Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Tokyo takes on an added significance because of New Delhi’s recent run-in with China. Indeed, there has been some speculation that the muscle flexing in Ladakh was an attempt to signal to New Delhi that Beijing will not lose focus on its border with India because of its confrontation with Japan over the Senkaku/Diayou islands. The Prime Minister’s decision to extend his trip to Tokyo was revealed on May 4, a day before India and China agreed to maintain status quo ante on the Depsang Plain. Given the context, there can be little doubt that this was a deliberate signal, prime ministerial schedules are not changed so late in the day on a whim.
Both Tokyo and New Delhi understand that closer ties — political, economic and military — will enable them to gain heft in their dealings with China. And both bring important complementalities onto the table. Japan has enormous investible funds and technological capabilities, both urgently needed by India.
Manmohan Singh and his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe are both committed to closer political relations between the two countries manifested by the institution of annual summits between the two countries which began in 2006 at the time of Abe’s first tenure as prime minister when the two countries recommitted themselves to a “strategic and global partnership” which was first articulated by Prime Ministers Yoshio Mori and Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2000.
There was a time in the 1980s when Japan thought that investing in China’s development would be a means of moderating Chinese hostility born out of the experience of the country at the hands of Japanese invaders in the 1930s. Japanese Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) was crucial to the first round of foreign investment in Chinese infrastructure and subsequently, Japanese companies, tens of thousands of them, played a major role in the rise of Chinese manufacturing.
But things began to come apart in the 2000s, as China rose, its old resentments against Japan resurfaced and the massive anti-Japanese protests of 2005 were a sign that Tokyo’s policy of befriending Beijing had failed. This coincided with a switch towards India and Japanese ODA to India increased dramatically and India is currently the largest single recipient of Japanese ODA. This period has also seen a sharp rise in Japan’s foreign direct investment in India and trade between the two countries has risen sharply and is likely to grow more in the coming years because of the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement that they signed in August 2011. From a policy of using India as a hedge against their Chinese investments, many Japanese companies are now placing their primary bets on India. A manifestation of the country’s commitment to India’s growth is manifested by the investments that Tokyo is making to develop the Delhi-Mumbai and Chennai-Bangalore freight corridors and their associated industrial zones.
India and Japan are not seeking to militarily contain China. Both are cautious countries. Japan is bound by its pacifist constitution and New Delhi is cautious to the point of exasperation. In March, for example, it pulled out of a trilateral naval exercise with Japan and the United States without any explanation and has made it known that it prefers to exercise bilaterally with countries like the US, Japan and Australia. Even so, both Tokyo and New Delhi are keen to offset Chinese economic and political clout in the Indo-Pacific region by synergising their relationship. It does help that both Tokyo and New Delhi have disputes with Beijing and are perturbed by its rise. And both are keeping their powder dry: India has been strengthening the forces on its border, while Japan’s Navy is still superior to that of China. The two sides do cooperate on a range of maritime security issues which are important for Japan because a large proportion of its oil imports go past the Indian peninsula and through the Straits of Malacca where the Indian Navy is the dominant force.
Japanese companies may not have embraced India with the passion that they once had for Japan, but Tokyo realises the value of Indian ties and the two governments are trying their best to smoothen the course of the relationship which has considerable strategic value.
Ironically, the key lever to the future of the Indo-Japanese relationship rests in the hands of Beijing. Its increasingly assertive behaviour has persuaded New Delhi and Tokyo to come closer to each other and to other like-minded democracies. At the same time, it has triggered off a quiet military build up targeting China. A little more “assertion” could well push New Delhi towards a closer relationship with the US-led alliance in the Indo-Pacific. This is something that the Chinese leadership may like to reflect on. But, perhaps, the Communist Party leadership does not have too many alternatives. Stoking the fires of nationalism seems to be an easier way of managing the country, than to loosen the reins of the Communist party dictatorship.
The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi