Script: Prof. SRABANI ROY CHOUDHURY, Centre for East Asian Studies, JNU
In early April, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga had announced a visit to India in the latter half of the month. This in-person meeting was anticipated in Indian political circles with enthusiasm. Prime Minister Suga’s decision to visit India after visiting the US reflects the importance that Japan gives to India. Prime Minister Suga took over the reins from Shinzo Abe in September 2020. He had been the Cabinet Secretary during the Abe regime and is well versed with the significance that India has in Japan’s foreign policy.
Having held a prominent position in the previous administration, there was little doubt that the baton exchange would be smooth. Nevertheless, the personal equation that Modi and Abe had, which reflected in the significant progress of the bilateral relations, the friends of Japan were keen to see how Prime Minister Modi and Prime Minister Suga would develop their own chemistry.
Unfortunately, as both nations reel under the Covid -19 surge- India fighting the second surge and Japan announced emergency as it encounters the third surge, the in-person summit meeting was cancelled, and a telephonic meeting was convened. The meeting lasted for over twenty-five minutes. Both the leaders spoke at length about the pandemic, the bilateral and multilateral engagements and cooperation in new areas that have emerged.
India-Japan bilateral relations have seen significant development since the turn of the century. Rising China, maverick North Korea, and the growing Indian economy have promoted this relationship to move beyond economics to “special strategic and global partnership”. The result is deepened engagement in the security sphere as Japan is engaging in Malabar exercise, 2 plus 2 Ministerial meetings in Defence and Foreign Affairs. Many efforts have been made in people to people exchanges too, as Japan has revised its visa option favouring long term multiple entries. Both Prime Ministers acknowledged the support and facilitation provided to resident citizens in each other’s country during the current crisis. They pledged to continue to cooperate and coordinate in future too.
Economic engagement between the two nations is the fulcrum of the relations. Both leaders discussed at length areas of cooperation through which both countries can benefit. The pandemic has exposed the over-dependence on China in the production-supply network. Both leaders agreed to work together to create a resilient, diversified and trustworthy supply chain.
Prime Minister Modi emphasized that ensuring a reliable supply of critical material and technologies is paramount for India’s development. As an extension, both Prime Ministers noted that it was vital to operationalize the ‘Specified Skilled Workers Agreement’ and continue exploring new areas for partnership in manufacturing. Both leaders appreciated the progress made on Mumbai-Ahmedabad High-Speed Rail (MAHSR) and termed it as a shining example of the bilateral relation.
Today, the North East Region of India is of geostrategic concern. It has become a confluence of three visions; India’s “Act East Policy”, India’s ‘Neighbourhood First Policy’ and Japan’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) strategy. Japan, in recent years, has committed to development assistance and pledged to continue strengthening its aid programme in this region. Exploring the possibility of collaborations in new fields like digital, cyber, health-care,5G, submarine cables and decarbonization was also brought to the table by Prime minister Suga.
Having participated in the Quad Summit last month, where it was underlined that it was critical to develop a world order that was broad-based and inclusive, both Prime Ministers reiterated that ‘rules-based order’ and ‘open international order’ was vital. Prime minister Suga also raised concern over China’s overtures in the neighbourhood and the changes that China has made to its Coast Guard laws, which raise concerns over China’s unilateral attempt to change the status quo.
Both leaders acknowledged the hard times that the nations were facing with the pandemic surges, vaccination programme and the resultant economic slowdown. Prime minister Modi thanked Prime Minister Suga for the help extended during the pandemic. They ended on a strong note of positivity and agreed to meet in person in the near future.