The Government of India has recently announced that the India-Japan prime ministerial summit scheduled to be held last year in Guwahati, has been rescheduled to early September in a virtual format.
Among the many key items on the agenda is the signing of an ACSA, an agreement that would allow access to, and use of, facilities owned by the Indian and Japanese militaries to each other, as well as the opening of the country to Japanese manufacturing investment, especially in the development of infrastructure in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
These announcements have attained greater salience since early June, when the high-altitude border clashes between India and China in the Galwan valley and its surroundings shifted the spotlight to the threat posed by the Chinese Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) in particular, and the Chinese state in general.
China now not only threatens India through its constant expansionist rhetoric, aggressive actions on land or at sea, and assistance to the aggressive activities of Pakistan, but also Japan and other littoral states in the South and East China Seas with its aggressive actions near the disputed Senkaku islands (owned by Japan, claimed by China and Taiwan).
In light of these developments, the resumption of prime ministerial meetings between India and Japan are welcome, and every effort must be extended to ensure it is a success. However, the agenda of the current summit must be expanded in order to include explicitly the Northeastern region of India.
The Northeast has until recent times been treated as the poor cousin of so-called ‘core’ Indian strategic interests, in part because past administrations have allowed themselves to be lulled by China’s discourse of ‘peaceful rise’ and ‘win-win cooperation’.
As a result, the aggressive development of infrastructure and human resources in the area languished, due to perceptions that any work in this area would lead to worsening of the bilateral relationship.
However, now that China has shown that it has no intention of ‘rising peacefully’, it is incumbent on New Delhi to change tack and pour resources into the construction and maintenance of infrastructure in the northeastern states of India, a project which will have significant spillovers in both military and civilian domains. In this Japan, a past master at infrastructure projects and rural development, can play a valuable, if not indispensable, role.
An example of the crying need for such projects is highlighted by a recent series of incidents in the Northeast, where schoolgoers, as well as the aged and the infirm, were forced to travel, or be transported, across long distances due to the lack of transport and communication infrastructure in hilly areas across the region. Japan, which is 70 per cent mountainous, and yet excels at large-scale delivery of services to nearly every resident of these areas through excellent infrastructure and services delivery networks, is the ideal choice to cooperate with India in developing these facilities.
In sum, the need of the hour is to ensure that the golden opportunity afforded by the India-Japan prime ministerial summit, even though virtual and not in the flesh, must be taken full advantage of, by inviting the Government of Japan to cooperate as an equal partner in the complete infrastructural and human development of the northeastern states of India.
This must be realised not only as a matter of national security, but also as a pressing need for citizens of India living in the northeast, who have, through oversight and neglect, been denied these opportunities for far too long.
(Arnab Dasgupta is an expert in Japanese language and Japanese studies from New Delhi. He received his PhD in Japanese Studies from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.)