India-Japan Ties and the Role of Assam and the Northeast

Papori Borah
April 3rd, 2021

Under the Act East Policy, the Central Government has taken various steps to take the Northeast region of India, including Assam, forward on the path of development. On 15 February 2021, Japan’s Ambassador Satoshi Suzuki took part in a symposium along with the External Affairs Minister of India, S.Jaishankar, Chief Minister of Assam Sarbananda Sonowal and other top ranking officials of Assam Government held at “Srimanta Sankardev Kalakhetra”, Guwahati. They spoke on Japan’s collaboration in the state of Assam and the Northeast. The focal topic of the Symposium was on “Act East Policy and India-Japan co-operation in North-East India with a special focus on Assam”. The Symposium also plans to take forward more development work in Assam in co-operation with Japan in the near future. According to the information, released by the External Affairs Minister S.Jaishankar, projects worth about Rs 9,000 crore are currently underway in Assam in co-operation with Japan. He also said that-the Dhubri-Phulbari Bridge will link Assam and Meghalaya over the Brahmaputra River, adequately shortening the travel time from more than 8 hours to less than 30 minutes.

Japan has offered a loan of Rs 1600 crore for construction of this bridge. According to Japan’s Ambassador Satoshi Suzuki, Japan has expressed interest in investing in Assam, but it requires improving the infrastructure. Ambassador Suzuki stressed that the prospects for Assam and the entire Northeast are immense in terms of their geographical location at the crossroads of South and Southeast Asia. The location of Assam and the Northeast requires to be tapped to its potential in the quest for India’s five trillion dollar economy and the vision for a “free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific”.

The External Affairs Minister said that Assam is the bridge between India and various countries of the world. It is also playing a remarkable role in the field of Korea and Japan. One of the main objectives of the Act East Policy is also to create communication infrastructure between Assam and the rest of the North East. This will allow the region to be connected by land, water and air to South-East Asian countries as well as Myanmar, Bangladesh, and Japan. Noting the importance of Assam in the Act East Policy, the External Affairs Minister said that Assam could play an indispensable role in various issues including transport, power and electricity. The work of connecting Assam with the Bay of Bengal through the Brahmaputra River and the ports of neighbouring countries is being progressed at full speed.

Japan’s Ambassador, Satoshi Suzuki stated, “As I am speaking next to External Affairs Minister, I would like to talk about this region from a bit larger perspective. For India to achieve the 5-trillion-dollar economy, the development of North East is indispensable. I am sure India is driving and mobilizing all its capacities and resources for this goal. I believe that the abundant human and natural resources as well as rich cultural diversity of Assam are no exception and need to be tapped to their full potential. I came here today to say that Japan stands together with you to this end.”

Chief Minister of Sonowal said that Japan was given special importance at the global Investment Summit held in 2018. Japan is a notable investment and commercial partner of India but there still lies a lot of potential for augmenting the role of Assam in India-Japan trade relations besides just tea exports. Japan has been coordinating in implementing projects in various infrastructure in the state of Assam, becoming a partner of the Indian government towards the development of infrastructure in Assam

There is a lot of investment potential in Assam. Assam and Japan will both benefit from increased investment. Speaking on the occasion, Himanta Biswa Sharma commented that the event has started a new chapter in the economic and social history of the state. Through this, the Act East Policy will get a special dimension. He added that in 2017, the Indo-Japan Act East Forum was formed under the initiative of the External Affairs Minister S.Jaishankar. The forum has been formed to give a new dimension to India-Japan relations through the Act East Policy in North-East India. This forum has identified various development areas in the Northeast. Noting that Assam is ready for implementation of the Act East Policy, he said Assam is a source of wealth. Assam’s tea is world famous. Assam also has the third position in the country in terms of rubber production. Similarly, Assam is rich in oil and natural gas. He said projects worth about Rs 3,875 crore have been taken up in the health sector of Assam in co-operation with the Japan International Co-operation Agency (JICA). The amount of JICA investment in these projects is Rs 3,100 crore. Assam will become a hub for medical care for neighbouring countries through these projects to be implemented in the health sector in co-operation with JICA.

It is easy to understand that Assam will play a pivotal role in India’s attempts to conjugate with and benefit from new markets in Southeast Asian countries such as Myanmar and Vietnam. Japan’s Ambassador Suzuki Satoshi noted that entrepreneurs from foreign countries have expressed interest in investing in Assam and Japan has made a promise to provide a helping hand to Assam in the adequate infrastructure required for such investment. In this regard, one can say that it will help in speeding up the development of Assam. Assam is prosperous in oil, natural resources and refined petroleum products. The Government has started to focus on how these resources can be sent to other states. They have taken some steps such as building a pipeline to Bangladesh to supply high-speed diesel with the help of Japan. The Brahmaputra River is the prime channel for movement of goods and people in an area ranging from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal through Island water connectivity to the key ports of Chittagong and Mongla in Bangladesh. New Delhi aims to make Assam the centre for communication of excess power to the neighborhood and work is on to grow new transmission lines connecting Assam with Bihar through Bangladesh. Assam has the potential to become the centre of a hub covering Myanmar, Bangladesh and Bhutan and India has worked to harmonize with Japan’s projects in these three countries. Japan’s Ambassador Suzuki Satoshi said, “the North -East is situated where India’s Act East Policy and Japan’s vision for a free and open Indo -Pacific converge.” He continued, “to be ‘free and open’ is critical here in Assam. That is why Japan is supporting various connectivity projects in this state.” These remarks by Satoshi Suzuki underline the significance attached by New Delhi and Tokyo to Assam and the Northeast in their connectivity projects.

***The author is pursuing Master in Political Science at Dibrugarh University, Assam.***