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India-Japan relations: Economic content combined with strategic intent

December 02, 2013 14:22 IST

In recent years India-Japan relations have acquired rich economic content and strategic intents. Although the bilateral trade at $18 billion between the two countries is not very impressive and leaves much to be desired, the economic engagement between the two countries is both qualitatively and quantitatively noteworthy. India-Japan defence cooperation, however, has generated a lot interest among the strategic community in the context of rise of China. There has been a lot of speculation about India-Japan strategic partnership to hedge China, says Rup Narayan Das.

When Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh visited China last month, returning the earlier visit of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to India in May this year, the visit was hailed as replicating the back to back visit by prime ministers of India and China in 1954, when the visit of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to China was reciprocated by that of Zhou Enlai to India the same year.

The analogy was replicated in a grander scale when a red carpet was rolled out to the Japanese emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko on Saturday, who was received by Prime Minister Singh as a mark of respect that India attaches to the visit.

Dr Singh visited Japan earlier in May prior to his visit to China after the election of Shinzo Abe as prime minister in December. This is the second visit of the Japanese royal couple to India. The royal couple’s first visit to India took place in 1960. The visit of Japanese Emperor and Empress to India carries a lot of symbolic significance. Not only that, Abe will be the chief guest at our Republic Day celebration next year. This clearly reflects the strategic depth of India-Japan relations.

Japan is only second country after Russia with which India has the annual summit level meeting. A multiple of factors explains the robust and yet comprehensive relationship between the two countries which was elevated to ‘strategic and global partnership’ level in 2006 during Prime Minister Singh’s visit.

The number of dialogue mechanisms between the two countries and the frequency of their meeting also indicate the close strategic cooperation between the two countries. Besides the annual summit level meeting between the two prime ministers, the defence ministers of the two countries also meet annually to discuss security and strategic issues.

The two countries also have a slew of mechanisms for official level dialogue such as the foreign office consultation, comprehensive security dialogue, and strategic dialogue, the annual bilateral dialogue on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament. Considering the strategic significance of maritime security, the two countries also have an institutional mechanism for maritime dialogue.

Besides there is India-Japan-US trilateral dialogue, which has met for the fifth time after it was constituted in 2011. There is also a 1.5 strategic dialogue and a trilateral track dialogues among think-tanks of India, Japan and South Korea in which the Institute for Defence Studies is the dialogue partner.

While the Japanese people still fondly remember the dissenting judgment of Justice Radha Binod Pal in the International Military Tribunal for the Far East after the Second World War, in recent years India-Japan relations have acquired rich economic content and strategic intents. Although the bilateral trade at $18 billion between the two countries is not very impressive and leaves much to be desired, the economic engagement between the two countries is both qualitatively and quantitatively noteworthy.

The big ticket items include Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor. The project being supported by Japan External Trade Organisation, aims at development of eco-friendly cities and smart communities along the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor. 

Yet one more big ticket item is the dedicated multi-modal high axle load freight corridors on the Mumbai-Delhi route. The project envisages construction of a rail freight corridor from Mumbai to Delhi to be funded through Japan’s Overseas Development Assistance. It is pertinent to mention that since 2003-04 India has become the largest recipient of Japanese ODA loan assistance. Japan has also committed to help and assist India in establishing a new IIT in Hyderabad.

The signing of the comprehensive economic partnership between the two countries in February 2011 and its operationalisation is expected to give a fillip to the bilateral trade between the two countries. India’s 1 trillion dollar infrastructural development during the 12th Five Year Plan offers Japan great opportunity for investment. Besides the modernisation of Indian railways and the prospect of introduction of speed trains are also attractive investment destination.

Many of the Japanese products traditionally have been household names in India, be it automobiles or consumer durables. The Delhi Metro, which has made a difference to the day-today life of the people of the capital city is a resounding success story of Indo-Japanese partnership. Cooperation in energy sector, particularly nuclear energy offer great opportunity for future cooperation.

India-Japan defence cooperation, however, has generated a lot interest among the strategic community in the context of rise of China. There has been a lot of speculation about India-Japan strategic partnership to hedge China. Mindful of such anxiety, India has been extremely careful in its articulation so as not fuel any such crystal gazing.

While engaging with Japan or for that matter with USA, New Delhi has always made it clear that India-Japan relations doesn’t target any third country least of all China. To drive home the point some years back during his visit to Japan told the Japanese media that India’s bilateral trade with China in the past one year was more than the whole of India’s total trade with Japan. It is not fair to see Indo-Japanese relations through the prism of China. 

Image: Japan's Emperor Akihito, Empress Michiko with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his wife Gursharan Kaur at the airport in New Delhi ' Photograph: Adnan Abidi/Reuters

Rup Narayan Das is senior fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.

Rup Narayan Das