties and regional cooperation, given that India is a founding member of the AIIB. 

With India’s defence procurement getting versatile, the recently concluded inaugural two-plus-two ministerial dialogue signals a new opportunity for Japan to explore the Indian domestic defence market afresh. Tokyo on its part hopes to enter the global arms market by leaving behind its self-imposed 1967 Arms Export ban, otherwise known as the Three Principles Exports Ban. The rebirth of the Japanese defence industry can only be possible via arms trade.  

The negotiations over the logistics pact, Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA), which will allow access to bases of the Indian Navy and the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF), has brought the requisite confidence aided by the successful maritime exercises. Concrete talk on the Japanese amphibian aircraft, ShinMaywa US-2i and the recent cooperative understanding between India’s Mahindra Defence and ShinMaywa Industries Limited of Japan over the same is setting a new benchmark on technology transfer cooperation. Also, defence technology sharing is increasing between Japan’s Acquisition Technology and Logistical Agency (ATLA) and the Department of Defence Production (DDP).   

In the charged Indo-Pacific geopolitical scenario, Modi and Abe have set an ideal example of using personal chemistry to forward mutually advantageous policy outlooks. It does require some reworking – their partnership must be restructured beyond the excessive US-centred Indo-Pacific framework, and the current US-China and South Korea-Japan tension must encourage them to realise their respective national strength to nurture a partnership that is independent of alliance-alignment politics. Their mutual appreciation as ‘natural partners’ must imbibe national developmental patterns, with a focus on technological collaboration. Both must realise the virtual reality and new possibilities offered by information technology to capitalise on them collaboratively. It is not difficult to realise that the world will live in an age of information technology rather than in age of the Indo-Pacific that is often made out to be the capital of India-Japan partnership.  

(Views expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)

Jagannath P. Panda

Jagannath Panda Coordinator of the East Asia Centre in IDSA. He is the author of India-China Relations: Politics of Resources, Identity and Authority in a Multipolar World Order