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India's friend from the East

Publication Date : 28-01-2014

 

Japan and India were able to agree on strengthening ties in the areas of security and defence, and specifically to have regular exercises between their naval ships. National security advisors and senior defence personnel are to meet regularly. Broader-based consultations between the two countries have been intermittent affairs until now, so this strengthened process of discussion could be a useful departure

Japanese interest in India has been emphasised by the recent visit of the Japanese emperor and empress, followed not long after by that of the prime minister as chief guest on Republic Day.

These were both symbolic as well as substantive occasions, bespeaking the intention of the two sides to advance their relationship and give it further content. There is no shortage of goodwill between the two but still they move in largely different spheres and it remains a challenge to bring them closer.

This remains so although their cooperation in economic matters has grown steadily over the past decades: Japan has been a major donor to India’s economic development and the source of goods and equipment for numerous industrial projects. Yet while the economic relationship has prospered, their strategic perceptions have not similarly coalesced. But signs of change are now to be seen.

For India, the link with Japan was from the start a cornerstone of its concept of a post-colonial order in Asia. After World War II India did not look for the reparations from Japan that it might have claimed as a combatant in the war and preferred to build a new, cooperative relationship based on different principles.

This approach helped launch relations on a fresh track and both sides made gestures to encourage further progress in that direction. But the world order of the time was not conducive and the cold war became a barrier, with Japan firmly allied to the West and India choosing the path of nonalignment.

Turmoil in the Far East with the outbreak of the Korean war made the lines of division between the two countries more marked. At the same time, the Japanese economic revival created opportunities from which their mutual relationship greatly benefited, but without inducing significant strategic convergence, and that is more or less where matters remained for much of the subsequent era. It is only relatively recently that matters have moved sufficiently to permit new initiatives.

The end of the cold war, the opening up of India’s economy and its economic success of the last few years are factors that have permitted the country to be more active abroad and to be regarded as a more significant partner in Asia as well as in other parts of the world ~ the well-known "look east" policy has had a substantial effect. And more recently, Japan's more active foreign policy has raised that country’s international profile. With such changes have come fresh opportunities to be charted and developed.

The changing context gave added significance to Prime Minister Abe’s visit. Abe is identified with a less quiescent foreign policy for his country, and has shown readiness to assert Japanese interests, where necessary against rival assertions.

He has not backed down on territorial claims contested by China in the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands and has not refrained from a controversial visit to the national war shrine, to the loudly expressed concern of China and also South Korea. Such actions do not throw down a challenge but demonstrate that Japanese national sentiment has strengthened and needs to be taken into account in the conduct of its regional relationships.

In New Delhi, Abe had discussions with India’s prime minister and the two were able to agree on strengthening ties in the areas of security and defence, and specifically to have regular exercises between their naval ships.

National security advisors and senior defence personnel are to meet regularly. Broader-based consultations between the two countries have been intermittent affairs until now, so this strengthened process of discussion could be a useful departure.

Hitherto, in effective recognition of its importance as an economic partner, Japan has had its closest dealings in India with the finance ministry; that seems ready to be enlarged to bring in other key sectors of the government apparatus.

Development assistance and economic cooperation continue to be high among the priorities of the leaders, and Investment by Japanese companies, which India seeks, should be encouraged by the recent visit.

It has often been remarked that Japanese investors are slow and careful in preparing the ground before they plunge in, but once they embark on process they can be very determined in taking it to a conclusion. Perhaps the time has come for an important forward movement in this area, beginning with Tamil Nadu where the ground has already been prepared.

The reports of the meeting between the two prime ministers mention the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) on which their countries have different views. For historical reasons, Japan is very sensitive to developments relating to the nuclear issue and has always pressed hard for a global ban on nuclear weapons.

India is not averse to the principle but holds out for universality in its application. For this reason India has not been able to support the CTBT as it is currently formulated, as it makes a differentiation between the obligations of the nuclear powers and those of the others.

As the circle could not be closed when the CTBT was negotiated, India felt obliged to oppose it, which led to a setback in its normally equable relations with Japan. India has been careful to affirm its credentials as a responsible nuclear power and although its differences with Japan on the nuclear issue remain, these are not such as to prevent the development of their relations in other fields of mutual interest.

Prime Minister Abe’s visit suggests that the two countries feel broadly satisfied with the current state of their relationship. New opportunities have arisen and are being pursued but the general structure if the bilateral ties is well established and needs little recasting, as is indeed implied in the request to Abe to come as chief guest for Republic Day: that gesture is customarily reserved for established friends and partners.

The ties between the two countries have several features that merit attention in today's world. These two prominent countries of Asia have been careful not to invest their relationship with any sense of being directed against any other party.

They are both democracies, which gives them important shared ground that underwrites their relationship. They have shown willingness to combine against disruptive forces that might assail their region, as may be seen in the decision to strengthen maritime cooperation for the protection of the sea routes on which they both depend.

Their cultural links are deep and continue to thrive: Japanese visitors are among the most prominent at the Buddhist holy places in India. The two countries  are well set to advance further in mutual cooperation, with the careful good sense that has marked their relations hitherto.

 

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