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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 51, December 7, 2013

India-Japan: Waiting for the Defining Moment

Saturday 7 December 2013, by Uttam Sen


India, China and Japan have been treading lightly while doomsday scenarios abounded barely a week ago. Japan’s discovery of India (tenjiku, the divine land) via China following Buddhism’s passage to East Asia between the sixth and eighth centuries sounds remote today but the memory has not been entirely lost in the mists of time. Even contemporary Chinese scholars insist that the quest for harmony, (rather than uniformity) is their civilisational inheritance. In the hour of need agreement has to be struck amidst considerable diversity. The situation involving two of the three appeared perilous. China’s declaration of an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) on November 23 over disputed parts of the East China Sea unsurprisingly annoyed neighbours like the Japanese and the South Koreans. (The ADIZ is a defined area in international space with which a country tracks and identifies aircraft heading towards its territory.) On November 26 the US flew unarmed B-52 bombers through the ADIZ signalling its rejection of the measure, but did not draw blood. On its part China claimed that it had identified aircraft and dispatched fighter jets to trail 12 American and Japanese aircraft. The Chinese also announced that the air zones came after Japan and South Korea had set up their facilities.

According to another influential hypothesis, President Jinping’s pro-market stand at the recent party plenum had aroused a compelling Chinese patriotism which was being assuaged by an expression of ultra nationalism. The outcome will probably make the Chinese leadership reconsider and find a less troublesome vent. The Japanese would be aware of the play. The indications for “harmony” are favourable.

Both sides have their own equations with the US, which the American Vice-President, Joe Biden, probably underscored in his visit to the two countries and South Korea in the first week of this month.

Neither the Chinese nor the Japanese have whittled down their respective positions. They reiterate them from time to time. The intimation of doom was contained in the analogy drawn with the outbreak of the First World War when an assassination in the Balkans had stirred up a hornet’s nest in Europe. The absence of effective mediatory machinery is cited as the other parallel. Yet Japan and China are doing business as usual. When Emperor Akhihito and Empress Michiko set foot on India last week, the first by Japanese royalty in South Asia, China quickly welcomed the event.

If India and Japan are part of the putative encirclement of China, the latter’s outfit, to secure sea lines shadowing the Indian peninsula known in local parlance as the “string of pearls” as christened by a foreign defence report, does not exist by that name in the Chinese lexicon. (But it is bound to cause concern on the Indian side.) Japan takes the “pivot” alignment with a pinch of salt. Nonetheless, Indo-Japanese strategic cooperation is bona fide to the extent, among other things, that a bilateral Prime Minister-level meeting is held annually, apart from several ministerial rounds. India observes the first part of the protocol only with Russia. Some quarters perceive a shared future in the production of weapons systems and missile defences. The closeness has made an impression on the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) which demonstrates more fellow feeling with its Indian counterparts now than before.

Yet with the Japanese categorically main-taining that the visit was not in any way directed against China, the periodic Sino-Indian recrimination over some well-known issues has been glossed over. The Indo-Japanese dialogue has been left free to focus on essentials. The ongoing state of affairs remains unchanged despite difficulties.

Sino-Japanese rivalry did not get in the way of Japanese investment in infrastructural development in the early 1990s which spurred the greatest growth story of our times. The royalty is aloof from politics, but its ceremonial presence is invested with great moment and symbolism. The royal couple had visited China in 1992!

Japan is the source of the highest official foreign development assistance in India. It is a major investor, particularly in developing infrastructure. Japan helped implement the Delhi Metro, is involved in the Delhi-Mumbai Western freight corridor and the Bangalore Metro. A comprehensive economic partnership agreement was implemented in 2001. Yet India’s bilateral trade with Japan is paltry, dwarfed by the corresponding Sino-Japanese figure.

India has a proclaimed friend in the Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, who had declared “India’s success is in Japan’s interest and Japan’s success is in the interest of India”. This has not translated in another area, namely, nuclear energy. Japan had imposed sanctions on India after the Pokhran blast. Additionally, anti-nuclear activism over Kudankulam has queered the pitch. At least till the time of writing, the two sides had not sorted out the prickly matter of India signing the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) as a precursor to an agreement on the peaceful use of nuclear energy. India’s known position is that the NPT is discriminatory and superfluous in the light of the country’s existing non-proliferation credentials. Yet there is hope of a significant advance in future.

One issue links all three countries on a demo-graphic reckoning. Both Japan and China have ageing populations while India presents an incredibly youthful profile. We could be out-sourcing human capital in IT and the services sector on a major basis some day. The scope for complementarities is infinite, for example, Japanese manufacturing, technology and finance and Indian services. Soaking up the model of the first Asian industrial power which put a premium on universal education to get there has added salience for India.

The Japanese showed interest and curiosity in the Indian condition from a historical perspective. Incipient 19th century collaboration (for example, sericulture in Mysore, shipping with the Tatas) was rudely shaken by factors inimical to indigenous growth. Japan’s base for industrialisation was facilitated by raw material imports from India like cotton and cotton yarn for its textile industry. Japan traded with cotton growers and established several ginning factories, and exported silk yarn and silk products to India. Indian savants and statesmen from Swami Vivekananda to Jamsetji Nusser-wanji Tata, founder of the Tata group of companies, and Sir M. Visveshwariah, engineer and scholar, visited Japan and wanted India to look East.

When India is trying to pick up the threads, manifest political maturity augurs well for mutually beneficial accommodation on a fairly ambitious scale. The defining moment could be looming in an ambience of self-sufficing containment.

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