A century after Japan's rise awakened Indian nationalism, a modern day nationalist Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, began his visit to Japan in Kyoto, where he explored a common spiritual heritage to inspire and transform present-day relations. He was received with gracious warmth and extraordinary courtesies by his Japanese counterpart, Shinzo Abe, a kindred leader committed to post-industrial Japan's reprise.
Modi and Abe have risen from distinctly different backgrounds but share a remarkably similar nationalist impulse and world view. They can claim ample satisfaction from their summit meeting in terms of long-term benefits to both nations and Asia at large.
Undertaking his first bilateral visit outside the Indian subcontinent with characteristic vigour and aplomb, Modi lived up to his growing stature as a mass leader and great communicator, reaching out to a wide cross section of the Japanese society: from students to academic institutions, business leaders to media, friendship associations to parliamentarians. By touching the hearts and minds of the Japanese public as an enthusiastic friend and admirer of Japan, he reaffirmed the distinctive nature of India-Japan relations.
There is no other major power equation in Asia like the one between India and Japan, founded on shared universal values, with both according pre-eminent importance to each other in their outlook for an Asian century. Recognising the potential of bilateral relations and the regional challenges they face, Modi and Abe raised the threshold of ties to a "special strategic and global partnership", which, for Japan, implies the highest level short of an alliance, and for India an entente. The impact of this convergence will be felt across the Indo-Pacific since only India and Japan together can muster sufficient comprehensive national power to redress the geo-strategic disequilibrium triggered by China's inexorable rise.
Modi went further, boldly declaring that "the contours of the 21st century will be determined by the nature of India-Japan relations" and redefining India's approach towards regional stability. He cautioned that an 18th century mindset of "expansionism", of encroachments and incursions into the territory or seas of others, will not contribute to Asia's welfare. Instead, India and Japan as democracies must take the lead by pursuing the path of "development" and upholding democratic values. This signals a dynamic change in India's foreign policy.
In raising these concerns publicly in Japan, which has been at the receiving end of China's claims in the East China Sea, Modi sent out an unmistakable signal to China to moderate its unilateral territorial assertions, accommodate multi-polarity and contribute to Asia's continued progress.
Among significant summit outcomes, Modi supported Abe's recent initiatives to scale up Japan's contributions to regional peace and stability. Modi and Abe underscored the importance of closer co-ordination between India and Japan in regional forums, including the East Asia Summit, and decided to "explore" holding the India-Japan-US Trilateral Dialogue at the level of foreign ministers.
In terms of defence co-operation, there were modest gains, perhaps because the defence ministries on both sides have still to overcome their inertia towards new prospects for defence equipment and technology exchanges, which have opened up after Japan eased export restrictions in April this year. However, working-level consultations are set to begin, while the joint working group on the US-2 amphibian aircraft has been asked to accelerate progress. Japan will henceforth be a regular participant in the India-US Malabar naval exercises.
In the area of strategic technologies, the summit produced mixed results. The finalisation of a commercial agreement to supply rare earths to Japan remained elusive. While there was progress on removing six of India's space- and defence-related entities from Japan's end-user list restrictions, there is now a virtual impasse over civil nuclear co-operation. Unless this is fixed in the coming months, this long-pending issue will begin to erode mutual confidence in the India-Japan strategic partnership. India has given ample recognition to the high sensitivity of the nuclear non-proliferation issue in Japan, and Modi personally reached out in public to underscore India's societal commitment to peace. Japan will need to understand that India cannot accept conditionalities beyond the framework of the Nuclear Suppliers Group waiver it secured in 2008, with Japan's support, and the parameters set in the India-US civil nuclear accord.
If Modi utilised the summit to highlight his vision of India and Japan as special democratic partners in the 21st century, Abe more than delivered on Japan's commitment to India's emergence as an economic powerhouse.
By promising to double Japanese foreign direct investment (FDI) and mobilise 3.5 trillion Yen of public and private investment and financing, including official development assistance, to India over the next five years, Abe held out the assurance of massive Japanese support for building India's economic infrastructure, physical connectivity and manufacturing base. Japan's pledge will give a boost to several programmes high on Modi's list of priorities, while also securing Japan's help in developing India's north-east and its connectivity to Asean.
Modi made a powerful pitch to Japan's business leaders to "make in India", promising them a "red carpet" business-friendly environment and single-window clearances through a special management cell in the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) itself.
The challenge will now lie in the implementation of these commitments on the Indian side. The PMO's ability to effectively ensure timely and co-ordinated action by concerned line ministries will be tested. This is an area where we have lagged in the past, but there is every reason to expect that Modi's direction and resolve will generate the required momentum to facilitate greater Japanese FDI inflows and absorb the promised financial investment and assistance in an effective manner.
Modi shares with his Japanese counterpart a vision of national economic revival and vitality, of democratic nations working together for regional peace and prosperity. Unsurprisingly, these two leaders of Asia's most developed and largest democracies have "decided to create a relationship that will shape the course of their countries and the character of this region and the world in this century".
A new entente has been born in Asia. Having secured India's fundamental economic and strategic interests by establishing a "paramount" partnership with Japan, Modi can look forward with confidence to promoting India's interests further at summit meetings with the leaders of China and the US due later this month.