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Away from the glare of the multi-nation “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) initiative at Beijing, India and Japan plan to soft launch their own Asia-Africa connectivity project this month. Like OBOR, the Indo-Japanese plan is also predicated on a race for supremacy in the Indian Ocean. The background for the latter is the discussions held between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Japanese PM Shinzo Abe when they met for their annual summit at Tokyo last November. The venue for its launch will be the upcoming annual meeting of the African Development Bank (AfDB) to be held at Ahmedabad from May 22. For both Japan and India, the meeting is a highly significant event to draw attention to their strength as partner nations in a project that demonstrates the same type of ambition as OBOR does. The setting is also appropriate as it will be made in front of the political leadership of the 78 member countries of the AfDB, including 53 member states from the continent. The annual report will be the occasion for AfDB to launch its African Economic Outlook 2017 Report, jointly produced with OECD and UNDP. Both India and Japan have decided not to participate in OBOR as each has its own reasons not to be drawn into the multi-continent plan that will be dominated by China. Most of the projects showcased by China at the launch aim to connect the Eurasian landmass and Indo-Pacific maritime routes through a maze of road, rail and port projects hooped through several countries to connect mainland China to markets in both Asia and Europe. Instead, Japan has proposed a more democratic alternative, building on the maritime route stretching from its shores to Africa, and taking in India along the way. According to the draft discussion paper, accessed by Business Standard, this will also loop in the European market. The key aspect of the Indo-Japanese collaboration emphasises there should be “a free and open Indo-Pacific region, factoring in India’s ‘Act East’ Policy and Japan’s ‘Expanded Partnership for Quality Infrastructure’.” The emphasis on the Indian Ocean is significant as OBOR also includes a maritime plan with the same level of energy. India and Japan will obviously hope to compete with it building ports in friendly nations to expand mutually reinforcing trade. The stress on a “free ocean” in the document is a nod to Japan’s discomfort about the way China has made inroads into South China Sea and is extending its reach into the Indian Ocean, drifting close to India with a ring of ports.
India has also made its discomfort clear about the Chinese position. The other elements of the Indo-Japanese plan recognise India’s Act East policy — its bid to reach out to its neighbours and beyond in Southeast Asa but which is again getting stymied by China’s active wooing of Myanmar, India’s road to the region. The plan as a paper prepared by the Japan External Trade Organisation (Jetro) shows it is still in the drafting stage and at least a year away from being committed to by the concerned countries. Consequently, there is no mention of any level of investment that would follow through. Japan clearly has a strong ability to construct infrastructure and the financial depth to underwrite those, and that is what it intends to do in the African continent. The partnership will initially “focus on countries on the eastern coast of Africa... In the initial phase, seven countries on the east coast — Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique and South Africa may be taken up”. Yet as Japan has little if any contact with these nations, India’s far broader reach will be critical to deliver on these promises. It is this combination that New Delhi and Tokyo will seek to build upon.