India, Japan Ties: Towards A New Architecture

Dr. Mohammed Badrul Alam

The India-Japan partnership is one of the important thrust areas of Japan’s new foreign policy. In the recent past, except Mori, Koizumi and Abe, other prime ministers have shown little enthusiasm for the improvement of relationship with India. However, that trend seems to be changing.

First, Indian political elite has increasingly looked to Japan as Japan steered towards India’s new proactive role as hard power, soft power and cultural super power in Asia and the world. Japanese leaders, born after Second World War and without its baggage, represented a new generation of leaders in Tokyo who believed that Japan should shed its defensive posture about its imperial past and become a “normal” power. Abe, Fukuda and Aso have pressed ahead with Koizumi’s agenda of unshackling Japan from its post Second World War political limitations and constitutional inhibitions on re-defining Self-Defense Forces and in taking new, visible security responsibilities in Asia and beyond. Unlike the rest of Asia particularly East Asia and South East Asia, which might be apprehensive about the profound and perceptible political change in view of Japan’s past and ‘painful’ history, India, which has no historical issue with Japan, is more welcoming and accommodating and can be considered its natural ally to be welcome aboard.

Second, the rise of China in recent years has compelled Japan to re-evaluate its own long-term options in Asia that some experts expect would devote all its energy in maximizing and promoting Chinese national interests in a realist sense. As Japan, much like the United States, hedges its bets against the unbridled rise of China, political and security cooperation with India has become important cornerstone of Japan’s new grand strategic calculus. However, Japan’s new emphasis on a “global and strategic partnership” with India by no means implies that the two want to ally against China. In an age of globalization and rapid economic integration in Asia, China is already the largest trading partner of Japan and is set to acquire a similar status with India. The trade volume between Japan and China or that between China and India is noticeably greater than that between India and Japan. Similarly, on people-people contact, while an average of 5.6 million travels between China and Japan a year, only 160,000 did so between India and Japan. The focus of both New Delhi and Tokyo is on widening the window of flexibility in their conduct of economic, foreign and security policies in Asia rather than seek containment of China’s power leverage that would provide no real benefits to any party either in the short term or intermediate term or long term.

Third, while China will remain the key partner for Japan, Tokyo under Taro Aso is inclined to invest and enter into important economic relationship for a possible multi-polar Asia. As a consequence, India has overtaken China as the largest recipient of Japan’s Overseas Development Assistance (ODA). As Japan has fallen behind China and Korea in taking advantage of India’s economic reforms, Prime Minister Taro Aso during his October 2008 meeting with India’s Prime minister, Dr.Manmohan Singh, highlighted the need for engaging India and its emerging economy. The result is the substantial progress made on Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) and Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) that will fully utilize the potential and natural complementarities between the two countries on a sustained, long term basis. The EPA, which is conceptually larger than a free trade agreement, is likely to engage the two countries to look beyond the traditional emphasis on ODA and soft loan aid from Tokyo.

Finally, for the first time in the last sixty years, Aso like Abe has injected the notion of shared political values into the bilateral discourse. Despite being two major working democracies in the world, the common vision to democracy has never figured in India-Japan relationship. With a firm commitment to openness and constructive engagement, the Indo-US nuclear deal, for example, promises to bring Japan in providing a helping hand to India in harnessing nuclear energy in its civilian sector.

As Asia, the largest continent, undergoes major transformation in terms of economic recession and power configurations, India and Japan are acutely aware of the need for political and security cooperation between the two countries for ensuring order, harmony, stability and equilibrium among the region’s great powers including China. Both the countries recognize that India-Japan cooperation and process of engagement cannot be sustained on sheer expediency but has to be firmly rooted in shared common values and interests in both economic and strategic terms beyond the ODA and Malabar exercise. That precisely is why Dr. Manmohan Singh and Taro Aso made a firm commitment to tap potential areas for ushering in new architecture of peace and cooperation in the region. In view of immense economic opportunities and geo-strategic compulsions between India and Japan on a variety of areas, one hopes that under Japan’s current Prime minister Taro Aso’s stewardship, the same momentum would be carried forward in 2009 and beyond toward a new paradigm of mutual benefit.

Author Note
Dr. Mohammed Badrul Alam is Professor of Political Science at Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi