The fifth annual summit in Tokyo between Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Shinzo Abe was as much a celebration of the expansive state of the partnership between the two countries as it was of the personal bond between the two leaders. The scope of the relationship now ranges from Japanese aid to develop connectivity in the Northeast and the High Speed Railway system between Mumbai and Ahmedabad. Modi and Abe have also announced the launch of a new digital partnership that will cover Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT). On the defence front, their navies will now share intelligence and will soon be able to use each other’s facilities in the Indo-Pacific. Yet, there is no ignoring the fact that India has not been able to take full advantage of the opportunities presented by Abe’s Japan. Few foreign leaders has brought more personal commitment to the relationship with India than Abe. Consider for example the fact that Modi was the first foreign leader that Abe hosted at his personal home near Mount Fuji.
Abe’s enthusiasm for India was more than personal; it was deeply political. He inherited it from his maternal grandfather Nobusuke Kishi, who was the prime minister of Japan in the 1950s. For nationalist Kishi, India was central to the restoration of Japan as a normal power after its defeat in the Second World War. Abe inherited both ideas — that Japan must play its legitimate role in Asia and the world; and that India is critical in advancing that goal. As he becomes the longest serving Japanese PM in post-war history, Abe has now firmly planted India at the centre of Tokyo’s global strategy. Thanks to his interaction with the Japanese leaders during his long tenure as the chief minister of Gujarat, Modi was eager to elevate Japan’s salience in India’s internal development and external relations. That the rise of China was undermining the historic standing of Japan and India in Asia provided a regional context for their strategic cooperation. India’s new warmth towards the US, Japan’s post-War ally, also facilitated the rapid expansion of Delhi’s ties to Tokyo.
But the limitations of the relationship are glaring. Bilateral annual trade now stands at a pitiable $15 billion. Japan’s trade with China despite troubled political relations is now close to $300 billion. Well before China came up with the Belt and Road Initiative, Japan was putting money to develop the Mumbai-Delhi industrial and rail corridors. Progress has been painfully slow. Thirteen years after it was announced, the Dedicated Freight Corridor between the two cities is now barely half done. The negotiations on the purchase of an amphibious aircraft have dragged on for nearly a decade. That a politically strong and bureaucratically centralised government led by Modi can’t get things moving faster at home points to the deepening systemic crisis. If India can’t change the way it works internally, it can’t do much with even the most eager external partners like Abe’s Japan.