On his way to the 7th Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) summit in Beijing, the Prime Minister will be making a stop-over in Tokyo. This will be his second visit to Japan since assuming office in 2004 and it makes an important point about the changing foreign policy priorities of India in East Asia. Manmohan Singh will meet the new Japanese Prime Minister, Taro Aso, the former foreign minister under Shinzo Abe who had suggested that "a strong India is in the best interest of Japan, and a strong Japan is in the best interest of India".
Relations between India and Japan seem to be at an all-time high, with the two countries making a concerted attempt to interact at various levels -- economic, political and strategic.
A recent survey of global attitudes suggests that a huge majority of Indians and Japanese, 65 and 60 percent respectively, continue to view each other very favourably in stark contrast to their views about other regional actors, especially China.
As the Indian prime minister has put it, "The time has come for India and Japan to build a strong contemporary relationship, one involving global and strategic partnership that will have a great significance for Asia and the world as a whole."
This new-found warmth represents a transformation of the two countries' past relationship, which though never conflictual, was characterized by a lack of interest in each other's priorities. A convergence of a number of factors has transformed India-Japan relationship in recent years. At the structural level, the rise of China in the Asia-Pacific and beyond has fundamentally altered the strategic calculus for India and Japan, forcing them to rethink their attitudes towards each other. At another level, India's booming economy is making it an attractive trading and business partner for Japan as Japan tries to get itself out of its long years of economic stagnation. Japan is also re-assessing its role as a security provider in the region and beyond, and of all its neighbors, India seems most willing to acknowledge Japan's centrality in shaping the evolving Asia-Pacific security architecture. Also, a new generation of political leaders in India and Japan are viewing each other differently, breaking from past policies, thereby changing the trajectory of India-Japan relations.
India's ties with Japan have travelled a long way since May 1998 when a chill had set in after India's nuclear tests with Japan imposing sanctions and suspending its Overseas Development Assistance (ODA). Since then, however, the changing strategic milieu in Asia-Pacific has brought the two countries together so much so that the last visit of the Indian Prime Minister to Japan resulted in the unfolding of a roadmap to transform a low-key relationship into a major strategic partnership. India and Japan have decided to invigorate all major aspects of their relationship ranging from investment, defence, science and technology to civilian cooperation in space and energy security.
The rise of China is a major factor in the evolution of Indo-Japanese ties as is the US attempt to build India into a major balancer in the region. Both India and Japan are well aware of China's not so subtle attempts at preventing their rise. It is most clearly reflected in China's opposition to the expansion of the United Nations Security Council to include India and Japan as permanent members. China's status as a permanent member of the Security Council and as a nuclear weapon state is something that it would be loathe to share with any other state in Asia. India's "Look East" policy of active engagement with the ASEAN and East Asia remains largely predicated upon Japanese support. India's participation in the East Asia Summit was facilitated by Japan and the East Asia Community proposed by Japan to counter China's proposal of an East Asia Free Trade Area also includes India. While China has resisted the inclusion of India, Australia, and New Zealand in the ASEAN, Japan has strongly backed the entry of all three nations.
India and Japan seem to have re-discovered their common values and reaffirmed their proximity as ancient civilizations. The Indian Prime Minister has aptly described India and Japan as 'civilizational neighbours.' India and Japan are also examples of how economic growth can be pursued in consonance with democratic values.
A strategic partnership between Japan and India is critical to the Asian power equilibrium. But a lot of care is needed to nurture this nascent relationship. Both India and Japan should resist the temptation to view their partnership primarily in opposition to China. This was one of the reasons why the much touted "Concert of Democracies" failed to take off. Neither Delhi nor Tokyo is in a position to retrench their ties with China as of now. Cooperation among like-minded states in the Asia-Pacific will emerge of its own accord in due course without the need for either India or Japan or the US shouting from the rooftops.
The regional security architecture in Asia still does not fully reflect current geo-economic realities. India is making a case that it is imperative for the wider Asian region to evolve within a cooperative framework if the region is to successfully meet the challenges of the 21st century. Yet, India has not found representation in agencies such as the APEC and its role in the ARF and the ASEAN plus arrangements remains limited. Though Japan has helped India in its gradual integration into the Asia-Pacific regional order, India is still not viewed as an "Asian" power. As Japan gets further integrated into the regional economic and political structures and India continues to lag behind, there is a real danger that the two states might not be able to realize the full potential of their relationship.
The integration between India and Japanese economies remains shallow. India-Japan bilateral trade remains limited and Japanese investment has not picked up. The Indian Prime Minister in his address to the Diet in 2006 pointed out the disproportionately low levels of investments and underscored the need for more Japanese investment in India. India is seeking a shift in Japanese attitude from that of an aid giver to that of an investment partner for FDI not ODA. This lack of economic interaction is fundamentally problematic because it builds no constituencies for India in Japan.
Though Japan supported India's case at the NSG, the Japanese government has ruled out any civilian nuclear technology transfer to India, at least for the time being, as domestic sentiment in Japan remains strongly anti-nuclear. If India decides to go in for more nuclear tests in the future, the Japanese government of the day would be forced to respond in a manner that may be inimical to India-Japan ties.
Domestic institutional constraints continue to operate as a major limitation on the potential of emerging Japanese foreign policy posture. Weak political leadership and fragmented domestic consensus will continue to adversely affect Japan's foreign policy. After five years of the charismatic Koizumi, Japan has now had two prime ministers fall from power without surviving a year in office. Japan needs still more reforms and the present leadership does not seem to have the political capital to push them through. While the two main political parties in India remain well disposed towards Japan, their allies have often taken stridently anti-American postures largely for domestic political consumption. This reflexive anti-Americanism still retains its hold in a substantial part of Indian political establishment and can also hamper India's ties with Japan, especially if they are viewed as following too closely the pattern of Indo-US ties.
There is a lot of rhetoric flying around in so far as the Indo-Japanese ties are concerned. India and Japan should now concentrate on what is achievable in terms of defence and security as well as economic engagement with each other. Japan's former Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, is probably right that "Japan-India relationship is blessed with the largest potential for development of any bilateral relationship anywhere in the world." However, that potential will remain untapped if the two nations do not make the requisite effort in removing the remaining obstacles that continue to hamper India-Japan relationship.
The writer teaches at King's College London