Kanwal Sibal Says "It is Cherry Blossom Time in India-Japan Relations"

Commentary | January 23, 2014

Amb. Kanwal Sibal, an EWI board member, writes for the Hindustan Times on the warming of political and economic relations between India and Japan, amidst a changing balance of power in Asia. 

See the full piece here on the Hindustan Times

Politically speaking, it is cherry blossom time in India-Japan relations. For the first time in history, the Emperor and Empress of Japan visited India December last. That visit had great symbolic significance. Now Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visits India as chief guest at our Republic Day celebrations — the first Japanese leader to be so honoured. This event too has notable symbolic importance.

If political relations between India and Japan have been tepid all these years it is largely because Japan’s vision of its priorities in Asia has long excluded India. Other factors that have played their part in preventing India and Japan from drawing closer are — the weight of the United States influence on Japan’s policies, India’s nonaligned foreign policy during the Cold War, the non-proliferation issue on which Japan’s posture has been rigid, the closed Indian economy prior to 1991, Japan’s reluctance to over-extend itself by going beyond South-East Asia, and Japan’s massive focus on China in the wake of the US opening towards China.

India, on the other hand, has always admired Japan’s success as an Asian country, especially its technological prowess, even though Japan has seen itself belonging to a league beyond Asia. Now that Japan is reaching out to India, it faces no negative attitudes. India continues to think of Japan with a generosity of spirit that objectively lacks a solid basis. Japan’s generous development assistance to India even could be a factor, but other countries that have assisted us have not benefitted from this kind of positive feeling.

In recent years India-Japan relations have acquired political and economic substance. India’s integration with the global economy, its high growth rates in recent years, its success in certain sectors of the knowledge economy, the remarkable improvement of its ties with the US, its nuclear deal with the US and the exemption obtained from the Nuclear Suppliers Group, its desire to strengthen its Asian ties through its Look East policy, its participation in the Asean Regional Forum, the East Asia Summit, etc, have all created more convergence in India’s and Japan’s interests.

India and Japan have now established a strategic and global partnership for which various supportive mechanisms have been created, such as annual summits between leaders that India has only with Russia and a combined foreign affairs and defence ‘two plus two’ dialogue that India has with no other country. The relationship is being upgraded even in the sensitive defence field in which Japan still suffers from various inhibitions derived from its constitution and a strong public sentiment against militarism since 1945. Joint naval exercises have been held and air exercises have been agreed to during the visit of the Japanese defence minister to India earlier this month. Japan has offered to sell its amphibious US-2 aircraft to India — the first country to which it has offered a military sale.

Japan has gone through almost two decades of economic stagnation that has cost it considerable loss of national prestige too. Japan has been traditionally considered an economic giant but a political dwarf because of its subservience to the US foreign policy. With its economy caught in a trough, its international profile had got badly dented. As Japan slid into a slump, China has risen inexorably, altering their bilateral equations. They say that never in history have China and Japan risen together. This gives Abe’s determination to put Japan on the road to economic recovery and restore Japan’s international role a geopolitical meaning that will become clearer ahead.

Already China has begun to challenge Japan’s interests. Its trumped up quarrel with Japan over the Senkaku Islands, its nibbling tactics in questioning Japanese sovereignty over these islands as part of a wider strategy to assert its vast territorial claims in the South China Sea, its declaration of an Air Defence Identification Zone that covers the Senkakus, its campaign against the rise of Japanese militarism under Abe, the periodic regurgitation of its historical grievances against atrocities inflicted on China by Japan during the war years, its strident protests when Japanese leaders visit the Yasukuni Shrine, are all part of a strategy to browbeat Japan, obstruct its resurgence as that will pose a challenge to the Asian hegemony that China seeks, and, beyond that, to test the US-Japan relationship by making it appear that Abe is politically adventurous and can disturb the US-China equilibrium in the making. The real target of Chinese muscle-flexing is the American forward presence in the western Pacific as that prevents China from wielding untrammelled power in its neighbourhood and constrains China’s naval ambitions. China needs a strong navy to protect the lines of communication of its far flung energy and trade interests.

Japan’s economic stakes in China are huge; our own political and economic stakes in China are high, given China’s contiguity with us and our direct exposure to its power. Neither Japan nor India seek a confrontation with China, but both have a responsibility to build lines of defence against any disruptive exercise of power by a rising China.

Today, no other leader of a great power has such positive ideas about strengthening strategic ties with India as Abe. We have, therefore, a vested interest in his success in restoring Japan economically and politically, more so as almost no other country has the resources and technology to assist in modernising India’s physical and industrial infrastructure through flagship projects like the Delhi-Mumbai industrial and rail corridors and the Chennai-Bangalore industrial corridor.

The cherry blossoms will be in full bloom when Japan ends its foot-dragging on its nuclear agreement with India, a reticence on its part that is difficult to justify strategically and, therefore, needs overcoming expeditiously.

Photo Credit: Jason Karsh (2010)