Tokyo: Japan and India, Asia’s second and third largest economies respectively, are achieving closer strategic collaboration, a development that could reshape Asia. Since 2014, the two countries have elevated their ties to a “special strategic and global partnership,” shaping the security and economic architecture of Asia in an apparent move to counter the rising power of China.
The latest example of this partnership was a bilateral forum held on Aug. 3 in New Delhi to scale up development of India’s economically backward northeast region. Its goal was to “explore and expand” the role of Japan in spearheading infrastructure projects in this peripheral area that borders China, Myanmar and Bangladesh.
India also has had to contend with territorial claims by China affecting the states of Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim, which have been heavily influenced by Tibetan Buddhism and are coveted by Beijing to consolidate China’s control over Tibet.
In previous decades, rebel movements in northeast India received Chinese funding and training. Today there are frequent troop mobilizations and incursion incidents across the China-India Line of Actual Control in the northeast sector. The latest standoff between the Indian and Chinese armies in the junction of the borders of Sikkim, Tibet and Bhutan testifies to the geostrategic value of this region.
It is no coincidence that India has invited Japan to help integrate the sensitive area. Indians remember fondly the military help that Japan gave to the freedom struggle of the nationalist Subhas Chandra Bose, who tried to overthrow British colonial rule toward the end of World War II. Indian politicians still refer to that period and emphasize the historical ties between the people of northeast India and the Japanese.
Japan has seeded a variety of projects in northeast India in such sectors as highways, power, water, sewage and natural resource management. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has assigned Japan a pivotal role in his vision of investing heavily to modernize the northeast so that it becomes a “gateway for Southeast Asia” and a stepping stone to India’s ambitious “Act East” foreign policy.
Amid India’s perception of vulnerability to China’s superior military power and infrastructure development along the disputed LAC, the involvement of Japan, a regional rival to China, as an investor and builder in the northeast is a counterbalancing factor.
From Tokyo’s point of view, adding northeast India to its basket of regional investments makes geographic sense because Japan already has a huge portfolio of development aid projects in neighboring Myanmar.
India, which fears increasing Chinese encroachment in neighboring countries, believes that Japanese financial and engineering strength is essential to mitigate China’s footprint in South and Southeast Asia. For instance, a Japanese-supported national highway system traversing India’s northeastern states would act as a catalyst to India’s delayed Kaladan Multi-Modal Transport Corridor for enhancing trade ties with Myanmar.
Due to rising Sino-Indian border differences and their competition for influence in Asia, Modi is expected to play the Japan card even more assertively in the future. If the Japan-India partnership is trying to thwart China’s sway over Myanmar, it can do the same for developmental diplomacy in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal, three South Asian countries that China is actively seeking to wean away from India’s domain.