The race for supremacy in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) has intensified.

Just a week after China hosted a key One Belt-One Road (OBOR) forum meeting, India and Japan prepared a plan to counter the Chinese initiative. The two “friendly” nations have decided to launch their own Asia-Africa connectivity project later this month. According to sources close to the Japanese Embassy in New Delhi, the Indo-Japanese plan, just like OBOR, will boost Asia’s connectivity with Africa and other parts of the world through the Indian Ocean. The Indo-Japanese initiatives are part of the ‘Freedom Corridor’, which stretches from the Asia-Pacific to Africa. Sources said that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe recently discussed the issue.

A senior Embassy official, who wished to remain anonymous, informed the press that the venue for its launch would be the upcoming annual meeting of the African Development Bank (AfDB), which would begin in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad on May 22. The meeting will be significant for both Japan and India, as they will inform partner nations about the proposed project. The official confirmed the participation of representatives of all the 78 member countries of the AfDB (including 53 member states from Asia) in the meeting.

Both India and Japan refused to attend the OBOR forum meeting, as they decided not to participate in the Chinese initiative. New Delhi and Tokyo made clear that they would not join the multi-continent initiative dominated by China due to Beijing’s aggressive foreign policy. The Japanese official stressed that Tokyo proposed a more democratic alternative – to build a maritime route stretching from Japan’s shores to Africa via Indian Ocean – in the document. He claimed that the proposed plan would help establish “a free and open Indo-Pacific region”, which would certainly boost India’s ‘Act East’ Policy and Japan’s ‘Expanded Partnership for Quality Infrastructure’.

Foreign policy experts opine that the stress on a “free ocean” in the document clearly shows Japan’s discomfort about the way China has made inroads into South China Sea. India, too, has made its discomfort clear about the Chinese plan to extend its reach into the Indian Ocean. As Japan has the ability to build infrastructure in African countries, India agreed to join the project that is aimed at “focusing on countries on the eastern coast of Africa. In the initial phase, Japan and India will build infrastructure in seven African countries – Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique and South Africa.

A group of Indian and American scholars believes that China pushes natural allies India, Japan closer to the US. They predict that co-operation among India and Japan (and America) would face the Chinese assertiveness in the strategic Indian Ocean and Pacific regions.

Koushik Das, based in the Indian capital of New Delhi, is a senior news editor with more than 15 years of experience. He also runs a blog – Boundless Ocean of Politics. E-Mail: [email protected]