Few of India’s bilateral relations have advanced as much in the 21st century as the ties with Japan. Central to that progress has been the annual summitry between the prime ministers that helped set a new agenda of cooperation and push the famously slow bureaucracies in Delhi and Tokyo to move. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Ahmedabad for this year’s summit is about acknowledging the progress made across a broad front as well as thinking more boldly about the future. That the meeting is taking place in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state, Gujarat, indicates how the personal and political have come together in making Japan a critical actor in the modernisation of India’s infrastructure, revitalising its regional economic policy, and rediscovering Tokyo’s centrality for peace and stability in Asia.
If PM Modi’s special interest in Japan grew out of his “economic diplomacy” during the stewardship of Gujarat, PM Abe’s focus on India emerged out of the tales he heard from his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, who served as Japan’s Prime Minister in the 1950s and was deeply touched by Jawaharlal Nehru’s refusal to isolate Tokyo after World War II. The foundation stone that Modi and Abe will lay for the high speed railway link between Ahmedabad and Mumbai is an important testimony to the personal energy they have brought to the partnership. Without Modi’s badgering, the Indian Railways would have never bought into the project. Without the very generous financing package that Abe put together, India’s first high speed rail link would never have taken off. If the new link heralds a potentially dramatic transformation of Indian Railways, Abe’s success in getting parliamentary approval for the controversial civil nuclear agreement with India opens the door for Tokyo’s participation in India’s atomic energy programme.
Modi and Abe are expected to unveil a joint vision for bilateral strategic economic cooperation in the Subcontinent, and more broadly the Indo-Pacific littoral. At a moment when China is dazzling the region with its Belt and Road Initiative, Modi and Abe are likely to offer an alternative model for infrastructure development that is more sustainable over the long term. Bilateral defence cooperation, including a closure to the long stalled talks on the Indian purchase of Japanese amphibious aircraft, is likely to figure prominently in the talks between the two leaders. Even more importantly, the two leaders are likely to deliberate upon the unfolding geopolitical change in Asia and the need for deeper security cooperation between India and Japan for promoting stability and equilibrium in Asia. A stronger partnership between Delhi and Tokyo has become a critical imperative amid Beijing’s assertiveness and the growing political dysfunction in Washington.