by Sean Keeley · September 12, 2017
Japan’s deepening relationship with India will get a fitting photo-op tomorrow, when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrives to lay tracks for a $17 billion bullet train financed by Tokyo, reports
The move by Abe, who starts a two-day visit to India on Wednesday, highlights an early lead for Japan in a sector where the Chinese have also been trying to secure a foothold, but without much success.
Modi has made the 500-km- (311-mile-) long high-speed rail link between the financial hub of Mumbai and the industrial city of Ahmedabad in western Gujarat a centerpiece of his efforts to showcase India’s ability to build cutting-edge infrastructure. […]
Japan is providing 81 percent of the funding for the 1.08-trillion-rupee ($16.9-billion) project, through a 50-year loan at 0.1 percent annual interest.
As with most Asian infrastructure stories, this one is as much about strategic considerations as sound investment decisions. It’s not clear that this will be $17 billion well spent: high-speed rail projects tend to turn into boondoggles, and that money might be better used repairing India’s creaky network of existing railroads.
But those objections may not matter much to Modi or Abe, as long as China gets the message: India and Japan are forging ever closer ties, and China has some serious competition in the Asian infrastructure game. Japan’s bullet train investment is not a one-off; Tokyo has also been eyeing India’s northeastern states, near the Chinese border, as a target region for new infrastructure investments. Abe and Modi are also expected this week to announce major investments in the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor, their new development agenda designed as a more fiscally sustainable, less centrally planned alternative to Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative.
China is also driving the two countries closer on security issues. This week’s visit from Abe will be accompanied by a host of defense deals, designed to counter the perceived threat from Beijing. It was recently announced that Japan and India would cooperate on anti-submarine warfare training and robotics research, with the details to be firmed up this week. And Modi is also expected to finalize a long-gestating deal to purchase a dozen of Japan’s US-2i amphibious aircraft, which India wants for patrols in the Indian Ocean (presumably to keep an eye on China’s activity there).
From the U.S. perspective, this is all to the good: India and Japan are natural partners and steady democracies who can help balance against a rising China with hegemonic ambitions. But that doesn’t mean that regional rebalance will happen smoothly or without blowback. The protracted Doklam border crisis, for instance, was a clear harbinger of the confrontations that could erupt as India seeks to contain Chinese expansionism. Tokyo’s role in that conflict, however, was under-discussed. While other countries stayed neutral, Japan was the only outside country to unequivocally back India’s position: a meaningful sign that Tokyo is tying its fate to India’s as both face an assertive China.
As both Japan and India expand their commitments, their tacit alliance is becoming ever more tangible—but China is sure to push back.