Author : Ashok Sajjanhar

Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Sep 19, 2017
Abe's visit: Much beyond colour, pomp and show

The two-day visit of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for the 12th Annual bilateral Summit to Ahmedabad, Gujarat registered many firsts. The most significant and talked about was the groundbreaking ceremony for the 508-km long high speed train, more popularly known as the ‘’bullet train,” by Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Shinzo Abe on  September 14 at the Sabarmati Stadium. The less talked about was the 8-km road show that was organised to welcome Prime Minister and Mrs Abe that began from the airport immediately after they alighted. This was possibly the first reception of this kind accorded to a visiting dignitary in India, if not the world. The guests were welcomed by children, women and men waving flags of the two countries on the entire route and treated to the diverse and multi-splendored culture of India with 28 ornately decorated stages displaying classical and folk music and dances from different states of India.

The other somewhat unnoticed aspect was that Prime Minister Abe and his delegation went back to Tokyo from Gujarat itself, without touching the capital of the country. Bilateral Talks as well as signing of agreements were conducted in Ahmedabad. It would appear that for these two days, the capital of the country had shifted to Ahmedabad. This is another example of out of the box thinking of Prime Minister Modi in the field of foreign policy and diplomacy.

The visit was not only colour, pomp and show. Much significant, substantive business was conducted over the fast-paced visit of the Japanese Prime Minister.

Historical perspective

Relations between India and Japan have traditionally been warm and cordial. Friendship between the two countries has a long history rooted in spiritual affinity and strong cultural and civilizational ties. Relations witnessed a temporary dip after the nuclear tests by India in May 1998, but showed an upward trajectory with the visit of PM Mori to India in 2000. A significant jump was witnessed in 2006 when the relationship was upgraded to a ''Global and Strategic Partnership'' with the provision of annual Prime Ministerial Summits. A Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement was concluded in 2011. Japanese companies have however been reluctant to invest in India because of difficulty of doing business, lack of suitable infrastructure, and delays in getting permissions, approvals etc from government offices and departments.

Bilateral ties registered a quantum upsurge with the visit by Prime Minister Modi to Japan in September, 2014, soon after becoming the PM earlier that year. It was his first foreign bilateral visit beyond the South Asia region. Relations were upgraded to ''Special Strategic and Global Partnership'' during that visit. Since then, the two leaders have met in each other’s countries as well as in different capitals more than 10 times over the last three years.

This reflects a close personal rapport which reinforces the convergence of bilateral interest between the two countries.

Democratic values and rule of law have always ensured congenial and amicable bilateral relations. Increasing coherence of views and interests over the last few years, particularly with the increasing assertiveness and aggressiveness of a rapidly rising China, has acted as a catalyst to bring the two countries closer. This congruence of positions has been reflected in decisions taken by the two leaders. Both Prime Ministers have gone out of their way to spend as much time with each other as possible. For instance, Modi and Abe met four times with each other over meals discussing bilateral relations and global issues over a of four weeks in November/December, 2015 viz in Antalya, Turkey during the G-20 Summit on November 16; in Kuala Lumpur  during East Asia Summit on November 22; on sidelines of the COP Meeting in Paris on  November 30; and during PM Abe’s bilateral visit to India for the 9th Annual Summit on December 11-13, 2015. International press has warmly termed this relationship as ‘’bromance.’’ Over this period, mutual friendship has further blossomed as interests of the two countries have become further harmonised and aligned.

This is reflected in the long and ambitious Joint Declaration titled ‘’ Toward a Free, Open and Prosperous Indo-Pacific’’ issued at the end of official talks in Gujarat.

The Joint Declaration

A significant element of the statement is the affirmation that Japan has ratified the civilian nuclear deal signed during PM Modi’s visit to Japan last year. Japan is the only country which has suffered destruction and havoc wreaked by nuclear weapons during the Second World War in 1945. It has hence been the most hesitant and reluctant to sign a deal for cooperation in the nuclear arena with a country that has not acceded to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). It is a measure of confidence that Japan has in the track-record, commitment and assurances of India that Japan has agreed to sign and ratify the nuclear cooperation agreement with India, the only non-NPT country with which it has signed such an accord. This will allow US and French nuclear firms, which have alliances with Japanese companies, to conduct nuclear commerce with India.

Japan is a major player in the international nuclear energy market and this deal will make it easier for companies like the Westinghouse and GE Energy to set up nuclear plants in India as both of them have significant Japanese investments. The pact with Japan is crucial for India’s electricity generation plans as many safety and other components meant for reactors are manufactured by Japanese companies. With India committing to steps to cut down on emissions, nuclear energy is a key component of India’s energy mix. This development is not a mere agreement for commerce and clean energy but represents a significant symbol of the high level of mutual confidence, trust and strategic partnership between the two countries.


The Mumbai Ahmedabad High Speed Railway (MAHSR) is a flagship project of bilateral partnership. It is significant that India has chosen the ‘’shinkansen’’ technology over the Chinese offer which has been imported by some other countries like Malaysia, Indonesia etc. Taiwan is the only partner that has imported Japanese technology. Strategic considerations could be a factor for this decision by India. The attractive financing terms could be another reason. Japan will extend 80% of the USD 17 billion (Rs 1,10,000 crs) as soft loan at 0.1% rate of interest per annum payable over 50 years with a grace period of 15 years.

This has the potential to spark an industrial revolution in India. It can have significant spin- offs in improving connectivity and enhancing ease of doing business.

 MAHSR has the potential to spawn the transformation of India's railway network. It could also prove to be a huge impetus for the ''Make in India'' initiative.


Defence is another significant area in which the two countries have decided to strengthen their relations. Specific reference has been made to Japan’s readiness to supply its state-of-the-art US-2 amphibian aircraft. This symbolises the high degree of trust between the two countries. The two countries have been in talks for last few years on the purchase by India of these systems manufactured by ShinMaywa Industries. These would be one of Japan’s first arms sales since Abe lifted a 50-year ban on weapon exports. India does not appear to be happy with the price. Discussions are expected to continue. In the same spirit of confidence, Japan has agreed to share its dual use technologies with India. Japan has recently joined the trilateral Malabar naval Exercises, the latest edition of which was conducted in the Bay of Bengal in July, 2017. The Declaration speaks of strengthening ‘’trilateral cooperation frameworks with the United States, Australia and other countries.’’


Over the last one year, the Asia Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC) has emerged as a significant area of collaboration between India and Japan. It is seen as an alternative to China’s One Belt One Road Initiative.

 It seeks to expand the outreach of these countries to Southeast Asia as well as Africa. It strives to overcome several drawbacks that India had mentioned while conveying its opposition to participate in the Belt Road Forum organized by China in Beijing in May, 2017. The most critical is respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity of participating countries. In addition, Belt-Road Initiative is a top down approach while AAGC will be a participative, consultative and inclusive process. It will create jobs in the countries where projects are built, will promote skill development and ensure transfer of technology. It will ensure prudent and responsible financial arrangements and not result in a debt trap for the recipient countries. Full attention will be given to environment and ecological protection and preservation. Both India and Japan have extensive experience of working in Africa as well as South east Asia. This initiative has the potential to promote comprehensive development and enhance peace, security and prosperity in these regions.

Act East Forum

Another significant aspect is the establishment of the India-Japan Act East Forum under which Japan will actively cooperate to improve the infrastructure and promote connectivity in the North-Eastern (NE) States of India. This will help to increase linkages within and between the different States of NE India and also of these States with Myanmar and other countries of Asean.

Maritime security

The underlying theme and emphasis of the Joint Declaration and bilateral discussions was to promote security and progress in the Indo-Pacific region. In this connection, reference has been made in the Declaration to ensuring freedom of navigation and over flights, resolution of disputes through dialogue and ‘’in accordance with the universally recognized principles of international law, notably the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).’’ This is a direct reference to China’s aggressive posture in the South China Sea.


The Joint Statement speaks of ''zero tolerance'' for terrorism, condemns North Korea for its irresponsible and provocative missile and nuclear tests. It calls upon Pakistan to speedily conduct trials of perpetrators of Mumbai and Pathankot attacks. It commits the two countries to strengthen cooperation against terror groups like Al Qaeda, ISIS, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad and their affiliates.

India and Japan are looking to strengthen relations in a bid to balance the unpredictable and increasingly belligerent rise of China as Asia’s dominant power. India has an unsettled border with China and views China’s deepening relations with Pakistan with a wary eye. Japan has territorial and political disputes with China. Both Modi and Abe are trying to strengthen their respective economies to match China’s growing economic and political clout in the Indo-Pacific region. As Abe stated in his Speech at the groundbreaking ceremony: ‘’A strong Japan is in India’s interest and a strong India is in Japan’s interest.’’ He added that forcible change of status quo will not be tolerated and that territorial sovereignty and peace should be respected. It would be recalled that Japan had come out openly in support of India during the Doklam standoff.

Chinese foreign office came out with statements on the visit on three successive days. It said that there should be no foreign investment in NE India as the area is disputed between India and China. On the bullet train, it expressed the hope that India would favourably consider the proposal submitted by China for other regions. It also stated that countries in the region should form partnerships rather than alliances so that regional peace and security is promoted. It is obvious that China was watching developments in Ahmedabad closely, warily and with considerable anxiety.

The 12th Annual Summit between India and Japan provided  a significant impetus to bilateral ties and adopted several fresh decisions which could prove to be transformational bilaterally as well as for regional and global stability and prosperity.

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Ashok Sajjanhar

Ashok Sajjanhar

Amb. Ashok Sajjanhar has worked for the Indian Foreign Service for over three decades. He was the ambassador of India to Kazakhstan Sweden and Latvia ...

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