Last week Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe concluded a visit to India with an armful of key agreements and a solidification of Tokyo’s rapidly maturing relationship with New Delhi. During the summit, Abe and his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, agreed to a “special strategic and global partnership” premised on closer cooperation, economically and through stronger bonds on defense and security.
Japan’s approach to Asia — especially its relationship with India — has been reinforced by Abe’s hard line against Chinese assertiveness and his desire to tap into India’s rich investment opportunities. Ties with India have also blossomed because of the amicable personal relationship between Abe and Modi, who knew each other for years before taking their current positions.
The China-Japan relationship, despite some recent signs of improvement, has been toxic for the past several years as a result of the two countries’ territorial dispute in the East China Sea. Amplifying these tensions are Tokyo’s concerns about Beijing’s defense posture, cyberattacks and military modernization, especially in the maritime domain. India also has a complicated relationship with China and remains wary of its territorial claims in their disputed border region. Additionally, India is concerned with the growing security relationship between its traditional regional rival, Pakistan, and China.
There were three key takeaways from the recent Abe-Modi meeting, each of which will continue to shape the region’s geopolitical landscape. First, Japan won a lucrative $12 billion contract to help India build its first high-speed rail project. The massive investment deal will link Mumbai to Ahmedabad through the construction of a Japanese-style bullet train. The infusion of Japan’s high-speed rail technology has the potential to be an enormous boon for India’s transportation sector. Moreover, the pact follows up on Japan’s multibillion-dollar deal to help build Delhi’s new mass rapid transit system.
The high-speed train deal is also significant because it follows Japan’s failed bid to provide similar technological assistance to Indonesia, losing out to China, which made the winning bid to construct the Jakarta-Bandung high-speed rail line. Securing the rail deal with India has allowed Japan to recoup some of its losses and refocus its energies on the Indian transportation market.
Second, the two countries enjoy a budding relationship in the transfer of civilian nuclear energy and related technologies. After years of painstaking negotiations, both sides agreed to work toward completing their long-standing discussions on enhancing civilian nuclear cooperation. Japan’s strong nuclear nonproliferation commitments and principles collided with the notion of open nuclear trade with India, a state that remains outside the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Tokyo’s decision to relent and agree to a cooperation deal with New Delhi is a significant shift that provides benefits to both sides. Japan can profit through the sale of its nuclear technology to a booming market in India, and India benefits from Japan’s high level of expertise in the field and from its de facto recognition of India as a nuclear state.
Third, the two countries will step up security and defense relations. Earlier this year, Abe and Modi agreed to the establishment of regular national security consultations and the possibility of greater cooperation in the trade of defense materials. Symbolizing this increased security cooperation was India’s decision to invite Japan to take part as a regular member in the annual Malabar naval drills alongside the United States.
The two governments inked two key agreements concerning the transfer of defense equipment and technology and security measures for the protection of classified military information to allow for greater cooperation and facilitate greater intelligence and military information sharing. The growth in security relations between New Delhi and Tokyo has re-energized attempts to have a more meaningful trilateral relationship with the U.S. The three governments held their first trilateral foreign ministers’ meeting earlier this year on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
Tokyo’s approach to South Asia is critical, as it helps round out Abe’s strategy of reinvigorating ties with states on China’s periphery in order to bolster partnerships and balance Beijing’s influence. Japan has made significant inroads with other states in the region that traditionally have been more aligned with Chinese interests, such as Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal and the Maldives.
But Japan’s growing relationship with the region remains rooted in its ties with India. By building stronger economic and defense ties, the New Delhi–Tokyo partnership is demonstrating the potential for significant cooperation between two key players in Asia. The next step will be to ensure that the two sides live up to their commitments and navigate their way to a common strategic vision.