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A strategic tsunami: Transformation in Indo-Japanese relations

December 06, 2013 14:44 IST

In the media frenzy over inconsequential issues, the visit of the Emperor of Japan to India has been pushed to the margins of public discourse. Colonel (retd) Anil Athale explains the great historical and political significance of the visit.

A hundred years hence, a historian looking at India will be amazed how the media and people of this country were so oblivious to the momentous change that was taking place in Asian balance of power. Yes, one is referring to the ongoing visit of the Emperor Akihito of Japan to India.

Our future historian looking at the media will find that the country was obsessed with the sexual exploits of an editor specialising in ‘yellow journalism’ and who successfully sold invasion of privacy/entrapment as ‘investigative journalism. As if this was not enough, India’s oldest political party has stooped to a level of ‘peeping tom’ to desperately throw mud at the principal opposition challenger! In all this media frenzy over inconsequential issues, the visit of the Emperor of Japan has been pushed to the margins of public discourse.

The visit has a great historical and political significance. In the Japanese tradition (like in Hindu tradition) the Emperor is a living God. Just two instances illustrate this. Towards the fag end of World War II, Japan was on the verge of surrender after the dropping of nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But even in that desperate condition, the sticking point that was preventing Japan’s surrender was Japanese condition that no harm should come to the Emperor!

Closer to our times, the thaw between Japan and China was preceded by the Japanese Imperial visit in early 1990s. Today while India is busy in a premature election campaign for 2014 general elections, major shifts are taking place in Asian power balance. Almost 50 years after the Chinese and Americans last clashed over the issue of shelling of the Quemoy and Matsu islands by the Chinese in 1960s, the two are again looking down the barrel.

The American defiance of the Chinese ‘No Fly Zone’ over the disputed islands in the South China Sea, has brought in the two in direct military confrontation. The quasi alliance between the US and China since the 1972 Shanghai Declaration seems truly dead.

Interestingly, Chinese claims to these island territories is generally based on some historical event like conquest by some Chinese Admiral Hu (who?) in the 8th century. India is no stranger to this Chinese version of revanchism as it lays claim on the whole of Arunachal Pradesh on similar logic. The Chinese are also past masters at claiming suzerainty over kingdoms that sent gifts to their Emperor (as was the common practice then) and claiming these to be Chinese vassal states!

What the recent Chinese aggressive stance over its maritime dispute has shown is that the so called doctrine of ‘peaceful rise’ of China is a myth. To a historian, peaceful rise of a new world power is an oxymoron.

The combination of Japan’s technological prowess and India’s vast natural resources and skilled manpower, was always viewed as a tempting/threatening prospect. The last time this came close to realisation was during the WW-II. It was in August 1942 when Mahatma Gandhi dismissed the British offer of independence after the war as ‘a post dated check on a failing bank’ (this was later denied by the Mahatma) and launched the ‘Quit India’ movement. This was the time when Japanese were marching towards the Indian border, the British navy was neutralised and Subhash Chandra Bose was to later raise the ‘Azad Hind Fauj’.

A few months earlier, an American economic analyst writing in Pacific Affairs (March 1942 Vol xv No 1, pages 5-9) alerted the allies to the huge Indian potential falling in the hands of the Japanese. President Franklin Roosevelt was sufficiently alarmed and sent his special emissary Colonel Johnson to pressure British to accede to Indian demands, thus was born the Cripps Mission of 1942 and Gandhi’s response to the same. The attempt at Indo-Japanese alliance at that time failed but the potential was well recognised.

In the immediate post WW-II era, India was one of the few countries that disagreed on the trial of Japanese war time prime minister. As the full picture of Azad Hind Fauj and its role came out in the open (the British had managed to keep Indians in dark during the war) there was a latent pro-Japanese sentiment in India.

Throughout the Cold War that followed WW-II the Americans followed a conscious policy of keeping Japan (and even Germany) away from India. Instead, with its total control over these two erstwhile enemies, the US linked Japan firmly with India’s bête noire- Pakistan. Pakistan has been one of the largest recipients of Japanese aid. The wheel seems to have come a full circle from days of August 1942 and it is now the US and West that sees an Indo-Japan combine as the only answer to a rising China.

The credit for the coming into being of the Indo-Japanese alliance must go to our cerebral prime minister (one must recall his pithy description of Chinese strategy as one to ‘keep India in low level equilibrium’). The PM has been quite dogged in his pursuit of Indo-Japan friendship.

The Japanese Emperor’s visit sends a very clear signal to Japanese business and industry to look to India in a positive manner. It is to be hoped that the visit will be followed by Japanese collaboration in the nuclear field, specially our much delayed effort at harnessing our vast thorium reserves.

History will record the coming Indo-Japanese alliance as a major achievement of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. One only wishes that he had equal say in ‘other’ areas of governance, the country would have been spared much grief, hamstrung he is by party leadership that lacks basic honesty and minimal IQ.

Image: Japan's Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko wave towards the crowd during their visit to the Lodhi Gardens in New Delhi
Photograph: Adnan Abidi/Reuters

Colonel (retd) Anil Athale is a military historian and former joint director, history division of the ministry of defence.

 

Colonel (retd) Anil Athale