When Prime Minster Abe Shinzo laid down his office in August 2020 rather suddenly it sent shock waves of anxiety among most Japan watchers, policy planners and the political elite in India. Everyone wondered as to what could be the future of this burgeoning India-Japan relationship and what legacy Abe was leaving behind? Indeed, it is not always realized that Abe has left the most valuable legacy in the persona of Yoshihide Suga as his successor. Apart from their political orientation, policy perspectives, etc., Abe and Suga shared a rare phenomenon in Japanese political history. While Abe Shinzo became the longest serving Prime Minister, Yoshihide Suga was the longest serving Cabinet Secretary in the political history of Japan. During their long association the camaraderie between the two not only put Japan’s wobbling political-economic process on the rails of stability but launched Japan on the path to attaining a great power status in the emerging multipolar world structure and a centerpiece of civilizational eminence.

By Dr Anil Rawat

Ever since Abe’s first term as the Prime Minister in 2006 Suga has been a faithful ally in planning and executing Abe’s political strategies. Abe’s policy to integrate India into the Indo-Pacific strategy, Arc of Freedom and Democracies etc could not have been possible without Suga’s active involvement as the Cabinet Secretary. While Abe’s love for India may have been rooted in his personal and familial experiences imbibed from his grandfather Kishi Nobusuke, Suga’s approach to India is based on sharp edged calculus of political and strategic thinking. While Japan was passing through a severe political and economic crisis during the “lost two decades”, faced with uncertainty of weakening American security umbrella and the rising China, India’s shining economic performance coupled with its “Look East” policy appeared an attractive proposition for Japan to enhance its economic security architecture with expanded sphere of opportunity for economic activity. For now, Suga’s visit may have been postponed due to severe COVID-19 conditions in Tokyo but he is sure to visit India at an earliest possible date. Because in his scheme of political, economic and strategic Indo-Pacific calculus and long term goals of consolidating great power status and Japan as the centerpiece of civilizational eminence, India holds a very crucial place. So whenever Yoshihide Suga lands here, defying all ominous threats of Corona virus, he would neither be stranger to his hosts nor to this land. During Abe’s multiple interactions with Indian leadership Suga has personally met and interacted with most of the Indian officials and leaders including our Prime Minister Mr. Modi.

What would be the agenda between the two Asian major powers? Right at the outset Suga had made it known that he will continue to follow the policies of the Abe administration. Although the itinerary and the agenda of Suga’s India visit is yet to be announced certain pointers are evidently clear as to what may lie on the table between the two strong pillars of the Indo-Pacific. Since it will be the first in-person meeting between the two, the agenda undoubtedly is expected to be very heavy. There can possibly be four sets of agenda: one focussing on the currently ongoing diplomatic chess game relating to the Indo-Pacific, QUAD, resilient supply chains, Corona vaccine and the new wave of COVID-19. These are some of the obvious issues that are likely to take up a good deal of attention of the two leaders. Suga’s choice of Vietnam and Indonesia as the first countries of his foreign visit is a clear indication that Indo-Pacific and related issues such as strategic bonding, connectivity, trade relations and supply chain resilience, etc., are on top of the agenda. Suga is coming to India after an in-person meeting with Joe Biden in Washington where the joint statement has unequivocally confirmed the U S -Japan commitment to the Indo-Pacific idea. Close on the heels came a strongest defense from Raisina Dialogue 2021 where India’s Foreign Minister stoutly advanced India’s right to make independent choices invoking India’s civilisational connectivity with the Indo-Pacific. The 12th March 2021 Quadrilateral meet had already made a forceful expression that QUAD is the inalienable coordinate of the Indo-Pacific. The fundamental concern in this context before the Modi-Suga meet will be how to develop institutional mechanism to strengthen this relationship. Aperfect India-Japan synergy makes a strong foundation for trans-Indo-Pacific golden bridge.

Second set of agenda shall focus on bilateral economic development, trade, infrastructural modernization, and the bilateral projects in third countries. In all these areas there is remarkable synergy in bilateral perspectives. In Abe’s scheme of FOIP (Free and Open Indo Pacific) strategy, that Suga is set to carry forward, India occupies an important place. In Japanese perspective, an economically strong India with deep Japanese engagement is an essential prerequisite for the success of FOIP therefore it may be expected that Suga comes prepared to roll out bagful of economic proposals. Most of the major infrastructural projects such as Delhi Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DMIC), Bengaluru-Chennai Corridor multi-city Metro rail projects, etc., will surely get renewed Japanese commitment. Modi needs to convince his Japanese counterpart on the possibility of finding early solutions to the ticklish issues delaying the progress of high-speed (Bullet Train) railway and the Western Dedicated Freight Corridor projects.

In view of the ongoing concern with regard to strengthening the Indo-Pacific partnership, infrastructural projects related to the development of North-east acquire greater significance. The two leaders are expected to devote considerable thought to expedite the execution of these projects aimed at enhancing rail-roadand maritime connectivity through the Bay of Bengal. Acceleration of third country projects along the Bay of Bengal namely in Myanmar, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka must occupy greater attention of the two leaders. Early completion of these projects shall be the priority to enhance security of sea-lanes connecting the Indian and Pacific Ocean. Consensus between the two on this approach must inspire both the countries to work out modalities. Situation in Myanmar may appear as corollary; both India and Japan are poised in excellent position to evolve concrete plans to engage juntain Myanmar.

In a widely reported survey conducted toward the later part of 2019 among the Japanese companies, India appeared as the highest ranked country as the preferred destination for Japanese investments. But the situation changed substantially by March 2020 and further worsened during the lockdown and subsequent months. A survey by the JETRO revealed, before Covid-19, 40% of Japanese companies sought FDI expansion in India but post Covid the number had reduced to 6.9%. Japan’s economic strategy for India demands improved investment climate to attract more FDI so that New Delhi can be linked more closely with Japan–ASEAN-based supply chains. Suga’s visit will be the most appropriate occasion to work out mechanisms to improve the climate to attract Japanese investments. A FICCI report has recommended certain steps such as simplification of the form to incorporate a new company and appoint directors, ensuring easy customs clearance procedures, and immediate refunds of GST credit related to exports. Two important issues that demand serious consideration relate to the issue of cash flows for which the Japanese companies seek relaxation of ECB rules to obtain working capital and second one relates to a long pending concern regarding reform in the labour laws. Manufacturing companies that account for nearly 50% of FDI are particularly keen on labour reforms.

Third set of agenda may relate to Russia and China in the context of Indo-Pacific that will not be very intractable as both the countries maintain nearly comparable perspectives. Even if both the countries have territorial issues with China, both countries have faced physical threats from China and both the countries maintain close economic ties with China, yet they are unwilling as of now to engage in a confrontationist policy of containment. Both the countries have maintained strategic resilience. They are also eager to draw Russia into the Indo-Pacific construct and QUAD+ format. With the participation of France, QUAD+ concept has acquired unanimous approval. The idea to draw Russia into the Indo-Pacific fold was discussed between Modi and Abe during the 5th Far Easter Forum meet in Vladivostok. Within weeks of assuming office Prime Minister Suga has also made necessary overtures to Russia. In the recently concluded Raisina Dialogue 2021 India’s Foreign Minister made an effective case how detrimental would it be for Russia to keep away from Indo-Pacific.

A fourth set of agenda, which is extremely important for all India-Japan watchers, would be how to elevate this bilateral relationship to the next level. Despite the swift and multi-faceted expansion of mutual ties in the recent years there is feeling on both sides that the relationship is far from achieving its full potential. In the recently concluded RCEP Japan was keen to have India join the grouping but India has opted to keep out for now basically to safeguard relatively less competitive Indian MSMEs. Japan has expressed the hope that India should join at an early date, though the future of such a grouping given changing perception of China’s role in the region, remains somewhat uncertain. Japan has thousands of mid-size companies with good technologies. Combining with Indian manufacturing, those technologies can contribute to laying the foundation of a new Indian and Japanese growth story and enable Indian MSMEs to become internationally competitive.

Development along the Bay of Bengal will generate demand for variety of goods and services. The two leaders can consider establishment of a special manufacturing zone in West Bengal to meet the supply-demand for those projects. Traditionally, Japanese companies have been quite comfortable with the eastern region.

One of the most important areas of close cooperation lies in the field of Digital Technologies for which the two countries have signed the India-Japan ICT Comprehensive Cooperation Framework almost seven years ago. Only a few projects have been undertaken in this framework. There is enough scope for expanding and accelerating the areas of cooperation particularly in the field of 5G technology, Artificial Intelligence, cyber security, telecommunications etc. All these technologies have serious implication for security, and dedicated joint projects must be taken up with specific goals and timeline. Japan has recently experienced a cyber-attack suspected to have originated from the Chinese military. Given the low possibility of direct physical warfare, invisible cyber-attacks are becoming new methods of exerting coercive measures. Additionally, Japan must consider further liberalization of its IT market allowing Indian software companies to set up onshore service facilities and deploy expert manpower. Such provisions will serve multiple objectives– correcting the trade balance, providing trained and young working population for aging Japan.

Ever since the 1970s there has been one item on bilateral negotiations exploring possibility of setting up Japanese residential enclaves for senior citizens in convenient locations. Certain types of mini enclaves mainly habited by professionals already exist in Tamil Nadu (Chennai), Gujarat and Karnataka. These experiences can be expanded to a larger scale. Such an arrangement will transform the bilateral relationship to newer heights.

Since both the countries are committed to a free, open, and democratic Indo-Pacific based on rule of international law it would be very appropriate if the leaders could engage with the thought of evolving an Indo-Pacific Charter.

In the Forty minutes of telephonic conversation between Modi and Suga, among other things, the two leaders agreed to celebrate in a befitting manner, the 70th anniversary of establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries that falls in 2022. Most fitting way of celebration would be to roll out a yearlong Cultural Festival in both the countries show casing the best of each other’s culture. It would be an ideal approach for the countries determined to demonstrate their soft power on global scale.

This article first appeared in www.vifindia.org and it belongs to them. The author is a research associate with VIF.