Japanese premier Shinzo Abe’s tour of India was possibly the biggest sign of the growing relationship between Tokyo and New Delhi in the 21st century. Abe being the chief guest at the Republic Day parade, sitting next to President Pranab Mukherjee, and observing India’s cultural and military might, is being seen by many experts as a clear message being sent across the McMahon Line.
Even as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh faces heat at home over his government’s policy paralysis, which has led to a significant slowdown in India’s economic growth, Abe considers him as his “mentor” and “guru,” according to a cabinet secretary travelling with the Japanese delegation. This is Abe’s second visit to India as the premier, with the first one being in 2007, and this time he has upped the stakes significantly for New Delhi.
Prior to this visit, Japanese Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko also toured India. The royals, known for not leaving mainland Japan often, made their second trip to India, the first being nearly 53 years ago. The royal visit, followed by Abe’s, showcased the fast moving and dynamic relationship between the two countries.
Bilateral ties have been increasing at a steady pace with current trade being around $18.5 billion. Japanese companies have been part of India’s growth story for decades. For example, names such as Suzuki have been synonymous with India’s auto industry as a partner with State-run Maruti. Other companies such as Sony and Hitachi have made a big mark in the Indian market.
Even though bilateral trade is and has been healthy for many years now, the new urgency to collaborate on a political and, more importantly, strategic level comes with the furious growth in China’s economic and military might. Beijing’s recent strong-handedness in the Asia Pacific region has brought it at odds with many of its neighbours. Most recently, Japan and China have been at loggerheads with each other over a set of isolated islands in the South China Sea, known to Japan as Senkaku and to the Chinese as Diaoyu. To make matters more complicated, these islands are also claimed by South Korea. Both Tokyo and Beijing have often found their militaries playing hide and seek with each other around the islands, and strategic experts believe that the two countries could be one incident away from a conflict.
However, another narrative suggests that China’s strategy of provoking its neighbours is part of its calculated manoeuvres to study how they react to its territorial claims. The Communist Party is looking to bring back China to its pre-colonial glory, which includes making a strong stand on its own version of its territorial integrity. Even as China is solving its border issues with neighbours such as Mongolia, it remains persistent over its claims with India.
Like many of its counterparts in the West, Tokyo does not want China to be a hegemonic entity in Asia and India has been seen as an ideal counter-balance to China’s fast-growing influence. In the Asia Pacific region, Japan is not the only country that China has problems with. Others such as the Philippines and Vietnam have also recently come into friction with China over its claims in the South China Sea.
During Abe’s visit, many significant milestones that propel the Indo-Japanese relations to the next level were achieved. India is set to receive nearly $3 billion in aid to help build the Metro railway in Mumbai and expand Delhi’s, where Japan has put in money from the start. Furthermore, Tokyo has also shown interest in investing in the northeastern states, which significantly lag behind in infrastructure. China has longstanding border issues with India in that region, and when these interests were expressed by Japan, newspapers in China quoting local analysts seem to have brushed aside this growing partnership and have indicated that India can be persuaded to “tighten” its strategic ties with Tokyo.
This point brought up in the Chinese media raises the fresh dynamic of “strategic partnership” between Tokyo and New Delhi, and this push towards a new level of cooperation has shown considerable encouragement from Japan. In response, the defence ministry has given the green signal to invite Japan to the next Indo-US Malabar naval exercises. In 2007, China protested the Malabar exercises being held at that time in the Bay of Bengal as they were expanded to include the navies of Singapore, Australia and even Japan. This move was protested by China as military movements aimed at itself and its interests. To calm Beijing, New Delhi decided to keep the exercise largely between India and the US in the future.
Military exercises such as a potential India-US-Japan one is interpreted by China as a “strategic encirclement”, to which it has in the past reacted with aggression by moving its navy in South China Sea and stamping its claim on international waters as its own sovereign territory. Needless to say, the fact that India is now also in talks with Japan to buy 15 amphibious US-2i aircraft for its navy in a deal worth $1.6 billion shows Tokyo’s keenness to orchestrate a deep strategic partnership with New Delhi. For this defence deal, Japan is working around its own self-imposed ban on export of weapons by adapting the US-2i to a more civil configuration.
Abe’s visit has made Tokyo’s intentions clear on the kind of partnership it is looking for with New Delhi and the amount it is willing to commit. It is now up to India to see if it can reciprocate beyond military drills and economic cooperation. Until now, New Delhi has been careful in reacting to the Japanese premier’s enthusiasm.
However, one area where India is keen for Japan’s help and participation more than anything else is in a possible civil nuclear deal. Discussions have been going on for months and both leaders have shown resolve to bring the talks to a fruitful outcome. “Our negotiations towards an agreement for cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy have gained momentum in the past few months,” Manmohan Singh said in a statement after meeting Abe.
Abe said that they had agreed to continue talks “with the view for early conclusion”. The negotiations come at a time when Japan is in the midst of an anti-nuclear mood as a fallout of the 2011 Fukushima disaster.
Abe has firmly placed the ball in India’s court on taking the next step to strengthen the current largely economic relation into a strategic one. However, unfortunately for Abe, India does not boast of a very successful and proactive reciprocation record in the recent past. A deep strategic partnership with the likes of Japan would mean India engage China in a more confrontational mode, not just on its borders but the larger Asian region. China is still India’s biggest trading partner, and this fact alone could halt any dramatic plans by New Delhi to give the kind of assurances that Abe may be expecting.
Even though the nuclear deal may as well see the light of day in the near future, any major show of strategic trust, such as Japan agreeing to transfer defence technology to India or New Delhi making a statement on the near war-like situation between Japan and China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, may not take place any time soon.
However, both India and Japan have now laid the groundwork for a formidable partnership, which will have a big impact on both countries’ economies and for the larger Asia Pacific region.
Kabir Taneja is a freelance journalist specialising in foreign affairs and a scholar at Takshashila Institution