The rising tide of India-Japan relations

Japan reaches out to India like never before. India must reciprocate to make the most of a paradigm shift in Asian power politics.

It is not often that a head of state returns for a formal visit to a country half a century after making his first official trip.  Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko of Japan, who have recently concluded a historic six day visit to India, have accomplished just that. They returned to India 53 years after their 1960 sojourn here as the Crown Prince and Princess of Japan. This visit, and the expected visit in January of Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe as chief guest at India’s Republic Day Parade, are widely seen as highlights of a transformational new chapter in the traditional ties between the two countries.


India and Japan trace back their civilisational relations to the Buddha and the spread of Buddhism to the Far East in the early centuries of the first millennium. In modern times, many prominent Indians visited Japan in the 1890s and the early decades of the last century. They were immeasurably impressed by what they saw of a resurgent Japan and, in turn, impressed their hosts by their outlook and philosophy. Prominent among these Indian stalwarts were Vivekananda and Tagore. The latter, however, earned the wrath of many Japanese when he took a dim view of Japanese nationalism and imperialism. But that was Tagore, who was just as critical of certain aspects of the Gandhian world-view.

Later, Japan played a key role in India’s freedom struggle by providing invaluable succour and support to nationalists like Rashbehari Bose and Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. Indians always recall this support with gratitude. The Japanese, in their turn, remain grateful about what they see as brave support extended by Judge Radhabinod Pal.

Justice Pal’s name may no longer ring a bell in India. But the people of Japan still recall that he was the lone judge in the 11 member international military tribunal who returned a verdict of Not Guilty in the trial of Japan’s top 25 wartime leaders after World War II.  When Prime Minister Abe came to India in 2007, he said in his address to the Indian Parliament, “Justice Pal is highly respected even today by many Japanese for the noble spirit of courage he exhibited during the International Military Tribunal for the Far East.” Mr Abe is one of those Japanese. He even travelled to Calcutta to call on the 81-year old son of the late Justice Pal.

It is on these solid foundations that contemporary India-Japan relations are being built. There are no past dissonances, no jagged edges, no baggage in bilateral relations of the sort that Japan has with many countries of the world.

Recent decades have seen a spurt in Indo-Japanese cooperation. Japan has quietly extended financial and technical support to a clutch of infrastructure projects in India, ranging from the Metro in several cities to industrial corridors, dedicated freight corridors, highways, bridges and power plants, besides initiatives in a host of other areas, including water & sanitation, health, education and agriculture.

At the same time, Japanese companies have seen India as a potent market for themselves. Maruti Suzuki, which revolutionised the automobile industry in India, is symbolic of the success of Indo-Japanese business ties. The India Japan Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, which came into force in April 2011, is expected to give a fillip to bilateral trade, which today stands at $18 billion, a figure that is widely recognised as way below potential. The two sides have set a bilateral trade target of $25 billion by 2014.

Japanese direct investment and corporate penetration of India are also seen as below potential. In many areas, particularly, consumer durables, Japanese companies are seen to have yielded ground to their Korean counterparts, which have conquered vast swathes of the Indian market.

Cooperation in all of the above mentioned areas pale in comparison to the new axis that is developing between the two capitals in the area of strategic relations.  Indo-Japanese proximity has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years and the best is yet to come.  India’s Look East policy, initiated by prime minister Narasimha Rao, has seen particular emphasis during the tenure of Dr Manmohan Singh, who has devoted time and energy to forging a special relationship with Japan.

But if there is one person, who more than any other, deserves credit for transforming Indo-Japanese relations it is Shinzo Abe, the current Prime Minister, who held this office also in 2006-7. Like George W. Bush in the US, he has taken a shine to India. He feels that it is in his country’s best interest to not only strengthen relations with India but also accelerate the growth of those ties and give them a hitherto unimagined dimension.

During his earlier tenure as Prime Minister, Abe pushed for a strategic quadrangle comprising Japan, India, Australia and the US.  In the aforementioned address to the Indian Parliament, Abe declared that “a strong India is in the best interest of Japan and a strong Japan is in the best interest of India.”  He topped that up with the declaration that “Japan-India relationship is blessed with the largest potential for development of any bilateral relationship anywhere in the world”.

In keeping with that potential, the Indo-Japanese strategic partnership has grown from strength to strength in the subsequent years, with regular consultations at the secretary, ministerial and prime ministerial levels. Defence ties between the two countries have been formalised and are growing apace. Joint military exercises have begun and Japan is all set to sell, and India to buy, at least 15 hi-tech amphibious aircraft for its Navy. The Japanese Defence Minister is due in India and this deal is likely to be signed during his visit.

What is now very probable is the early conclusion of an India-Japan civil nuclear agreement that even recently seemed very difficult to pull off because of reservations among influential sections of the Japanese political establishment.  Such a civil nuclear deal will give a boost to India’s ambitious nuclear power programme which, for various reasons, has yet to take off despite the signing of the landmark agreement with the US.

What brings India and Japan together is a coincidence of interests. There is, of course, the obvious shared interest of revitalising the economies of the two countries. Then there is a shared need to cooperate in securing the seas of the region for commercial shipping. As the US Navy reduces its role in the “Indo Asia Pacific” region, Japan feels the Indian Navy must seek to step in.

But what is perhaps more important than any other is an unstated reason: the two countries need to come together to countervail the growing power of an increasingly assertive China. For instance, both New Delhi and Tokyo have border disputes with Beijing and both are at the receiving end of muscle-flexing by it.  The latest instance of this is the recent aggressive move by Beijing wherein it announced an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) covering parts of the East China Sea that includes Senkaku Islands, which are controlled by Japan, but coveted by China.

Clearly, just as a growing China has brought India and the US together, so also it is bringing Japan and India together. Willy-nilly, a cordon sanitaire is being drawn around China. The three powers meet regularly for trilateral talks, but remain chary of acknowledging this convergence of interest, pointing to their own deep bilateral ties with Beijing. But there is no denying that containment is the name of the game. There has been a paradigm shift in power politics in this part of the world. India should make the most of it.

Photo: {Amy_Jane}