The visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Japan for the G20 Summit in Osaka gave him an opportunity to exchange views with with his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe for the first time in his second term. Earlier this year, Modi came back to power with a decisive mandate in the general elections, which has given him and his government greater flexibility when it comes to foreign affairs. In addition, the appointment of S Jaishankar as the Minister of External Affairs is a strong signal about the importance accorded to foreign affairs by this government. Jaishankar had earlier been the Foreign Secretary of India and had served in the US, China, and Japan as a career diplomat.

Abe and Modi have met on several occasions in the past, and Japan and India have been holding an annual bilateral summit at the Prime Ministerial level. In a sign of their growing closeness, India and Japan will be holding their maiden 2+2 meeting (between their foreign and defence ministers) ahead of the annual bilateral summit between the two Prime Ministers, later this year.

Why the closeness?

This is something worth exploring, since it is only in the post-Cold War era that the two countries started reaching out to each other. First, the ties between India and Japan have progressed at a rapid pace under the watch of the two leaders. When Modi visited Japan last year for the annual bilateral summit, he was invited by Abe, in a rare gesture, to his holiday home in the Yamanashi prefecture near Tokyo, reflecting the camaraderie between the two leaders.

Second, the regional environment in the Indo-Pacific has contributed to the growing ties between the two countries. The rise of China has been an important factor, while India’s growing closeness with the US has also played a role, as the US and Japan already have a close alliance.

At the same time, the three nations have been taking part in the Malabar naval exercises, and the US is now selling billions of dollars of arms to India. New Delhi is buying American-made military hardware like P-8s, C-130Js, C-17s, AH-64s, and CH-47s. This has also increased the interoperability between India, the US, and Japan.

Third, although Abe and US President Donald Trump have been able to build a strong personal bond, Trump’s unpredictability has complicated Abe’s choices. When Trump pulled the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Japan chaperoned it without the US, resulting in the signing of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) in March 2018.Trump has also reportedly questioned the fairness of the US-Japan security alliance, since it binds the US to the defence of Japan and Japanese interests, but does not impose a similar duty on the Japanese.

Fourth, Tokyo also seems to be cagey about Trump’s North Korea policy. Washington has been reaching out to Pyongyang, despite North Korea not yielding anything on the nuclear or the missile front. This has presented a danger to Japan, as the North’s short and medium range missiles, though not a threat to the US, keep Japan in their crosshairs.

Fifth, Abe has been reaching out to countries like India, which fit in well within his scheme; it is noteworthy that Japan has been allowed to invest in India’s North-East, which has been a no-go area for other countries. India and Japan are also teaming up to set up a diesel power plant in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (where New Delhi has not allowed other countries to invest). Additionally, the two countries will be cooperating in the development of the East Container Terminal in the Colombo Port in Sri Lanka along with the Sri Lanka’s Port Authority (SLPA), which is a different model of investment than the Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka, which has been leased by China.

Tokyo has issues with its neighbours South Korea, North Korea, Russia, and China dating back to World War II. Its relations with India are therefore on a different level altogether as historical issues between the two countries have not occurred.

Sixth, India is a big market for Japanese companies. The Shinkansen (Japanese bullet train) is being introduced in the busy Mumbai-Ahmedabad section in India. Japan has been trying to export its bullet train technology to other countries, but without much success; Indonesia chose a Chinese bid over a Japanese one for the Jakarta-Bandung high-speed rail sector. Besides, with its huge population and a growing middle class, India is a market which no Japanese company can ignore in the long term.

Last, but not least, New Delhi is seeking massive investments in its infrastructure sector and Japan is a major investor. Being a developing country, pollution is a serious issue in major Indian cities. Japanese green technologies can help India tackle this threat.

Hiccups ahead

At the same time, there are quite a few issues that have kept the two nations distant from each other, such as the trade ties which have remained underdeveloped when compared to India’s trade ties with China. The bilateral trade between New Delhi and Tokyo in 2017-18 stood at a meagre $15.71 billion, whereas the Sino-Indian bilateral trade in 2017 stood at $84.44 billion in spite of the political tensions between India and China. The two sides have also been unable to collaborate in the defence sector in spite of huge potential.

India is one of the biggest arms importers in the world, while Japan, especially under Abe, has been looking at arms exports, though it still remains a very divisive issue within the country. There are also differences over how close India would like to get to the US. Although New Delhi has grown closer to the US in recent times, it is a member of groups like the BRICS, which brings together Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. In addition, though New Delhi has not joined the China-led Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), it is a member of the AIIB (Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank).

Progress in the Indo-Pacific

New Delhi faces a critical external environment and Japan will be the partner of choice for India in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond. It is noteworthy that there is cross-party support for closer ties with Japan in India. In an era that has seen an increasingly assertive China, India and Japan both increase their options by collaborating with each other. This factor, along with New Delhi’s growing ties with Washington, has changed the equations in the Indo-Pacific.

Under the Trump administration, we have witnessed an increase in the Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait. Japan and India have no major conflict of interests and Tokyo’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Vision” gels well with New Delhi’s “Act-East Policy.” As Abe had noted in his famous “Confluence of the Two Seas” speech before the Indian Parliament in August 2007, “the Pacific and the Indian Oceans are now bringing about a dynamic coupling as seas of freedom and of prosperity.” This is proving ever truer as New Delhi and Tokyo inch closer to each other.

The writer is a Research Fellow with the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies in Tokyo, Japan. This article is by special arrangement with the Centre for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania