With global geopolitics in a state of flux, deepening Indo-Japanese engagement augurs well for the future
For a people and a polity that sets great store by gestures and reads deep meaning into matters of ‘face’, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hosting his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi at a retreat near the revered Mount Fuji, in many ways the symbol of all that is Japanese, where the two leaders spent eight hours together in informal talks before proceeding to Tokyo together for a formal summit, sends out a clear message on the priority accorded by Japan to bilateral relations between the two Asian democracies. Modi, who arrived in Japan on Saturday evening to attend the 13th India-Japan annual summit, and his host Abe, share great personal chemistry which also reflects the synergies that both nations have recognised and are building on. Though aid has been forthcoming for New Delhi from Tokyo since the late 1950s, the next four decades saw a cordial relationship which was not troubled by any meaningful engagement. Then came the dark days of the late 1990s when Japan was possibly the leading global critic of India’s decision to conduct nuclear tests at Pokhran and pressed for punitive sanctions against India. At one stage, Japan was also handing out assurances to India’s bete noire Pakistan on raising the Kashmir issue at global fora including the United Nations Security Council. From that low, to today’s high where an Indo-Japanese special strategic partnership is being headlined and an intensive defence-security engagement has become an integral part of the strategic rubric of both nations built on a bedrock of deepening economic ties, it has been a story of assiduous, if initially tentative, reaching out by successive political leaderships of both countries.
Three factors which have influenced this rapprochement and continue to be important in the joint vision for the future are the role of the US, the issue of China and the economic liberalisation process in India. Experts have pointed out that one of the main triggers for Japanese outreach post-Pokhran was the successful five-day India visit of President Bill Clinton in March 2000, which itself was the work of deep engagement with Washington by key interlocutors of the AB Vajpayee regime including but not limited to Cabinet minister Jaswant Singh and US ambassador Naresh Chandra. Realising it may have over-reacted by not factoring in New Delhi’s regional security concerns, Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori visited India in August the same year and things got better from then on. Today, Washington, despite the Trump Administration’s unpredictability that’s causing some heartburn in both India and Japan, relies for its strategic architecture in Asia on the continent’s largest richest and largest democracies, with Australia thrown in. Linked to this alignment of strategic interests of the quadrilateral, as it were, is the need all its members feel to ensure a counter-balance to China’s increasing economic and military heft which started manifesting itself as expansionism at the turn of the millennium. It has become a prime security concern for India, Japan and the US over the past two decades even as all three countries remain committed to staying engaged with Beijing economically and on larger global issues such as climate change. Last but not least, a liberalised Indian economy was and continues to be the key driver of India-Japan ties. Japan was the third-largest FDI partner for India last year with investments of close to five billion dollar. This is apart from the annual development aid which comes to India from Japan of three billion dollar. The Japanese government and private sector have become key partners in India’s push to upgrade its infrastructure too, a far cry from the days of ‘all aid, no trade’ ties between Tokyo and New Delhi. The future looks bright.