The 13th annual India-Japan annual bilateral summit held in Tokyo earlier this week was one more manifestation of both countries' mutual commitment to impart comprehensive depth and substance to the relationship, including in the area of security in addition to the economic and technological sectors. Both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe, who are leading this process from the front, have developed a warm personal rapport evident in their five annual summit meetings and the seven other times they have met on the side lines of multilateral conferences. Personal chemistry between leaders helps in taking relations forward but only if the coincidence of national interests is real and extensive as is now between India and Japan; by themselves, friendships at the highest level, cannot count for much in inter-state relations.
India-Japan purposeful bilateral engagement is a post Cold War phenomenon. Ties moved gradually in the 1990s. Later Japan took the deliberate decision to expand its relations with India. The process coincided with the growing potential of the Indian market but also with China's rise and the improvement of India-US relations. However, Indian popular goodwill, for Japan stretches to the first decade of the last century. In his biography of Jawaharlal Nehru, Frank Moraes quotes from Nehru's letter to Indira Gandhi, "Early in the twentieth century an event occurred which had a great effect on the mind of Asia. This was the defeat of Tsarist Russia by Japan…I remember well how excited I used to get when news came of the Japanese victory". Japan defeated Russia in 1905; Nehru was a boy of fifteen at that time.
After World War 2 the Japanese leadership was tried by an Allied powers war tribunal. Of the eleven judges only Radhabinod Pal, judge of the Calcutta High Court, who was on the tribunal dissented with the guilty verdict of the others which sent some Japanese leaders to the gallows. He held that justice must be equal and criminal laws could not be applied ex-post facto. He is revered in Japan even today. Shinzo Abe admires Pal, a sentiment he has inherited from his maternal grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, who served as Japan's Prime Minister in 1957-60.
The post-summit Modi-Abe vision statement gives the areas of cooperation: modernization of transportation, joint ventures in hi-tech manufacturing, health, agriculture, forestry, defence and security. Some projects are in the public eye in India and none more so than the Mumbai-Ahmedabad High Speed Rail Project. Modi wants it to be ready by 2022 which will mark the 75th year of independence. This project, valid for India's development process, also underlines the essential dilemma of dealing with a technological power. The high-speed rail will make sense only if the Indian railways absorbs the technology and can then develop high speed rail infrastructure in the country without foreign assistance. Thus, the cooperative vision cannot be confined to what the joint statement notes, "…synergising India's demographic dividend and Japan's capital and technology to realise the true potential of the India-Japan partnership…". Transfer of technology must be part of the partnership.
There is little doubt that Japan wants a vibrant security relationship with India covering the maritime domain and joint manufacture of sophisticated systems—unmanned ground vehicles, robotics and amphibian aircraft have been specifically mentioned. The decision to institute a 2+2 dialogue format consisting of the foreign and defence ministers is timely. It is based on the India-US model. Such meetings will send out an intent of joint will to concretely cooperate in security related areas as it will give an opportunity to survey particularly the situation in the Indo-Pacific region. The decision to negotiate an agreement that will enable the defence services especially the navies to access each other's establishments will when finalised add, as the joint statement correctly notes, "strategic depth to bilateral defence and security cooperation".
Along with the rest of the Indo-Pacific region, India and Japan have to contend with an aggressive China. While ramping up their mutual ties and making known their unhappiness at China's disregard for international norms where they conflict with its interests, they are carefully and bilaterally engaging China too. Both have robust economic ties with it and are taking care not to rile it. Significantly, on some core concerns of China, such as its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) both do not see eye to eye. Japan is uneasy about it but its companies are participating in some measure. India is opposed to it. In this context the Indo-Japanese decision to cooperate in building connectivity projects in select south Asian countries and in Africa needs quick implementation. That will not be easy for it will require the harmonisation of the very different bureaucratic practices of the two states.
The joint statement reflects these concerns and the wariness of both countries on China. Its shadow is apparent though it its name is not mentioned even once. In his media statement, at the conclusion of the summit, Modi asked the valid question about who will gain from the 21st century as it became that of Asia. The answer is obvious—it will have to be a win-win for all not for an emerging hegemon alone.
A last word: Modi said that Japan's acceptance of the new while respecting the old is its key contribution to world civilization. In the Indian context the question is what of the old should be respected? Surely, not the narrow or exploitative.