Old Friends, New Challenges
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By K G Suresh

India's relations with Japan are important not only for its economic development but also because Japan is India's natural and indispensable ally in its quest for stability and peace in the region, especially in the Indo-Pacific and East Asia.

Of all the recent summit-level meetings Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had with the leadership of different countries last month, perhaps the most significant was his engagement with the Japanese leadership.

While a grave trust deficit remains at the core of the relations with China in the backdrop of Beijing’s expansionist agenda, uncertainty prevails on the relationship with Afghanistan in the light of the proposed withdrawal of North Atlantic Treaty Organisation troops, the growing strength of the Taliban and the volatile ties with Pakistan.

In contrast, India and Japan have shared fraternal ties since time immemorial. Exchanges between the two nations date back to the 6th century. Indian Buddhist priests, who migrated to Japan through Korea, laid the first foundations of people-to-people relationships between the two countries. Ties were then renewed in the Meiji Era when Shourindramohan Tagore of Kolkata sent three musical instruments to Emperor Mutsuhito in 1877. In the days before independence, Rabindranath Tagore, who visited Japan several times, pioneered efforts to bring the two nations together.

India and Japan signed a peace treaty and established diplomatic relations on April 28, 1952. Ever since, the two countries have enjoyed cordial relations. In the post World War II period, India’s iron ore helped Japan in its recovery from devastation and since 1986 while Japan continues to be India’s largest aid donor.

Prime Minister Singh’s visit also assumed significance as it took place in the backdrop of the recent Chinese incursions across the Line of Control in Ladakh as also Beijing’s aggressive postures vis-a-vis the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in East China sea currently under Japanese control, besides its obstinacy in South China sea.

In the political and security fields, the two Prime Ministers decided to further improve joint maritime exercises between the Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force and the Indian Navy as well as to establish a Joint Working Group on the US-2 amphibian aircraft, while on civil nuclear cooperation, the two leaders confirmed that their countries would accelerate negotiations for the early conclusion of a bilateral agreement on cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

Apart from Japan deciding to provide 17.7 billion yen for the Campus Development Project to Institute of Technology, Hyderabad (Phase 2), the two countries agreed to cooperate in the areas of large-scale infrastructure and energy projects including the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor and high speed railway system in India.

The Chinese nervousness over these developments was apparent from a recent article in the state-run Global Times, which said strategic cooperation with Japan “can only bring trouble to India”. It also expressed apprehension that there may be some tacit understanding in strategic cooperation between India and Japan, “given the long-lasting islands’ dispute and China-India border confrontation”.

Notwithstanding China’s reservations, both Japan and India share a symbiotic relationship. It is not just India that needs Japan; it’s a two-way street. In its assessment of Mr Singh’s visit, the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated in unambiguous terms that, “India is strategically an important country for Japan, sharing such basic values as freedom, democracy, fundamental human rights and the rule of law, and positioned on sea lanes between the Middle East and East Asia.”

Addressing the capital’s intelligentsia close on the heels of the Prime Minister’s visit, Yasuhisa Kawamura, Charge’ d’Affaires at the Japanese Embassy in Delhi said, “A strong India is in Japan’s interest and a strong Japan is in India’s interest.”

Launching the Joint Study on ‘Framework for Indo-Japanese Strategic Partnership and Cooperation’ conducted by the Vivekananda International Foundation and the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals on the occasion, its patron and former Lok Sabha Speaker PA Sangma said, “Apart from a shared history and strategic concerns, both nations also had an enormous capacity to absorb crisis and face challenges”.

In fact, the study, a key document pertaining to the future of ties between the two countries, identifies the irritants and impediments in the relationship and suggests measures to remove them and further strengthen ties in the days to come. Recognising the numerous complementary attributes of the two countries, the study recommends that they use them for establishing an ‘Asian Concert’ with other democracies in the region.

Noting that the potential to develop industrial relations between India and Japan is huge, the study regrets that it still remains largely untapped. “There remains certain institutional and political constraints which prohibit growth of industrial and technological cooperation, especially in strategic industries.

Japan had been one of the top five investors in India for long. However, other countries have surpassed Japan in terms of their investment and market share in Indian economy. Although India continued to have the top ranking as a promising country in the long term, in surveys conducted by the Japan Bank of International Cooperation, Japanese investments in 2011-12 accounted for just four per cent of the total foreign direct investment inflows into India. Ironically, as against over 16,000 Japanese companies doing business in China, only 300 firms are engaged in India. Dividend distribution tax, Transfer price taxation, Priority sector lending, and upper limit on FDI in insurance sector have been some of the key factors impeding greater Japanese investment in India. It is time both countries thrash out these irritants for mutual benefit.

Of late, Chinese maritime assertiveness has risen rapidly in the South China Sea, East China Sea, the Yellow Sea, and in the Indian Ocean Region. China has also redoubled its efforts to establish and strengthen Strategic Land Bridges and a String of Pearl from the Middle-East through the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea, to meet its energy and natural resources’ demands. The tactics used to achieve the strategic goals pose a grave threat to the interests of many nation-states in the region. To counter-balance the Chinese goal of occupying the Asian continental space, the study proposes that the concerned states develop a Rimland security approach, wherein India, Japan, South Korea and the littoral countries of Southeast Asia develop strategic partnerships to ensure preservation of peace and stability in the region.

Underlining the fact that China will use its veto against the inclusion of India or Japan as permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, the study advocates that both countries lay greater emphasis on other international forums such as the East-Asian Summit, Asean+6, G20, etc, where the two have rights at par with all other countries.

The relations between the two countries need to be strengthened at the people to people level too. While there is a bit of Japan in every Indian today, from the ubiquitous Maruti to popular cartoon characters, it is essential that there is enhanced learning of Japanese language in Indian institutions and Indian languages in Japan. While French has become passé, German is taught even in Kendriya Vidyalayas and efforts are on to include Mandarin in the Central Board of Secondary Education curriculum, more and more Government and private educational institutions should offer Japanese as a subject. It would also contribute to employment generation. The Japanese Government and corporate should chip in to make this a success.

India’s relations with Japan are important not only for its economic development but also because Japan is India’s natural and indispensable ally in its quest for stability and peace in Asia, particularly, East Asia and the Indo-Pacific.

(The writer is a Senior Fellow and Editor with Vivekananda International Foundation)

Published in The Pioneer on 10th June 2013

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