Thursday, February 25

Japan committed to working with India for realising better health for the people: Satoshi Suzuki

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Japan sees India as the “most natural strategic partner” to promote a free and inclusive Indo-Pacific, and this year’s Malabar naval exercise was an example of efforts by the four members of the Quad to ensure the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity, Japanese ambassador Satoshi Suzuki has said.

In a wide-ranging interview, Suzuki spoke of cooperation with India in spheres ranging from security to trade and investment. He also said there is no scope in a rules-based free and open Indo-Pacific for attempts to unilaterally change the status quo by coercion.

Edited excerpts:

With the world focused on Covid-19 vaccine delivery and economic recovery, what role can Japan and India jointly play in these efforts as important members of the G20? What is your view on the proposal by India and several other countries for IPR waiver for wider access to vaccines? Is Japan looking to closer cooperation with India on delivery and distribution of vaccines, including in third countries?

Year 2020 turned out to be an unprecedented one with our days so much affected by Covid-19. Protecting lives and recovering the economy have become a top priority for governments across the world. That is why Japan is supporting the efforts of the government of India through 50 billion yen (about Rs7,500 crore) budget support and 1 billion yen (about Rs150 crore) grant assistance, as well as through international organisations such as UNDP, UNICEF, UNHCR and IFRC.

As rightly pointed out, our two countries are also important partners in the framework of G20. In the G20 Riyadh Summit, Prime Minister [Yoshihide] Suga underscored the need to take a holistic approach for securing equitable access to vaccines as well as therapeutics and diagnoses in light of Covid-19. In this regard, Japan is supporting the concept of patent pool, to which India has also expressed its support, which promotes voluntary licensing of intellectual property to enable emerging countries to have access to vaccines and medicines. Japan is committed to promote multilateral cooperation, including its support to COVAX facility, which aims at accelerating the development and manufacturing of Covid-19 vaccines, and at guaranteeing fair and equitable access to them by our partners, including India.

In the fight against Covid-19, it is important to ensure that all people have access to needed health services of sufficient quality at an affordable cost. This is exactly what Universal Health Coverage (UHC) means. India and Japan are cooperating towards this goal of attaining UHC in India, through such a mechanism as Healthcare Joint Working Group. Japan remains committed to working with India for realising better health for the people in India and beyond.

The Indo-Pacific is an area where Japan had an early start in cooperation with India. What will Japan’s priorities be for this region in 2021 and will there be continuity in Japan’s Indo-Pacific policies under Prime Minister Suga’s administration?

India has been the most natural strategic partner for Japan in its efforts to promote the vision of a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific. Prime Minister Suga expressed that his administration will continue to attach significance to this vision in his first telephone conversation with Prime Minister [Narendra] Modi on September 25 and in the East Asia Summit meeting in November. We look forward to working with India in 2021 to make further progress in our joint endeavours in such areas as connectivity and maritime security.

Has there been progress in efforts by Japan, Australia and India in developing supply chain resilience? Will more countries in the Indo-Pacific be made part of these efforts?

Commerce and trade ministers of Japan, India and Australia held a virtual meeting in September and decided to work towards launching a new initiative for resilient supply chains in the Indo-Pacific region. Their relevant ministries are in touch with each other. As you pointed out, it is important to involve and seek understanding of other countries for this initiative.

How did Australia’s inclusion in this year’s Malabar exercise alter the significance of these drills? Will Australia now continue to be part of this exercise?

I was happy to see Australia joining the Malabar exercise along with India, Japan and the US this year. These four countries, or the Quad, share a common vision of ensuring a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific in which the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity are ensured, and all countries enjoy freedom of navigation and overflight. The Malabar exercise this year was a great example of our joint efforts to this end. By operating together at sea, the four maritime forces strengthened partnerships among them, which is the foundation of cooperative actions to maintain a rules-based maritime order. I am looking forward to seeing the four maritime forces continuing to operate together in the future.

Japan was one of the first countries to speak of the need for maintenance of status quo along the Line of Actual Control amid India’s standoff with China. Japan also faces the challenge of China’s aggressive actions within its territorial waters. Your views on these issues.

In a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific where the rule of law prevails, there is no place for any attempts to unilaterally change the status quo by coercion. Be it in Ladakh, in the East China Sea, or in the South China Sea, Japan stands firm to uphold the principles that underpin a rules-based international order. I think this is also the best example where we have seen growing strategic convergence in both countries’ thinking.

Japan had announced an initiative aimed at helping its companies moving out of China and for diversifying markets. Is this likely to benefit firms that move to India or expand their operations here?

More precisely, the government of Japan is trying to help Japanese industries to diversify their supply chains so that they will be more resilient. In this regard, two pilot projects and feasibility studies in India have been adopted for “Program for Strengthening Overseas Supply Chains” in November, which are the first and only two projects from outside ASEAN. The trilateral initiative among Japan, India and Australia mentioned above is also a part of such efforts.

India has been within the radar scope of Japanese companies long before Covid-19. I am pleased to see that the number of Japanese companies operating in India has been steadily increasing, reaching 1,454 in 2019. I hope in their efforts to strengthen supply chains resilience, more companies will come to India.

I also want to stress at the same time, however, that this would not naturally happen. A further improvement of business environment is important here, while I commend the recent surge of India in the “ease of doing business” ranking (#63 in 2019). To make India more attractive to investors, predictability and stability of business environment are critical, including the continued free flow of goods, such as intermediary goods which are indispensable to fulfil Make in India objectives.

What is the status of Japan’s major projects and initiatives in India, including the bullet train project and the initiatives in the northeastern states, as well as joint projects in third countries? Are there any new proposals to boost regional connectivity?

Japan is pleased to be partnering with India for a number of important projects. Mumbai-Ahmedabad High Speed Rail (MAHSR) is a flagship project which will transform the Indian railway culture not only with its amazing speed and comfort but also through technology and skill transfer. The tenders for important packages, including its largest civil package, have been successfully being made, infusing much needed economic stimulus after Covid-19.

Japan’s efforts for the development of India’s northeast attest the deep trust India places upon Japan. The region is strategically important and full of potentials. Japan is providing a range of supports from road connectivity, forest and biodiversity conservation, water and sanitation, hydropower generation, to local schools. I am co-chairing, with foreign secretary [Harsh] Shringla, the Act East Forum to advance these efforts and to explore new possibilities.

Our collaboration with India in third countries expresses the importance India and Japan attach to a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific. To take an example of Bangladesh, in a stretch where India is improving roads, Japan is building bridges. This is a perfect example of our complementary roles to enhance connectivity. Another example is in the Maldives where India built Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital, to which Japan donated medical equipment. I believe we can further explore such collaborations in third countries to realize our shared vision of a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific.

Japan took the lead in drafting a declaration on India’s possible entry into RCEP at a later stage. Will Japan continue with its efforts to convince India to join RCEP?

Japan understands the current position of the government of India. Having said that, we strongly believe it is beneficial for India and for RCEP if India can join this broad regional economic partnership agreement. RCEP will ensure India will be integrated in the most vibrant region and be a part of its value chains.

That is why Japan took a lead in drafting Ministers’ Declaration on India’s Participation in RCEP. This declaration is unprecedented in many ways. First, India can accede to RCEP if India so wishes at any time. Other countries cannot accede until 18 months will pass after its entry of force. Second, it expressed the will of RCEP Member States to commence negotiations with India at any time if India so wishes. Third, India can participate in RCEP meetings as an observer if India so wishes. Unlike other trade agreements where the meetings are only open to their participants, India can benefit from these RCEP meetings even before becoming a member.

Japan is committed to continuing to work with India as a trusted partner. One of such efforts is our cooperation to elevate India’s industrial competitiveness. Japan is prepared to share our experience and expertise so that India’s manufacturing sector will become even stronger.

Is there any update on the India-Japan Summit? Are we likely to see a visit by the Japanese Prime Minister in 2021?

At the first telephone conversation between Prime Minister Suga and Prime Minister Modi in September, it was confirmed that annual Summit meetings would be resumed once the situation related to Covid-19 be improved. I hope that the situation will improve to permit us to hold the meeting between the two PMs at the earliest possible and mutually convenient time.