India-Japan ties will get closer if civil society groups are involved

Asian age, January 09, 2019

By Pradeep S Mehta

India’s relations with Japan are one of the most unique ones covering trade, infrastructure and strategic issues in a wide sweep. Its gravitas was visible during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Japan in October for the 13th annual bilateral summit, along with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan. Of the many issues that were discussed, if we look at the strategic connectivity spanning India’s Northeast with Southeast Asia or even the Africa-Asia Growth Corridor, engagement with civil society will help bring in well-grounded perspectives that are so essential for the buy-in of local citizens and the success of the partnership.While the identification of joint work areas is still in progress, it is important to consider the need for some evolving mode of cooperation between the countries.

Despite support from both Mr Abe and Mr Modi towards the need for more people-to-people ties as a practical and effective collaboration channel, the relationship mostly remains government-to-government, pivoted on security cooperation and strategic connectivity and seeking more investments, trade and business. The need of the hour is to make more effective investments in people by involving civil society organisations at the planning and implementation level.

The India-Japan summit also took place against the backdrop of rising pro-China sentiments in Japanese politics, due in large part to the Donald Trump factor. Mr Abe met Mr Modi just a day after his historic visit to Beijing, where he had discussions with several top Chinese leaders, including President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Li Keqiang. The discussions went as far as joint infrastructure development in third countries. Notwithstanding the lingering historical tensions, for Japanese policymakers, China remains the biggest single threat to their security and independence. And befittingly, Japan is keen to nurture its international ties and build up an informal network of the region’s leading democracies to create a “free and open Indo-Pacific”.

India’s Act East Policy aligns well with Japan’s interest in a Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP). As the largest democracy of the world and a major fast-growing economy, India plays an important role in Japan’s scheme of things. With a shared anxiety about being pushed around by China, New Delhi and Tokyo have every reason to work together. Despite suffering from falling popular approval ratings over cronyism scandals and deflation, Mr Abe has been re-elected, scoring a hat-trick, as the president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). He is well on track to becoming the longest-serving elected Japanese leader in post-war history.

Mr Abe realises the importance of stronger ties with India as the key to maintain the balance of power in Asia. In December 2006, barely three months into his premiership, Mr Abe met his then Indian counterpart, Dr Manmohan Singh, in Japan and launched the annual bilateral summit series. The relationship between the two countries has come a long way since then. In the past decade, the two countries have deepened their strategic ties. The incumbent Indian PM has now visited Japan three times, which was reciprocated by the visit of the Japanese PM in every alternate year. During these meetings, the two countries have discussed various infrastructure and defence projects in and outside India, including the India-Japan Compr-ehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA), the India-Japan Investment Promotion Partnership, the high-speed railway project connecting Ahmedabad with Mumbai, the nuclear project, and defence and other security-related projects.

However, the scope of the India-Japan partnership goes much beyond the Asia-Pacific region. The partnership can play an important role equally for the African continent. In May 2017, during the African Development Bank (AfDB) annual meeting in Ahmedabad, the two countries have pledged a whopping $200 billion for the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC) project. Support for this infrastructure project across two continents is an attempt to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative through an alternative multi-billion Connecti-vity Initiative. The AAGC is formed under the Trilateral Development Cooperation Framework, where two or more southern countries (South-South) are technically and financially supported by a northern donor. By linking Africa with South and Southeast Asia, this project can pave the way for Japan to address its concerns on China’s aggressive strategies. The project will benefit Japan as well by leveraging India’s existing strong links with different African nations.

These links include civil society organisations like CUTS, which have extensive trilateral development experience and centres in Sub-Saharan Africa. Capaci-ty building, technical assistance and soft infrastructure development are key component of AAGC and the firsthand experience of civil societies on the regulatory regime, sound working relations with key decision-makers and understanding of their style of work will help the project to deliver its desired impact. The Japan Fair Trade Commission once used CUTS’ services in conducting capacity building event for the African competition authorities, knowing that developing country knowledge is app-ropriate technology.It will thus be crucial for the Japanese government to come out of its traditional model of working only with the government and involving more with civil soci-ety groups working at the grassroots level. Similarly, India needs to adjust to the new economic realities and decide the course of its own strategic autonomy, keeping in mind the evolving dyna-mism in the Indo-Pacific theatre.

As international relations are becoming a paradoxical mix of competition and cooperation, the partnership of India and Japan offers a much-needed nuanced approach, based on mutual interest. The partnership affirms the intention of the two countries of working not only for their mutual benefit, but for the rest of the world as well. A more broad-based India-Japan relationship can bring in prosperity and stability to the entire Indo-Pacific belt, and much beyond.

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