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India, Japan bolster trade ties to keep China at bay

External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar with Japanese ambassador Satoshi Suzuki in Assam (Courtesy: Japanese embassy)

With China as the elephant in the room, India-Japan strategic ties are moving to the next level. Both countries are leveraging the location of India's North-East region, to secure a trans-border regional corridor where China's interference would be minimised.

From their perch in Guwahati, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and Japan's ambassador to India, Satoshi Suzuki, went out of their way to nail the convergence of India's Act East Policy and Japan's Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) doctrine. The two made it plain that India's North-East was a focal point of the Indo-Pacific, bridging the rest of India with the 10-nation ASEAN.

Jaishankar thumbed Assam as the launch pad of India's Act East Policy through which India will link its North-East states to the South-East Asian nations and beyond. He also focussed on improving connectivity within the North-East along with neighbouring countries like Bhutan, Myanmar and Bangladesh. Jaishankar said: "The Act East Policy is an approach to create connectivity to and within Assam, beyond to the north-east then to neighbouring Myanmar and Bangladesh but eventually push all the way by road, sea, air to Vietnam to Japan."

External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar in Assam (Courtesy: Twitter @DrSJaishankar)

Speaking at the Guwahati Water Supply Project site near the Brahmaputra river in Guwahati, Suzuki affirmed that Japan remained fully invested in the rise of the North-East – a necessary condition for India's advance to a $5 trillion economy. "For India to achieve the 5-trillion-dollar economy, the development of the North-East is indispensable. I am sure India is driving and mobilizing all its capacities and resources for this goal… I came here today to say that Japan stands together with you to this end."

The Japanese envoy also connected the dots of linking the North-East with the broader Indo-Pacific – a region that is located on either side of the Malacca straits that bridge the Indian and the Pacific Oceans.

"Japan always takes a panoramic perspective in its diplomacy. The vision for a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific (FOIP) is at its center; and India’s North East, including Assam, occupies an important place in this vision. Connecting India with Southeast Asia and to the Bay of Bengal does make sense both economically and strategically. North-East is situated where India’s Act East Policy and Japan’s vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific converge. To be 'free and open' is critical here in Assam. That is why Japan is supporting various connectivity projects in this state."

The India-Japan relationship is cementing fast on the industrial front as the latter is investing considerably in India. Between JICA and the Japan External Trade Organisation, the Asian giant has built 12 Japanese industrial towns in India, with the 13th one coming up in Nagarbera in Assam, for which the state government has already acquired land.

Besides the water project in Assam, Japan has helped in developing numerous other projects in the state including the Dhubri-Phulbari bridge and the Guwahati Sewerage project.

India is looking at strengthening its domestic manufacturing with financial and technological help from Japan. The two countries have come together also because of common global interests like China flexing its muscles against both Japan and India.

The two nations are also attempting to diversify and fix global supply chains which were majorly disrupted owing to the spread of coronavirus pandemic from Wuhan, China.

India had recently conferred the Padma Vibhushan to former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who had enjoyed a close rapport with Modi. Current Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga too has carried forward the same sentiment in mutual relations.

Earlier in January, Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla, addressing a workshop on the Indo-Pacific had said that India has been building relationships with many countries across the region including USA and Australia.

Shringla said: “… India and Japan enjoy a relationship that is crucial to the Indo-Pacific architecture. India’s SAGAR vision for the Region and Japan’s concept of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP), both are convergent in principles. Whether it is enhancing maritime security, connectivity for shared economic prosperity, or increasing resilience to meet natural disasters through HADR efforts, India and Japan frequently find themselves working together. In fact Japan has agreed to lead the Indo-Pacific Oceans’ Initiative pillar on connectivity."

Just yesterday the Japanese ambassador had attended the inauguration of the Chennai Metro Rail Project along with Modi. Speaking on the occasion, Suzuki had said that the Chennai Metro Rail Project is an important urban development project towards making a sustainable and eco-friendly Chennai, which is India’s largest industrial metropolis, housing many Japanese companies.