Swaraj-Kono set pace for Modi-Abe meet

At the invitation of the Foreign Minister of Japan Taro Kono, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj paid an official visit to Japan from March 28-30. Effectively, though, she was in Tokyo for only a day as she arrived on the evening of March 28 and departed on the morning of March 30, leaving March 29 as the only day for engagement. This was her first visit to Japan as External Affairs Minister. Broadly, her visit could be divided into parts.

The first part was her engagement with the Indian community at an event organised by the Indian embassy, to which I was invited and attended. Addressing a gathering of the Indian diaspora at the Vivekananda Cultural Centre, Swaraj lauded the contribution of the diaspora to strengthening the bond with Japan and creating a positive image about India in Japan.

In the second part, she co-chaired the ninth India-Japan Strategic Dialogue with Kono. The India-Japan Strategic Dialogue is a bilateral summit being held between the foreign ministers of India and Japan, alternately in either country, since 2007.

The two leaders reviewed many aspects of bilateral relations and exchanged views on regional and international issues of common interest. India and Japan concluded a Special Strategic and Global Partnership during the landmark visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Japan in 2014. Bilateral relations have been significantly strengthened in diverse sectors over the last few years. The visit of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to India in September 2017 provided further impetus to the ties.

Backed by civilisational links, the two countries have unearthed potential synergies in a host of areas that have unfolded enormous mutual benefits. As a result, bilateral relations have been strengthened in sectors such as nuclear energy, defence and science and technology, besides making clear the convergence of interests on regional and global issues.

The big-ticket project that has already been inked between the two countries is the Mumbai-Ahmedabad High Speed Rail Project based on the Shinkansen high-speed trains in Japan.

The groundbreaking ceremony of the bullet train project, to be built with Japanese aid, was held during Abe's visit to India in September 2017 for the annual bilateral summit. Japan is today one of the largest investors in India, with a growing presence in infrastructure projects, manufacturing, financial markets and capacity-building, among others.

The nuclear issue is a sensitive one in Japan since the dropping of atomic bombs by the United States on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II and the more recent civil nuclear disaster in Fukushima. Despite the strong anti-nuclear sentiment in Japan, New Delhi and Tokyo successfully negotiated the conclusion of a civil nuclear deal in 2016, paving the way for nuclear commerce between the two countries. This allows Japan to export nuclear power plant technology to India, besides helping in nuclear waste management.

Japanese foreign direct investment in India, too, has seen steady growth. Japanese FDI during 2016-17 totalled $4.7 billion, an increase of 80% over the previous year. However, bilateral trade totalled $13.61 billion in 2016-17, a decrease of 6.21% from the previous year's figure of $14.51 billion. While India's exports to Japan for 2016-17 were $3.8 billion, India's imports from Japan for the same year accounted for $9.76 billion.

While in the economic domain, progress has been incremental, it is in the security and strategic areas that the synergy is found more compelling. Given the talk of the revival of the quadrilateral dialogue between Japan, the US, Australia and India to counter China's increasing muscle-flexing in the South China Sea, and to ensure navigation rights in the Indo-Pacific region, the visit of minister Swaraj assumed special significance.

Now, Japan is also a partner in the Malabar naval exercise, which India has been conducting with the US since 2002. It may be noted that Swaraj is set to visit China in late April to participate in the foreign ministers' meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), ahead of its summit, which is expected to be attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Qingdao in June.

Exchanging yen-denominated loan agreements for $1.4 billion, Kono underlined India as Japan's "most important partner" in its "Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy".

In a remark that appeared to target China's actions in the South China Sea, Kono remarked "Our Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy and India's Act East Policy should be further merged". Complementing Kono's remarks, Swaraj stressed that the "growing convergence on economic and strategic issues" between the two countries is "important for peace, stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region".

Besides bilateral trade, Japanese loans for important projects such as the Mumbai metro line from Cuffe Parade, a seawater desalinisation plant and an intelligent transport system to reduce traffic congestion in Chennai, tree planting schemes in Himachal Pradesh as well as for the North East Connectivity project were major highlights of the discussion.

The respective envoys signed and exchanged notes concerning the provisions for four yen-loan projects. Swaraj's Japan visit set the agenda for Modi's annual summit with Abe later this year.

(The writer is ICCR India Chair Visiting Professor at Reitaku University, Japan)  

 

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