Japan gives India aid to develop north-east states

Strategic location of region seen as gateway to Asean markets

It is a part of India the Japanese invaded during World War II. They also fought one of their bloodiest battles here with the Allied forces. The north-eastern part of India, which witnessed the legendary Battle of Kohima and Imphal, is now welcoming the Japanese back.

India is increasingly encouraging Japanese investment and collaboration in its north-eastern states as the two countries bolster their partnership in this strategic region for a "free and open" Indo-Pacific.

Of the five loan agreements that were signed during Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Japan last month, three were for projects in the north-eastern region.

This includes loans of 5.5 billion yen (S$66.5 million) for the renovation and modernisation of a hydroelectric power station in the state of Meghalaya, 25.5 billion yen for improving connectivity between Dhubri in Assam and Phulbari in Meghalaya, and 12.3 billion yen for a sustainable forest management project in Tripura.

India and Japan had decided to set up the Act East Forum in September last year to spearhead development projects for this region that has lagged behind most parts of the country, especially in terms of infrastructure development. The forum, according to the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, aims to provide a platform for India-Japan collaboration under India's Act East Policy and Japan's Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy.

It has met twice so far and, in its last meeting on Oct 8, the two countries decided to expedite projects on connectivity, disaster management, biodiversity conservation and vocational training.

The north-eastern states share borders with Bhutan, Nepal, China, Myanmar and Bangladesh, and the region is often described as India's springboard to Asean because of its strategic location. It includes eight states and a combined population of more than 45 million people.

Of the five loan agreements that were signed during Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Japan last month, three were for projects in the north-eastern region.

"The north-east region is a key aspect of India's Act East policy and is a stepping stone for it to be carried forward to the Indo-Pacific region," said Professor K. V. Kesavan, a distinguished fellow at the New Delhi-based think-tank Observer Research Foundation.

"It gives both countries a tremendous opportunity to cooperate and take the connectivity projects they jointly develop here further into the South-east Asian and Asean countries," he added.

This collaboration is also motivated by India's intent to develop this region and Japan's historical connection here, Prof Kesavan told The Straits Times. "Japan has a soft corner for this region because of its historical involvement here during World War II," he said.

Japan is one of the few countries that has demonstrated active interest to develop this region that continues to suffer from local insurgency and high unemployment.

Improving connectivity in the region has been a key focus for the two countries. Japan had extended a loan of 22.39 billion rupees (S$430 million) to India last year for the ongoing North East Road Network Connectivity Improvement Project to upgrade the National Highway 40 (NH-40) and construct a bypass on NH-54 in the north-east. This project forms part of a larger Indo-Japan corridor for the Indo-Pacific region extending to eastern Africa under the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor.

India's decision to work with Japan in the north-east has a strategic significance because this region is adjacent to China, which claims Arunachal Pradesh as its territory, referring to it as "South Tibet".

Reacting to Japan's plans to step up investments in those states during Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's visit to India in September last year, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying had said Beijing is opposed to any foreign investment in the "disputed areas".

India has also opposed Chinese investment in Pakistan-held Kashmir under its Belt and Road Initiative.

Given the sensitive nature of Arunachal Pradesh, Prof Kesavan said Japan has been "slightly cautious" not to get involved in any project with India in this state.

"Now they are trying to overcome this too. While I cannot give you definite evidence to show Japan is positively excited about working in Arunachal Pradesh, we will have to wait and watch to see how things unfold here," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 14, 2018, with the headline 'Japan gives India aid to develop north-east states'. Print Edition | Subscribe