India and Japan share a unique relationship that dates back over 1,400 years and where Buddhism has been a deep, shared bond.  In more recent times, the two countries established relations after India decided to sign a separate Peace Treaty when Japan attained full sovereignty in 1952. Unlike Japan’s ties with any other country in the region, what is significant is that this bilateral relationship is not burdened by any negative baggage and neither has it witnessed a downslide. The bilateral relationship is now poised to enter an active, dynamic new phase. 

Though planned months ago, Indian Prime Minister Modi’s second visit to Japan has happened at an important time in the geo-politics of the region where the contest for strategic space is intensifying. Prominent in the Indo-Pacific are China, Japan and India — each coincidentally led by a strong dynamic leader with a powerful mandate who has articulated a powerful vision for his country. All three, namely Xi Jinping, Shinzo Abe and Narendra Modi are, additionally, nationalists, thus making for a potent mix that could lead to a bold, new direction for peaceful development of the region or strongly contribute to raising extant tensions.

The South China Sea issue continues to be the central issue of concern for countries in the region with an assertive China refusing to accept the decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at The Hague. With the US following a policy of strategic tentativeness — indicating either its unwillingness or inability to take action — Beijing flexed economic influence and muscle to get Philippines President Duterte to lead a business delegation on a four-day (20-23 October 2016) visit to Beijing to repair relations. Beijing accorded Duterte a lavish welcome sweetened with trade deals valued at $13.5 billion that induced him to say he would end joint military exercises with the US, admonish the US for criticising him over his bloody war against drugs, and ask US President Barack Obama to “go to hell”. Ignoring the decision of the PCA, which was a consequence of the application filed by the Philippines, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Duterte seem to have agreed that Beijing will withdraw Chinese Navy ships from around the Scarborough Reef in the Spratly Islands and allow Filipino fishermen to operate in these waters. The issue of sovereignty over the Scarborough Reef has apparently been set aside. 

Reflective of the uncertainty in the Indo-Pacific generated by the lack of clarity in the US stance, Malaysia, a key security partner of the US, in a surprising move designed to disappoint the US, decided during the visit to Beijing of its Prime Minister Najib Razak in November 2016, to warm ties with China and purchase at least four Littoral Mission Ships from China. The English-language official China Daily disclosed in an editorial on 2 November 2016, that the first two will be built in China and the next two in Malaysia, with more ships to be built in Malaysia subject to availability of government financing.

Adding substantially to the tension in the region is the sovereignty dispute between China and Japan over the Senkaku — in Chinese the Daioyu — islands. Symbolising this tension is that Japanese fighters scrambled 407 times to chase Chinese planes in the six-month period ending this September, compared to 231 times in the same period last year.

China has also increased diplomatic and military pressure on India for the past couple of years with intermittent major intrusions. Days prior to Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Japan and overshadowing the talks between Chinese State Councillor Yang Jiechi and India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval in Hyderabad, important was the stand-off (2-5 November 2016) between China’s People’s Armed Police Force (PAPF) and 70 Indian troops in the Demchok area of Ladakh. The armed PAPF personnel had crossed over to demand that a water pipeline being laid inside Indian territory near Demchok be stopped because the territory belonged to China! Pointedly, in May 2013, the 89-million strong Chinese Communist Youth League (CYL)’s official newspaper Zhongguo Qingnian Bao had laid claim to Ladakh describing it as “Little Tibet”. 

Modi’s visit to Tokyo not only emphasised the commonalities between the two countries and strengthened bilateral ties, but underlined the growing convergence of strategic interests. Maritime cooperation is a potential major area of cooperation. In the context of China’s unrelenting claim over 3 million square kilometres of the South China Sea, both countries have a vital interest in ensuring the neutrality of air and sea navigation lanes in the South China Sea and keeping them open. Concern is evidenced by the inclusion of the Japanese Navy, the region’s most powerful, in the three-nation “Malabar” Exercises on at least three occasions now. The appearance of Chinese nuclear submarines in the Indian Ocean with one docking in Karachi port in May 2016, and building of a Chinese Navy base in Djibouti, are factors that encourage India-Japan maritime cooperation being extended to encompass the Indian Ocean. Both countries are cooperating on an energy project in the Andaman Islands. Pertinent is the US Congressional estimate that China will have 351 fighting ships by 2020.

India and Japan have plans for strategic economic cooperation, especially in projects in Africa and the Middle East. India’s political goodwill and influence combined with Japan’s financial strength and engineering capacity will enable them to jointly undertake infrastructure and other commercial projects. In Iran, for example, such cooperation will facilitate accelerated development of the Chabahar port. 

In the effort to add density to India-Japan relations, Japan’s involvement in India’s economic growth is of importance. The number of Japanese companies in India has increased. In addition to building another high-speed railway, the bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement will be a significant step toward promoting Shinzo Abe’s plan to boost infrastructure exports as well as helping India move towards energy self-sufficiency. Final touches were given last week, including during the meeting between the National Security Advisors of Japan and India. In the initial stages of defence cooperation, India plans to purchase twelve ShinMaywa US-21 military aircraft at prices reportedly lowered by Tokyo. 

Tourism, where Japanese tourists travelling to India account for barely 200,000 of 18 million outbound Japanese tourists, is another area of cooperation.

Expanded strategic and economic cooperation including people-to-people contacts are essential for energising India-Japan ties. At this time when a new US President’s policy for the Indo-Pacific and China are not known and it is unclear whether America will become more inward looking, Modi’s visit is of greater importance. He and Shinzo Abe need to build a relationship that ensures a power equilibrium in the region. 

(The author is a former Additional Secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India. He is currently President of the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy.)