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Why the Japanese PM's visit is crucial

By Tarun Vijay
Last updated on: August 22, 2007 09:43 IST
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Exchange between Japan and India is said to have begun in the 6th century, when Buddhism was introduced to Japan. Indian culture, filtered through Buddhism, has had a great impact on Japanese culture, and this is the source of the Japanese people's sense of closeness to India.

-- From the Japanese ministry of foreign affairs' introduction to India-Japan relations.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's high profile visit from August 22 will mark many similarities. His grandfather Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi visited Delhi 50 years ago, in 1957, and had a new chapter begun in bilateral ties with Jawaharlal Nehru.

Abe will meet another Congress prime minister and recall those happy days.

When the visit was finalised, Abe had a clear majority in the Diet -- the Japanese legislature -- and the India-United States nuclear deal was about to be inked.

Japan is one of the biggest suppliers of the best nuclear reactors.

So, apart from a planeload of over 200 CEOs, important business leaders and academic stalwarts -- like 10 vice-chancellors of top universities including Tokyo, Waseda and Keiyo -- in Abe's delegation, cooperation in the nuclear sector too was envisaged.

But, suddenly, the situation has changed in both countries.

The India-US nuclear deal has been signed but the Indian Left and Right are taking the government to task in an unprecedented unanimity in purpose, though their efforts remain as disunited as their ideological distance.

So far, threats by the Left do not seem to be translating into real ones and the United Progressive Alliance remains confident to sail through, with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh playing it cool.

In Tokyo, Abe's Liberal Democratic Party was reduced to a minority in the Upper House in elections held at the end of July, bringing the Democratic Party of Japan -- which is known, ironically, as the non-proliferation Taliban -- into a majority.

It won 60 out of the 121 seats contested, reducing the LDP to a minority in the Upper House for the first time in its history.

The DPJ leaders are uneasy about the India-US nuclear deal, and they call it an instrument weakening the international non-proliferation regime. Hence any talk of future civil nuclear cooperation between India and Japan is bound to face rough weather in Tokyo; unlike India, Japanese law requires all international agreements to be ratified by its parliament.

Any such agreement may not be readily welcomed by the DPJ. This showmanship of non-proliferation fundamentalism occurs even while Japan continues its supply of nuclear reactors to another nuclear power, China, quite uninterruptedly.

The LDP has a two-thirds majority in the Lower House, and even if a ruling party motion is defeated in the Upper House, it can pass it without having it sent to the Upper House for a second time. But, this cannot be done with every single government move. Therefore, the Treasury benches will have to tread cautiously while negotiating any major international agreement.

So, while Nehru and his Japanese counterpart were on a strong footing, 50 years later a bruised Prime Minister Singh will welcome an uncertain Prime Minister Abe.

So, what serious and far reaching results can be expected of the meeting, which had quite a high profile before the nuclear 'myths and the realities' syndrome caught South Block?

Frankly, domestic imbroglios will hardly affect the content and outcome of the bilateral meeting, since both governments have been consistent in pursuing a policy of intense economic cooperation for the last seven years, irrespective of the political colour and ideology of the seat of governance.

The foundation of this newly refurbished closeness was laid during the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-Yoshiro Mori interactions; it also fit well with our Look East policy. Mori visited India in August 2000 and Vajpayee paid a reciprocal visit to Japan in December 2001, the was first by an Indian prime minister in nine years. During Mori's India visit, a 'Global Partnership between Japan and India in the 21st Century' was formally established with exchanges on a wide range of issues like terrorism, Afghanistan, disarmament and non-proliferation, from both regional and global perspectives.

Vajpayee had deftly raised the issue of counter-terrorism and the need to support India tackling terrorism. When Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi raised the non-proliferation issue (Japan had imposed sanctions post Pokhran II), Vajpayee replied that India had carried out nuclear weapons testing as a defensive measure and had since continued a unilateral moratorium on testing, adding that he supported the total elimination of nuclear weapons.

Vajpayee also explained that India had tested because no other nation was in a position to help India during a time of difficulty, and that the removal of the causes that led to the nuclear weapons test would be the path to peace.

Gradually, the threads were picked up and the present India-Japan climate during Abe's visit can be modestly termed as the best 'cherry blossoming' season for bilateral ties.

The highlights of the Delhi-Tokyo talk's agenda will be: A nearly $100 billion Delhi-Mumbai fast track freight corridor (the Delhi Mumbai Industrial Corridor), a similar corridor for Kolkata, cooperation in counter-terrorism and security matters, and civil nuclear cooperation.

Presently, freight carrier service on tracks moves at an average speed of 30 to 40 km per hour. The DMIC's 1,483 km Dedicated Freight Corridor envisages an average speed of 100 kmph for high-axle load wagons. It will also have a tremendous impact on the overall economic development of six states -- Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharashtra.

The Union Cabinet has approved the project on August 16. It includes acquisition of huge areas of land in all these six states, as the DMIC will have a depth of 150 km on either side of the corridor, unless there is a coastline. The DMIC, to be finished and made operational by 2012, is appropriately being called the mother of all projects.

India expects a substantial part of the financial burden to be shared by the Japanese. Already, we are the largest recipient of the Japan's assistance, nearly a quarter of its worldwide disbursement. India looks for an enhanced help in infrastructure development and investments in Special Economic Zones to the tune of $10 billion to $12 billion.

More importantly, the India-Japan closeness can help equalize the power balance, which right now heavily favours China.

Indian and Japanese navies had a meaningful joint exercise in the Pacific this April. A similar exercise will follow in September, with the US and Australia. Reportedly, Singapore may also join the exercise, which will have an impressive show of fleet including the US aircraft carriers USS Nimitz and the USS Kitty Hawk and the Indian aircraft carrier INS Viraat, besides submarines and naval aircraft.

China is suspicious about the whole scenario, which it interprets as an effort to 'contain' and minimise its role in the region. India has been consistently trying to assuage Chinese apprehensions and even organized a joint army exercise with it in Chengdu this year.

Indian sources say China has never been happy with India's naturally increasing influence. They say it is China who tried to contain India -- it created hurdles in India joining the Association of South East Asian Nations, resisted India's membership to the East Asia Summit, and does not support New Delhi on Kashmir or on the issue of a Security Council seat. It helps Pakistan's and North Korea's nuclear ambitions and has virtually encircled Indian territory. Still India does not complain; then what is the point of China's exaggerated 'concerns' regarding India-Japan cooperation?

On the contrary, China too is hobnobbing with Japan; it is Japan's biggest trade partner, gets nuclear reactors from it and conducts joint exercises with the navies of Australia and New Zealand.

We should be satisfied with the progress made so far. Our security concerns remain our burden, and without bothering about the complaints or concerns of those who themselves are placed quite comfortably, our cherries should be allowed to flower unhindered.

There is a civilisational chemistry working magic between India and Japan; we recognise that mutually. Buddha remains our best bridge that provides a much-needed touch of the sublime and assures both China and Japan about our good intentions, which remain India centric.

At least here, Dr Manmohan Singh deserves a pat and an unconditional support.

Tarun Vijay is a former member of the ministry of external affairs' India-Japan Eminent Persons Group.

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