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India and Japan: Limits of convergence

August 27, 2007 15:20 IST
Waning domestic political support inhibited the scope for any dramatic breakthrough in India-Japanese relations during Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's visit to India last week. He came to India in the shadow of a markedly poor showing by the Liberal Democratic Party under his leadership in the election to the Upper House of Japan's Diet. This failure was widely read as an electoral rebuff to Abe's policies and performance since he succeeded Junichiro Koizumi last September. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has also had his share of woes, with the Left undermining the tenure of the United Progressive Alliance coalition by attacking the nuclear deal with the US.

Relations between the two Asian countries, both aspirants for membership of the United Nations Security Council and for a bigger role in the world, are diversifying and deepening, even when the approval ratings of their leaders decline. India and Japan have been friends, though not close friends, since our Independence. Fifty years ago, Abe's maternal grandfather Nobusuke Kishi visited India, the first prime minister from post-War Japan to do so. Nehru memorably returned the visit in 1957, when Japan was not yet a major economic power. Then began Japan's first Overseas Developmental Assistance to India. By 1989, India had become the largest recipient of Japanese ODA.

The loan arrangement continues, for agreed projects where the Japanese can contribute to India's deficient infrastructure. This makes for an ingrained inequality in the relations. The Japanese respect India as an ancient civilisation which has enriched their own tradition, but they look down on our record as a modernising economy. Since the Indian rate of growth began ascending sharply in recent years, however, they are much keener to cultivate India as a compatible partner in joint ventures and as a market for sophisticated products.

The Japanese have an idiom which commends 'large ears and a small mouth'. A reticent folk, they consider Indians sharp-witted but argumentative. They confer and reach consensus more habitually than we do. This may delay decision-making, but decisions once taken are normally carried out.

Commerce Minister Kamal Nath is right to ask for a shift in our attitude from that of an aid receiver to that of an investment partner, for FDI, not ODA. Abe's visit with a 200-strong business delegation has given a strong impetus to economic cooperation. Hitherto, Japanese investment in India has been hesitant because they were chary of India's bureaucratic controls, trade unionism, and poor infrastructure.

Two agreements were signed, one on environmental protection and one on energy security. Japan wants to carry forward the Kyoto Protocol by an international convention, 'Cool Earth 50', to halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2060. But India hedged its position by reaffirming that no commitment on its part towards this worthy end should impair its drive to eliminate poverty through economic advancement.

Trade is picking up, now said to total $7 billion per annum. Both sides would like it to be nearer $20 billion in three years. Japan would welcome a free trade agreement. These goals look unrealistic now, but may be achieved if conditions are propitious.

In the energy sector, both countries are desperate for more oil and other fuels. Japan is aware of India's need for nuclear power, but declines to cooperate in this sensitive area until India concludes safeguard agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency and satisfies Japanese concerns on proliferation. Japan has moved far from its righteous indignation at the Pokhran nuclear tests of 1998. But Japan and India can cooperate more purposefully on solar power and other alternative energies, besides technology for fuel efficiency.

Abe has backed 'the Delhi-Mumbai industrial corridor' and the railway freight corridor between the two cities. It could be extended to the Delhi-Kolkata sector as well. The plan will cost $90 billion at least. Japanese involvement and funding are prerequisites. Japan has already done its bit for the Delhi Metro and is ready to participate in other infrastructure projects. These constructive ventures can multiply bilateral contacts and ties beyond the diplomatic courtesies and rituals. Both sides want to formalise their ambitions in a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement. Whether it is another document to be filed and forgotten or a cornucopia of tangible benefits will depend on how the two countries exploit their mutual complementarity.

All this is contingent on the political dimension of India-Japan relations. The quest for closer relations is not one-sided. We are in an era of melting unipolarity, when China is catching up with the US as an economic powerhouse and Russia is resurgent on the strength of its oil and gas. The middle powers are groping for associative security and cooperation in their common interests, like securing sea lanes, preventing piracy and countering terrorism.

India and Japan do share concerns about China's growing diplomatic weight, defence capability and economic clout, but neither wishes to retrench or abrade its own relations with China, so long as China remains peaceable and benign. Japan, allied to the US, is dependent on the American nuclear cover despite its vaunted 'nuclear allergy'. India is vexed by a schismatic division in its foreign policy framework which has hitherto been consensual, with the government creeping into a proto-alignment with the US and the critics dead set against a junior partnership with the sole superpower.

In this inchoate stage of a revenant Cold War between the US and Russia, and a chilling of the mutually advantageous Sino-American entente, both India and Japan can further their common interests as Asian powers. They can intensify defence relations beyond naval exercises and exchanges of visits, now that Japan is less coy about its higher military profile.

But the concept of 'a broader Asia', which Abe outlined fuzzily in his address to our Parliament, envisages an oceanic sweep to include the US and Australia. China has noted this as a warning sign to watch. India, which has kept its distance from the militaristic dimension given to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation by the recent Sino-Russian exercises, should equally avoid closer involvement in a quadrilateral combine which will harm its slowly improving relations with China.

Phrases like 'the Arc of Freedom and Prosperity' or 'Strategic Global Partnership' smack of verbal inflation, the obverse of which is semantic devaluation.

A Madhavan was India's ambassador to Japan (1985 to 1988) and to Germany (1988 to 1991). He lives in Mysore after retirement.

A Madhavan