Does Modi’s visit to Japan signal a paradigm shift in regional relations?

The fact that the leaders of India and Japan personally like each other may give relations a boost, argues Harsh Pant

Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

After cancelling his scheduled trip to Japan in July, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi is leaving no stone unturned to make sure his visit to Japan this week is viewed as a success.

India-Japan ties are expected to receive a major boost from the personal camaraderie between Mr Modi and his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe. Mr Modi has already underlined that India and Japan share a “fundamental identity of values, interests and priorities.”

Mr Modi enjoys a close relationship with Mr Abe. He is one of just three people followed by the Japanese prime minister on Twitter. For his part, Mr Abe, a long-standing admirer of India, says “a strong India is in the best interest of Japan, and a strong Japan is in the best interest of India.”

He was one of the first Asian leaders to envision a “broader Asia”, linking the Pacific and Indian Oceans to form the Indo-Pacific. And as he has gone about reconstituting Japan’s role as a security provider in the region and beyond, India seems most willing to acknowledge Tokyo’s centrality in shaping the security architecture in the Indo-Pacific. At the annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in May 2014, Mr Abe claimed a larger security role for Japan in Asia.

Mr Modi would like to use his personal connection with Mr Abe to consolidate national ties. The Japanese corporate sector is looking to boost its presence in India.

The Japan International Cooperation Agency has been involved in the funding of Delhi Metro, India’s biggest subway system, and has agreed to fund the next phase of the Mumbai subway. Japan is expected to play a major role in a number of high profile infrastructure projects, including the completion of the ambitious Delhi-Mumbai industrial corridor and a dedicated freight project in southern India. India has also invited Japan to invest in infrastructure projects in India’s north-eastern region, where tensions with China loom large.

To underline growing maritime cooperation among nations in Asia against China’s onslaught, Japan joined warships from the US and India last month in joint exercises in the Pacific Ocean. The Malabar series of joint US-India naval exercises are an annual affair but earlier this year, in January, India invited Japan to join this year’s drills.

China had reacted angrily in 2007 when Japan, Australia and Singapore had come together with the US and India for the same exercises. Under pressure from Beijing, New Delhi had backed off and since then had refrained from making these exercises multilateral.

But China’s growing maritime ambitions in the Indian Ocean region and greater assertion on territorial issues have led India to a more forceful posture.

China has been reaching out to the Mr Modi government. China and India, as part of the larger Brics grouping, took one step towards challenging the western dominance of the global economic and financial order last week when they decided to set up the New Development Bank, headquartered in Shanghai, to finance infrastructure and development projects.

At the bilateral level, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi visited Delhi in June as special envoy of the Chinese president. In an attempt to woo New Delhi at a time when Chinese relations with Japan and Southeast Asian nations (including Vietnam and Philippines) have been deteriorating, he underlined that China was ready for a final settlement of its border disputes with India.

But India’s tensions with China show no sign of abating and Mr Modi remains a nationalist looking to raise India’s profile on the global stage. At a time when China has alienated most of its neighbours with its aggressive rhetoric and actions, India has a unique opportunity to expand its profile in the large Asian region and work proactively with other like-minded states to ensure a stable regional order.

Given the Modi-Abe connection, many are expecting a paradigm shift in India-Japan relations. Whether or not that happens, Japan will continue to be a priority for India in the coming years.

Harsh V Pant is a professor of International Relations at King’s College London