Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. Photo: AFP / Yomiuri / Ryohei Moriya

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is due to arrive in New Delhi on Saturday for a summit meeting with his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi.

Driven by events that had little to do with the two countries’ bilateral equations, the regular India-Japan annual summits had virtually come to halt for the last four years. The last visit by a Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, was in September 2017.

Last year Abe was conferred India’s second-highest civilian award, the Padma Vibhushan, recognizing him as great friend of India. Such bonhomie followed by an interlude was bound to raise expectations over this weekend’s first visit by Prime Minister Kishida.

However, coming in the midst of the Ukraine crisis, his visit now seems vulnerable to forces that may deflect the parleys away from any bilateral breakthroughs. 

Indeed, the flurry of visits by various Western leaders to New Delhi scheduled to follow Kishida’s may make the success of his visit hostage to his ability to push India into joining the Western sanctions against Russia. This of course remains a difficult proposition.

Of course, Modi and Kishida are not new to each other. They have been in close contact online and have also met in various multilateral forums. 

They first met in September 2014 when Modi visited Japan and held a detailed one-on-one discussion with Kishida, who was then foreign minister. They last met in September 2021 during the first offline Quad Leaders Summit hosted by US President Joe Biden.

In the bilateral format, Modi and Kishida had their first online telephone summit last October and a short five-point readout from that meeting listed celebrating the 70th anniversary of their countries’ diplomatic relations, working toward a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” and North Korea as issues discussed.

So, given their familiarity, it is pertinent to ask if this upcoming summit can go beyond being exploratory. Also, can they stay focused on strengthening partnerships and not allow variance in their approach to the Ukraine crisis to impact their synergies?

The Ukraine crisis

On March 3, Biden convened an online Quad Leaders Summit, clearly triggered by the onset of the Ukraine crisis. As resolved at the Quad foreign ministers’ meet in Melbourne last month, the Quad leaders were expected to meet in person in Tokyo in May or June.

It could be argued that India’s standing out by abstaining from successive UN Security Council resolutions condemning Russian aggression in Ukraine was why this Quad summit was advanced, to nudge New Delhi to join its Quad partners Washington, Canberra and Tokyo against Russia.

However, the summit saw Modi stand his ground, suggesting that the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue “must remain focused on its core objective of promoting peace, stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region.”

The same party line has been replayed by in India’s other interactions. In the din of sharpening rhetoric, however, Western nations have failed to notice the evolution of India’s posture. Indeed, India must explain that evolution at this upcoming summit, as well as at subsequent meetings with dignitaries visiting New Delhi, to minimize their discomfiture.

While India abstained on all three UN Security Council resolutions and on the General Assembly resolution on Ukraine, its diplomatic parlance alludes to changes in India’s posture of proactive neutrality.

First. India’s statements at the UN have moved from expressing “concern,” then “deploring,” and now calling it a “matter of regret” that diplomacy has not shown results. Second, the government has safely brought home more than 22,500 Indians from Ukraine, which speaks volumes about India’s coordinations with both Ukraine and Russia. 

Third, India has remained in touch with not just the Russian and Ukrainian presidents but with a whole range of concerned national and regional leaders. And much to Moscow’s discomfiture, India has since begun sending humanitarian aid to Ukraine.

India buying Russian oil

But the most influential factor impacting the tenor of Kishida’s talks will be expectations of Japan’s Western allies of his ability to wean India away from buying Russian oil. Parallel to this three-day visit by Kishida, Modi’s ministers will be mulling over various cost-benefit analyses on buying discounted oil and other commodities from Russia that the West sees as an open defiance of the very spirit of their economic sanctions on Moscow. 

Most commentators were initially critical of the Western hypocrisy of slapping sanctions on Russia that did not include purchases of its main exports, gas and oil. Lately, however, the US banned even limited purchases of Russian oil, but more so, European nations have now agreed on a strict timeline to bring their gas imports from Russia to zero, and to do so before the end of this year.

This has clearly shifted the focus on to India, which has lately come to be seen as a non-NATO ally of the United States. 

India imports less then 3% of its crude oil from Russia. But in the face of fluctuating oil prices that threaten to hit the already pandemic-ridden Indian economy, New Delhi is expected to accept Moscow’s offer of deep discounts and rupee-ruble purchases of various commodities, including oil.

India is the world’s second-largest importer of oil after China – which remains closely aligned to Russia – so India’s decision to buy Russian oil will be game changer for Western nations. This of course will entail costs for New Delhi, and Western commentators have already begun accusing India of aligning with Moscow and Beijing. This as well could impact equations between New Delhi and Tokyo.

Shared China challenge

It could also be that the two prime ministers may focus on their pragmatic interests and concerns, and the hype about the Ukraine crisis being overcast on their summit may also prove to be just that, hype. 

At the core of their strategic partnership, their shared China challenge has become a far greater affront. The last two years have seen India-China border tensions defying the efforts of dozens of bilateral meetings, resulting in few expectations of a breakthrough when Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visits India next week.

Indeed, the exaggerated focus on the current Ukraine crisis has also overshadowed tectonic changes in Japan’s leadership that may augur well for India-Japan cooperation.

After suffering a continued decline since 2009, the October elections in Japan saw the Liberal Democratic Party secure a comfortable majority of 261 in the 465-strong House of Representatives. Not only does that makes the LDP capable of taking forward its nationalistic agenda, Kishida’s cabinet is now dominated by the Shinzo Abe and Taro Aso factions.

Most of the old guards of the pro-China Toshihiro Nikai faction have retired, making a few of its younger leaders the third force in the Japanese government. Indeed, Kishida faced strong opposition on appointing an old China hand, Yoshimasa Hayashi, as his foreign minister; he marks an exception and has been rather restrained.

Certainly India’s and Japan’s shared China challenge remains at the center of other mutual links. This is complemented by Japanese technology, investments and official development assistance versus India’s huge market and rising international stature. 

As well, the India-Japan partnership has been institutionalized over decades and should withstand occasional deflections. Also, in the absence of making any breakthrough on changing India’s approach to joining Western sanctions, both sides may find refuge in their time-tested issues and sectors that have endured domestic or global structural fluctuations. 

Bilateral issues 

In the run-up to this summit, for instance, the sixth meeting of the India-Japan Act East Forum on Tuesday took stock of various ongoing projects in such sectors as hydropower, connectivity, forest management, skill development, water supply and sewerage, Japanese language, and Japan’s investments in India’s northeast region.

Indeed, only this month the second edition of the India-Japan Dialogue was held online focusing on “Development of India’s Northeastern Region and Neighborhood,” which represents a unique new pillar of India-Japan cooperation.

Defense and strategic cooperation has been another area of cooperation. The Indian and Japanese armies completed a 10-day annual joint exercise, Dharma Guardian, last week, while a week before that their navies participated in the larger Milan exercises hosted by India.

Another flagship project, the Ahmedabad-Mumbai high speed train, may need some attention, especially if it has to connect other Indian cities. 

All these could lead to the conclusion of several new agreements.

Taking their economic cooperation forward in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, the two nations have been working on a trilateral – Japan, India, Australia – Supply Chain Resilience Initiative, which obtains special significance in the wake of the Ukraine crisis further disrupting global supply chains. 

Wednesday saw the Indian, Japanese and Australian commerce ministers meeting online to take forward their work on agreed principles to establish data-sharing and transparency standards to manage regional supply chains better. 

Looking forward, the year 2023 will see Japan and India respectively chairing the Group of Seven and Group of Twenty, providing them unique opportunities to take some of their initiatives forward.

This is where, other than redressing immediate roadblocks and pushing specific projects, the Kishida-Modi summit that begins this weekend will be expected to provide that strategic vision and direction for the future.

Follow Swaran Singh on Twitter @SwaranSinghJNU

Swaran Singh is visiting professor at the University of British Columbia, fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute in Calgary, Alberta, and professor of diplomacy and disarmament at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.