Most analyses of the increasingly close relationship between India and Japan assume it is about common concerns about China. Beijing’s bellicosity contributes a large slice of the bilateral pie, but the utility of the relationship to the domestic agendas of Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Shinzo Abe is the real filling.
Tokyo and New Delhi began moving closer even before the global financial crisis of 2008, roughly when China became the geopolitical migraine it is today. Abe, in particular, has had a vision of India going back a decade.
Modi’s predecessor Manmohan Singh, a known Japanophile, laid the foundations. He used the label “transformational” to describe India’s relations with only two countries – the US and Japan.
In other words, only these had the ability to boost India’s development trajectory to a completely different orbit. When Abe proposed in 2007 the building of massive industrial corridors in India to kick start its dormant manufacturing sector, Singh quickly embraced the idea.
But the Singh government was warier of embracing a closer strategic relationship with Japan. He avoided direct use of the term “Indo-Pacific”, code for saying the two countries were in the same geopolitical space.
Modi has proved less inhibited on all fronts. Senior Indian officials say Japan and Israel were the two foreign governments uppermost in his mind when he was elected.
He understood Japan’s plans for mega-infrastructure projects such as the 1,500-km Delhi-Mumbai industrial corridor would provide the concrete base for his “Make in India” programme for industrial revival. Build the rails, roads and electronic tagging for containers and the factories will follow.
Abe too has an ambitious domestic agenda. The nationalist school he comes from seeks to end Japan’s post-war pacificism. As he likes to say, he wants Japan to become a “normal” country in diplomacy and defence. China provided the provocation, but even earlier he looked to India for legitimacy.
In 2007, Abe wrote it would “not be a surprise if in another decade, Japan-India relations overtake Japan-US and Japan-China ties”. He sees India as the largest Asian democracy, his public generally sees it in a positive light and, most important, as one of his political aides said, the two countries have no World War 2 baggage.
Abe believes India can provide political blessings to his moves to make Japan a normal geopolitical player. Speaking to the Indian parliament in 2012, he noted how his grandfather, then Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, visited a welcoming New Delhi in the 1950s before he went to Washington because “as a pragmatic politician he knew that India would give him some political capital” in a US that had not shed its wartime hostility.
India accepts this role. It has become Japan’s most important military partner among Asian states that are not US allies. Modi and Abe have been slowly pushing towards completing the purchase of US-2 seaplanes, to break Japan’s long-standing taboo against the export of military equipment.
The recently concluded nuclear deal signals Tokyo’s willingness to share its state-of-the art atomic technology with a country that has not signed the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.
When Modi went to Japan last week, this two-way domestic tie-up was tightened with Tokyo agreeing to help his flagship projects such as Digital India and Skill India. As Indian officials note, these are social and technical problems that Japan solved years ago. Japan, they like to say, through successes such as the Delhi Metro and Maruti Suzuki, has helped India expand its mindset.
Western analysts assume Abe is exaggerating when he says India is his country’s “most important bilateral relationship”. They miss not only what Indian and Japanese officials call the “perfect chemistry” between Modi and Abe but also the belief both have that the other country is crucial to their ambitious plans on the home front. China is just the icing on the cake.