By Narayani Basu, Asia Times (www.atimes.com)
It’s been an interesting time recently on India’s foreign policy front vis-a-vis Japan. In December 2013, Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko arrived in the country on one of their rare overseas visits. They were followed by Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera, and now by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe – both in January. Abe’s visit is even more significant. He was the first Japanese prime minister to be the chief guest at India’s annual Republic Day parade and arrived as South Korean President Park Geun-Hye exited New Delhi.
In all fairness, the closeness of India’s ties to Japan shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. The two countries have a historic precedent of friendship, right from Japan’s Meiji era, to the modern post Cold War period. Bilateral ties have been marked by economic cooperation, which in the late 1950s meant Japanese Official Development Assistance, as well as the acknowledgement that both countries shared common views with regard to political strategy.
The recent closeness is particularly interesting, however, seen from the point of view of India’s much-vaunted Look East Policy. The strategy kicked off in the early 1990s as part of a bid to strengthen India’s economic and strategic engagements with countries in East Asia. Over the two decades since then, its vision has been hampered by the growing influence of China, and unexpected geopolitical volatility in the region.
In 2011, India and Japan began to get serious about their relationship, with the signing of the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA). Under CEPA, tariffs were slashed on more than 8,000 products, including apparel, agricultural products and machinery, labor and investments. It’s still too early to provide a clear confirmation with regard to the full impact of the CEPA, but it is certainly safe to rely on statistics.
Take for example the fact that India’s exports to Japan went up by 24%, while it imported 40% more from Japan. Trade volume figures for 2014 are projected to be US$25 billion, a substantial increase from $18.3 billion in 2013. As a source for capital and commercial technology, Japan has been indispensable for India. Japan has extended support to India for several infrastructural projects, such as the metro railway system in Delhi and Chennai, and industrial corridors, highways, bridges and power plants across the country.
This is not to say that everything along that road has been smooth going. Indo-Japan economic ties suffered a setback with the $3.9 billion meltdown of Ranbaxy Laboratories, which was taken over by Daiichi Sankyo.
In the field of defense and security cooperation, 2014 kicked off on a high note, with the two defense ministers agreeing to expand strategic cooperation over maritime security, counter-terrorism and anti-piracy operations. And later this year, India and Japan will hold their third 2+2 Dialogue (involving both foreign ministry and defense ministry officials) and their fourth Defense Policy Dialogue in New Delhi. The third bilateral exercise between the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force and the Indian Navy is also scheduled be held in Japanese waters. The two countries have decided to conduct staff exchanges and to discuss the potential of staff talks between Japan’s Self-Defense Forces and the Indian Air Force, along with the possibility of professional exchanges in the fields of flight safety and transport squadrons.
That this new intimacy in relations has come on the heels of the recent plunge in ties between the United States and India is undeniably ironical, but there is another equally unquestionable sub-text underneath all the warmth.
China is an important factor in the background of bilateral policy machinations. Japan’s recent spats with China over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea have been well covered and analyzed. None of it makes for particularly edifying reading, but certain common denominators stand out. A nasty mix of historical resentment, unresolved war disputes and ambiguous territorial claims have resulted in the current state of bilateral relations between China and Japan.
So much is China a factor for Japan that it has decided to end its 47-year-old self-imposed embargo on arms exports to India – with conditions attached. In return for the two armed versions of the U-2 amphibious aircraft, Tokyo is seeking to rope in Indian support over what it terms “recent Chinese provocative actions”. In his visit to India earlier this month, Defense Minister Onodera said that while China remains important for both India and Japan, its recent provocations demand that the entire international community sends a collective warning.
India’s take on all this may not be quite what Japan is looking for. New Delhi is taking on quite a balancing act – strengthening ties with Tokyo without upsetting its already rocky relationship with Beijing is a difficult foreign policy prospect. The official position from New Delhi on the issue is that it must be peacefully resolved via dialogue. India has also firmly stated that it is against the use of force to resolve matters.
China however is firmly on New Delhi’s mind, however. India is not content to sit in the wings anymore and is looking to broaden its own regional footprint. It has been leery of China’s growing influence for a while, and while it would prefer to maintain pan-Asian bilateral ties across the board with East Asian countries, it also recognizes that a concerted effort will certainly keep China in check.
This is an ideal moment to capitalize on the sub-text of the Look East policy. If this is done well, walking a foreign policy tightrope may, in the long run, be a small price to pay.
Narayani Basu is a freelance journalist, with a special interest in Chinese foreign policy, East Asian regional security and resource diplomacy in Africa and Antarctica.
(Copyright 2014 Narayani Basu)