By K.V. Kesavan
Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is arriving in New Delhi on 25 January to participate in the annual summit meeting with his Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh. In addition, he has also been designated as the Chief Guest of the Government of India at the Republic Day celebration on 26 January. Abe’s visit comes soon after the historic visit made by Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko about two months ago. Regarded as a steadfast friend of India, Abe has been involved in the whole process of institutionalising the on-going annual summits. As prime minister, this is the fourth time that he will participate in the apex meeting along with Dr Singh. 2006 was a landmark year in the evolution of the bilateral partnership in that both Abe and Singh launched the strategic and global partnership at the time of their summit meeting. In the 2007 summit held in New Delhi, Abe came out with his well-known speech at the Indian Parliament on the confluence of the two seas. In fact, he was one of the earliest leaders to speak about Indo-Japanese partnership in the context of a broader Asia.
His first tenure in office (2006-7) was very brief; yet within that short period, he was able to project the partnership as an important element in Japanese diplomacy and there was no question of his political successors departing from that. Though Prime Minister Taro Aso signed the Declaration on Security Cooperation with Dr Singh in 2008, his successor and DPJ leader Ichiro Hatoyama supported it by going ahead with signing the Action Plan contemplated earlier by Mr. Aso. The following two governments led by DPJ leaders Naoto Kan and Yoshihiro Noda continued to support the on-going partnership with no hesitation.
Even when the DPJ party was in power during 2009-12, Abe maintained his close links with India having visited the country once or twice in his private capacity. But since his return to power, he has been attaching utmost importance to Japan’s ties with India. In one of his well-publicised articles, he described India as a significant part of Asia’s “security diamond”. Subsequently, he has made references to India’s role in the Asia-Pacific region in his policy speeches at the Japanese Diet. The National Security Strategy (NSS) issued last month states the following: “India is becoming increasingly influential, due to what is projected to become the world’s largest population, and to high economic growth and potential. India is also geopolitically important for Japan, as it is positioned in the center of sea-lanes of communication. Japan will strengthen bilateral relations in a broad range of areas including maritime security, based on the bilateral Strategic and Global Partnership.”
From all reports, it is quite clear that the present visit would mainly be devoted to consolidate the partnership and draw up a fresh road map for future developments. The much anticipated agreement on civil nuclear cooperation is not likely to happen during the current visit. In the May 2013 joint statement, both Singh and Abe agreed to accelerate negotiations for a speedy conclusion of an agreement. Subsequently, two rounds of talks were held both in Tokyo and New Delhi, but progress towards an agreement unfortunately floundered on the same old positions taken by both countries. Japan is still insisting on the need for India to give an undertaking that it will not conduct any more nuclear tests in the future. In response, India states that the assurances that it gave to the US and other NSG countries at the time of the US-India nuclear cooperation agreement would be adequate for them to sign an agreement.
While Prime Minister Abe is keen to finalise a nuclear agreement, he cannot altogether ignore public opinion within his own country where all nuclear reactors have closed down. In that sense, Japan has gone totally non-nuclear. Further, the upcoming Tokyo’s gubernatorial election which is likely to be focused on the nuclear issues could further divide the sentiments of the people. Former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who still commands considerable influence with the people, has not only openly expressed his views against nuclear reactors, but is going to support another former Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa who is contesting for the governor’s post. Hosokawa strongly advocates that Japan should adopt a zero nuclear option. Many reporters have acknowledged that if Mr. Koizumi decides to campaign for Hosokawa, he can create serious problems for the ruling LDP candidate.
Defence cooperation is another area where the two countries have seen great potential for closer interactions. In the May 2013 joint statement, both Abe and Singh expressed their satisfaction at the expanding security relations in areas such as joint naval exercises. They agreed to explore the prospects of Japan selling its indigenously made US-2 amphibious aircraft to India. They also set up a joint working group to examine the modalities of cooperation on the issue. Given Tokyo’s extreme sensitivity to arms sales to foreign countries, its decision to sell aircraft to India came as a big surprise to everyone. In December last, Japanese Defence minister Itsunori Onodera came to India to conduct talks. In the last week of December, the two joint work groups met to discuss the subject. It was reported that Japan was inclined to sell the US-2 aircraft as a civilian product which could be turned into a military hardware. It is still not clear whether the deal will be finalised before the arrival of the Japanese Prime Minister.
Apart from the two main issues mentioned above, the rest of the summit talks will go smoothly on expected lines. Both countries will discuss and accelerate the on-going infrastructure projects including Delhi-Mumbai Freight Corridor and Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor. It is reported that Japan is likely to make a firm commitment to the Chennai-Bangaluru Corridor. In addition, Japan is likely to ask India to speed up its supply of rare earth minerals. Though an agreement was signed between the two countries a couple of years ago, progress on that front has been very slow, and Japan is keen to diversify its sources of those minerals. It may be recalled, when China stopped its supplies of the minerals to Japan two years ago in the midst of a territorial wrangle on the Senkaku islands, Japan signed agreements with India and a few more countries to minimise its dependence on China.
In sum, the present visit of Abe will mark one more significant step in the direction of consolidating the India-Japan partnership. Since Singh has announced that he will hand over power soon after the May 2014 general elections, this will be the last summit meeting between him and Abe. Both will however have the satisfaction of having nurtured a partnership which has become a significant element in the stability and security of the Asian region.
(Prof K.V. Kesavan is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)