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India and Japan: Great Leap forward in Ties
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Dr Savitri Vishwanathan | Date:21 Jan , 2017 0 Comments
Dr Savitri Vishwanathan
was Professor of Japanese Studies at University of Delhi.

Japan is a “distant neighbour”. Yet, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made Japan his first destination in his schedule of visits to East Asia. Even as Chief Minister of Gujarat, he had visited Japan and established personal rapport with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. 

Abe was the first Japanese premier to be invited as chief guest at India’s Republic Day celebrations in January 2014 and Modi’s subsequent visit during the same year only indicates the continuation of the UPA’s policy. The goodwill visit of the Emperor and Empress of Japan in December 2013 also showed that India was given a place of honour in South Asia by Japan.

Can we say that India-Japan relations have gained momentum in the Modi era?

The huge mandate Modi obtained in the 2014 general elections raised his credibility that political stability will be maintained. The dynamic and decisive character of Modi increased the expectations in Japan of a great leap forward in relations.

In Modi’s first visit itself, the special strategic partnership was upgraded. In 2015, the fear of alienating China was set aside and Japan was invited to participate in the India-US Malabar naval exercises. Although India, Japan and the United States have been holding trilateral dialogues from 2011 itself, a further impetus was given during President Barrack Obama’s visit in January 2015. The joint statement affirmed the importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and overflights throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea. This indicated a break from the past.

In 2016, the conclusion of an agreement for cooperation in the peaceful use of nuclear energy, which has been pending for many years, could be considered a landmark in India’s relations with Japan.

The next pending issue is the ShinMaywa US-2 amphibious plane deal with the Indian Navy. This deal will, it appears, be of strategic advantage for India in view of the fact that China has attained superiority over the US in the acquisition of nuclear- powered submarines. It is also well known that China has been expanding military activities not only in the East China Sea, South China Sea but also in the Indian Ocean.

With the US-2 amphibious planes, India could project a stronger presence in the Indian Ocean. The plane could also be used in rescue operations and for disaster management.  For Japan, after her failure to export Soryu-class submarines to Australia, the effects of the conclusion of the US-2 deal will set a new mood for Japan-India defence cooperation.

Terrorism has been a growing concern for Japan although there have been no terrorist attack on the soil of Japan. Japanese nationals have been killed in terror attacks in other countries. India is one of the four outside bases selected for its intelligence gathering unit to collect information on terrorist activities.

Trade and investments got a new fillip with Modi’s visit to Japan in 2014 itself. An unprecedented move was the establishment of a special management team in the PMO which had two Japanese nominees to facilitate investment proposals from Japan and evaluate projects.

India had signed a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement with Japan in 2011 itself. India continues to be a major recipient of Japanese Official Development Assistance (ODA). Assuring the Japanese investors that he would improve the ease of doing business in India, Modi said there would be no “red tape” but that there will be a “red carpet” for Japanese investors.

The number of Japanese companies operating in India has increased from 627 in 2009 to 1,229 in 2016. Under “Make in India”, Japan has committed herself to increasing investments in India to $35 billion in the next five years. However, there is still a lot of scope for increase in bilateral trade.

Development, Modi’s mantra, has received much appreciation in Japan. The large infrastructure projects like improvement of roads in the Northeast and the Mumbai-Ahmedabad high-speed rail corridor project — for which Japan will not only undertake the building of the railroad but also transfer the most advanced technology of the high speed Shinkansen — have a particular significance.

Japan lost to China a Shinkansen project which she had offered to Indonesia. The successful conclusion of the agreement with India is a matter of great satisfaction for Japan. Secondly, Japan would be executing the project under ODA, which offers to India a longer term for repayment and a lower rate of interest. However unlike other projects under ODA, this will be a “tied aid” giving an advantage to Japan as all the equipment etc. will be imported from Japan giving  a boost to the big industries in Japan and  helping in the development of Japan’s economy,

Agreement for the improvement of roads in the Northeast has been done in spite of the ire it caused to China. Japan’s offer of assistance to India in the setting up of chemical and fertiliser units at the Iranian port of Chabahar has not been favourably viewed by China.

Apart from Japan assisting in the “Make in India” policy of Modi, she will also help in the upgradation of skills in the manufacturing sector. A programme of training 30,000 persons in 10 years has been planned. A Japan-India Institute for manufacturing will be set up in 2017. Centres will be established in Gujarat, Rajasthan and Karnataka.

The initiatives taken for the qualitative and quantitative increase in improvement of India-Japan economic cooperation have to be appreciated. In the 21st century, Japan is also paying greater attention to the big Indian market and the potential for development in India.

There has been a slight diversion of her interest from China. No doubt she has to compete with China and South Korea for her market and investments in India. Over the long years of her association with India, she has also started evaluating favourably the high level of skilled manpower in India. It is hoped that she will get over her hesitations about transfer of high level of technology to India. India can also absorb this and transfer it to other nations.

Japan, it is hoped, is moving away from the donor-donee syndrome and looks on her investments in India as mutually beneficial. The multiplier effect of the transfer of technology, which Japan herself experienced in her early modernisation days may be recalled.

The success of all inter-state projects depends on the understanding of the similarities and differences in the attitudes arising from different cultures.

First, it should be based on mutual respect for the cultures. Different historical backgrounds, social organisations have a definite influence on ways of thinking, inter-personal relations, etc.

Japan had a historical past of more than two centuries of isolation from the world and when she opened up first to the world, her policies were based on the premise that she had to fight against a hostile world for her own survival and also development to win a position of equality with the nations of the world. A country with very few resources concentrated on the development of her own human resource to carve out her place in the comity of nations.

This aspect was given the utmost priority even after her humiliating defeat in 1945, when she had to rebuild herself once again. While she attained perfection in this aspect, which gave her phenomenal success in developing the most advanced technologies, it is an uphill task for her while facing nations with multi-ethnicity, multi-languages, and multi-religions. She tends to impose her own modes of training, etc. on other cultures as well. Therefore, the success of any India-Japan project for cooperation will require an attempt to understand each other’s culture. The western concepts of modernization and western management techniques may not always apply in the case of Japan.

Japan has always stood first or second in the ranking of the most -liked nation in India. However, much greater effort is needed to understand each other’s perceptions. This alone will ensure minimum frictions while working together.

Japan does not pose a military threat to India. Nor is she wary of India’s development as a strong power in the region. Japan’s concept of Asia used to end with Burma (Myanmar). Now Japan wants India to be included as a nation of the Asia-Pacific region after having successfully promoted India to all the councils of ASEAN.

India moving closer to the US to protect her strategic interests removes all reservations Japan had in making India a partner in her own strategic and economic interest. Also, both India and Japan understand that they cannot give much assistance to each other on issues like India-Pakistan conflict in the case of India or the Northern Territories issue with Russia, in the case of Japan.

The fear of a future war in Asia and the nuclear allergy of the people of Japan, who have experienced the horrors of an atom bomb, might pose obstacles in Japan’s export of defence equipment and nuclear technology. However, India”s sincere efforts not to contribute to nuclear proliferation would bring the two nations closer. India and Japan promote and support each other in their claim to become a member of the UN Security Council to achieve their common objective of preserving peace in the world.


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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

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