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Japan-India Partnership Is More Than Bullet Trains

In terms of background and legacy, Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is more like Rahul Gandhi than Narendra Modi

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Big numbers and grand announcements always drive headlines. Just on the eve of a visit by the Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe, the Government of India announced that it has cleared a Rs 98,000 crore project to build and operate a bullet train between Ahmedabad and Mumbai. Much will be written about the wisdom of initiating such fancy projects when Indian Railways struggles to sustain even basic passenger services. But there is much more to this visit than the bullet train. In fact, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Shinzo Abe have the opportunity to stitch a historic partnership that will go way beyond mere economics and numbers.

On the face of it, the two are as different as chalk and cheese. In terms of background and legacy, Abe is more like Rahul Gandhi than Modi. He belongs to a family of powerful politicians; his grandfather from his mother's side was Prime Minister of Japan. He belongs to a party called LDP, Liberal Democratic Party, that has dominated politics and governments in Japan for a larger part of the 70 years since the end of the Second World War; just as Congress has largely dominated Indian politics and governments since 1947. We all know everything that is know about the humble background of Modi without repeating it ad nauseum. But even with the differences, the two do have some things in common. For one, Abe is the first Japanese born after the Second World War to become Prime Minister. Modi is the first Indian born after independence in 1947 to become Prime Minister. Even more important, the two share a deeply "nationalistic" ideology and ambition that differs starkly from their predecessors.

Economics, of course will be a dominant theme when Abe, Modi and their advisors work on the nitty gritty of stitching up a strategic partnership that will have the potential to transform global power equations. And Abe has been pursuing this agenda even when his" friend" Modi was not the prime minister. During his earlier tenure as prime minister, Abe had visited India in 2007 and laid the foundations of a new relationship along with the then Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh. One of the by products of that visit was the historic Delhi-Mumbai industrial Corridor. This time, Modi and Abe need to work together to break down the red tape and confusion that has bogged down the project that promises a manufacturing revolution in India. This ties in nicely with the Make in India dreams of Modi. The Japanese have demonstrated that they can deploy capital and technology to bring about a manufacturing revolution in India. Back in the early 1980s, it was Japanese companies like Suzuki and Honda that triggered the automobile revolution in India. The Indian automobile and auto components industry in India is one of the most competitive in the world. This success can be replicated across a slew of sectors.

But as important as economics, if not more, is geopolitics. Both India and Japan have the unenviable task of "managing" the relentless rise of China as a global superpower. Both countries share a troubled and often bitter past with China. Japan continues to deal with the legacy of its military occupation of China in the first half of the 20th century. India finds it difficult to trust China after the humiliating military debacle in 1962. Till recently, Japan found comfort in the fact that it had the unflinching diplomatic and military support of the big boy America when it came to an expansionist and threatening China. That confidence is now shaken. India has long known that its strategic interests, especially when they come to an implacably hostile Pakistan and an enigmatic China do not converge with those of the United States. It is in this context that a strategic relationship between the third and the fourth largest economies of the world assumes significance. Luckily for Abe and Modi, Japan and India can now find potential "allies" in East Asia. Countries ranging from Myanmar to Vietnam to Philippines to Malaysia now find the "superpower" posturing of China to be a threat to their economic and strategic interests. The strategic goal obviously is to "contain" China, not to make an enemy out of it.

How Japan and India take this relationship forward will determine what happens to Asia, and the world, in the 21st century.