This week’s four-day visit by the Japanese defence minister, Itsunori Onodera, marks a new milestone in India-Japan relations, sandwiched as it is between the visit of Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, and the presence of Shinzo Abe, the Japanese prime minister, at this month’s Republic Day parade.
Fumio Kishida, Japan’s foreign minister, says in his government’s Diplomatic Bluebook that strengthening the Japan-US Alliance, which he calls “the linchpin of Japan’s diplomacy and security”, is “the first pillar” of Japan’s foreign policy. Given this priority, Tokyo cannot have been especially grateful for Jawaharlal Nehru’s boycott of the 1951 San Francisco Peace Conference and rejection of the treaty to end World War Two that the Americans drew up, or for India’s grand gesture of refusing war reparations and drawing up a separate bilateral peace pact.
India-Japan relations drifted into a cul de sac even in the 1960s. Nobusuke Kishi became prime minister in February 1957, and visited India in May. Hayato Ikeda succeeded Kishi in July 1960, and visited India in November. Those two visits highlighted Japanese expectations, but it was 23 years before another Japanese prime minister, Yasuhiro Nakasone, thought New Delhi worth a visit. Then, as India began tentatively to respond to altered global conditions, Toshiki Kaifu travelled to India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka in the spring of 1990. The first two visits in quick succession, the long interval, and then the shorter gap of six years, provided a thermometer of India’s economic health.
The second pillar of Kishida’s foreign policy is to strengthen relations with neighbouring countries, especially the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. India ranks far lower in Japan’s priorities. Yet, in 1958, India became the first developing country Japan considered worthy of economic assistance. In the 1960s, India was Japan’s single biggest supplier of iron ore and cotton. By 1980, India’s share of Japanese imports of iron had dropped from 30 per cent to 13 per cent, while Japan’s cotton imports from India decreased by 50 per cent. Tokyo found it simpler to develop iron ore mines in Australia than to cope with India’s complicated and time-consuming procedures and suspicion of foreign corporations and capitalist economics.
As the two Asian democracies drifted apart, Indians may have felt inadequately rewarded for the courage of Radhabinod Pal’s dissenting opinion as a member of the 11-member international military tribunal after World War Two. It’s not that the Japanese have forgotten. But remembering is determined by other considerations. As Abe told India’s Parliament in 2007, “Justice Pal is highly respected even today by many Japanese for the noble spirit of courage he exhibited during the international military tribunal for the Far East.”
Japan’s withdrawal from the region — South Asia’s share of Japan’s total imports dropped from 3.2 per cent to 0.9 per cent between the 1960s and 1980s — was partly a result of India’s closed door policies. Barriers were high and tight, erected in the name of import substitution, self-sufficiency and conservation of foreign exchange. Purist disapproval of Western consumerism sanctified isolation. When he was chairman of the Bank of Tokyo, Toyoo Gyohten, suggested consolingly that India was the victim of success. Having fought for Independence, it shut out foreign influence. A well-established political, legal and financial system was a deterrent to learning from others. The accolades won by higher education made mass education seem unimportant. India’s stable social structure made governments “less anxious to generate nationwide zeal for economic development,” he said, in a paper published by the Rajiv Gandhi Institute for Contemporary Studies.
It bears recalling in this context that Japan was not at all keen on admitting India as a member when the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum was set up in 1989 on the three pillars of trade and investment liberalisation, business facilitation and economic and technical cooperation. A senior Japanese diplomat told me then that India didn’t fall in his definition of Asia, as it had not been occupied by imperial Japanese troops during World War Two. I had to remind him of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Manipur, Nagaland and the Battle of Kohima. It made no difference. What did make a difference were the reforms and the Look East policy P V Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh initiated in 1991.
In recent decades, Japan has quietly extended financial and technical support to several infrastructure projects here, ranging from underground railways to industrial corridors, dedicated freight corridors, highways, bridges and power plants, besides such areas as water and sanitation, health, education and agriculture. Like their American peers, Japanese companies also see India as a potential market. Maruti-Suzuki revolutionised India’s automobile industry. The India-Japan Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, which came into force in 2011, is expected to give a greater fillip to trade, which stands today at a modest $18 billion. Even this year’s target of $25 billion is well below the potential, as are Japanese direct investment and corporate penetration.
None of this seems as significant as the strategic relationship that owes much to Abe’s enthusiasm for India during his first term as premier, when he declared that “a strong India is in the best interest of Japan and a strong Japan is in the best interest of India.” Also that the “Japan-India relationship is blessed with the largest potential for development of any bilateral relationship anywhere in the world.” Formal defence ties between the two countries have led to joint military exercises and hopes of an India-Japan civil nuclear agreement. Although influential sections of Japan’s political establishment oppose this, such an agreement would give an impetus to India’s ambitious nuclear power programme, which has not yet taken off, despite the landmark India-US agreement.
Commonalities between India and Japan are not new. What is new is the China factor. The American strategic planner, Russell H. Fifield, prophesied in the 1960s, “Neither India nor Japan, acting alone, is likely to become an effective counterweight to China, but acting together, they could have an important role in creating a stable pattern of power among Asian states.” A belated appreciation of this contingency explains the Diplomatic Bluebook’s statement, “Japan has been striving to further strengthen relations with India, with which Japan established the Strategic and Global Partnership in 2006 and share such values as democracy and the rule of law, in a wide range of areas, including in the field of security, economy and people-to-people exchanges.” China’s Air Defence Identification Zone is the latest argument for an alliance, but even this provocation may not suffice to sustain Japanese interest, unless India’s economic performance lives up to expectations. After all, Japan’s emperor and empress visited India in 1960 as crown prince and crown princess. Nothing much happened then because foreign policy, like charity, begins at home.
SUNANDA K. DATTA-RAY