Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe walk through a garden before lunch in Yamanakako village, Yamanashi prefecture, on October 28, 2018. Photo: The Yomiuri Shimbun
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe walk through a garden before lunch in Yamanakako village, Yamanashi prefecture, on October 28, 2018. Photo: The Yomiuri Shimbun

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe invited Indian Premier Narendra Modi so his holiday home on Sunday in what is reportedly a diplomatic first as the two leaders kicked off their two-day summit in chummy fashion.

Modi arrived in Japan late Saturday – the same day Abe returned from a three-day summit in China – to be met by members of the Indian expatriate community.  On Sunday, he was invited to Abe’s vacation home at a scenic resort in the shadow of Mount Fuji. According to Kyodo news agency, Modi is the first visitor to be graced with such an invitation, with Abe clearly keen to show off one Asia ’s leading buddy acts.

It is a return visit, of sorts. Last September, Abe visited Ahmedabad in Modi’s home state of Gujarat, where he attended a ribbon-cutting to kickstart construction on a new high-speed rail line to Mumbai employing Japan’s vaunted bullet-train technologies.

Also on Sunday, in addition to holding talks in what is now their 11th bilateral, the two leaders visited a robot factory. Their main agenda items, however, will be discussed Monday, where the day will be spent in talks, followed by a state banquet, and  Modi’s return home.

The agenda is likely to be packed as the leaders of India and Japan have much to discuss.

Although a proposed “quad” regional defense initiative between democracies Australia, India, Japan and the United State seems stuck in stasis, Japan and India sit on the eastern and western flanks of an expansive China, and are upping defense cooperation.

On the economic front, Modi seeks Japanese technology and investment to fulfill the promise of his “Make in India” brand, while Abe seeks to expand Japan’s role both as a business partner and as a player in regional infrastructure development at a time when China is aggressively promoting its Belt and Road Initiative.

In an interview with Japanese media on Friday, Modi said his discussions with Abe “will be an opportunity to review our ongoing cooperation and discuss ways for expanding our relationship for promoting peace, progress and prosperity throughout the Indo-Pacific region and beyond.”

A strategic and economic partnership

At a time when freedom of navigation is becoming a hot-button regional issue, Abe and Modi are expected to confirm their cooperation to realize a “free and open” Indo-Pacific.

Abe has been promoting the “Indo-Pacific” concept since well before Trump, and is reaching out to friends around the region at a time when Washington is calling into question defense alliances and demanding allies pay more. These issues are reflected in growing defense ties between New Delhi and Tokyo.

A key agenda item on  Monday, according to Japan’s ambassador to India, Kenji Hiramatsu, will be an “Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement”  between the two countries – essentially, a logistics agreement that will help underwrite the increasing number of exchanges between their armed forces. A Japanese naval battlegroup, including the powerful helicopter destroyer Kaga, just spent two months in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean, where it held drills with the Indian and Sri Lankan navies,

Under the proposed pact, Japanese ships would be able to refuel and service at Indian naval bases in locations including the Andaman and Nicobar islands. These island bases lie northwest of the strategic Malacca Strait – a critical transit link between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea.

India’s navy – which, like Japan’s, is increasingly wide-ranging at a time when China is massively upgrading its blue water assets – would benefit from Japanese maintenance facilities in return.

And bilateral defense cooperation is starting to extend beyond the maritime space. Monday’s summit comes almost on the eve of two weeks of Indo-Japan army exercises – the first army-to-army engagement to be held since the two militaries faced off against each other in World War II – which begin on November 1 in northeast India

And although India is hardly a central player on the issue, Japan’s Foreign Ministry released a statement that has become almost de rigeur whenever Abe meets global leaders, stating that the two agreed to cooperate on North Korean denuclearization. Although Japan has an intense interest in the issue, it is currently on the outside looking in as Pyongyang pointedly ignores Tokyo and talks with Beijing, Seoul and Washington.

On the economic front, while Islamabad has been a partner in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, notably via the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), New Delhi – which fought a border war with Bejing in 1962 and still is still embroiled in related border disputes – has been wary about accepting Chinese capital. That is a vacuum Abe appears willing to fill.

According to Japanese news sources, a key announcement on Monday is expected to be the provision of low-interest Japanese loans worth more than $2.68 billion. Among that will be monies dedicated to India’s 500-kilometer Mumbai-Ahmedabad high-speed rail project, which is facing growing opposition in India over the high cost and protests from farmers who refuse to give up their land.

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