Passage to India
The six-day visit of Japanese Emperor Akihito and his wife Empress Michiko to India is significant. Not only is this the first time that a Japanese emperor is visiting a South Asian country – Akihito visited India 53 years ago when he was the crown prince - but also, it is symbolic of the priority that Japan accords India.
India had invited the emperor a decade ago. His visit now is believed to have come on the urging of the Japanese cabinet, indicating the importance that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government is giving India.
Reciprocating Japan’s gesture, India too is pulling out all the stops to make the imperial visit special. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was at the airport to welcome the emperor, a departure from protocol that was witnessed during the visits of US Presidents George Bush and Barack Obama, and the Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. While the emperor is merely the ‘symbol of the state’ under the Japanese constitution, his rare visits abroad have signalled a shift in Japan’s bilateral relations. His visit to China in 1992 marked the start of deepening Sino-Japanese ties. It is in this context that Akihito’s India visit must be seen. Already growing India-Japan relations are poised to expand.
India- Japan relations have deep civilisational roots. Both countries are democracies and their economies are complementary rather than competitive. Japan is India’s largest aid donor too. Importantly, the two countries also share concerns over an increasingly assertive China. Japan has gone to great lengths to underscore that Emperor Akihito’s visit is “non-political” and not aimed at “countering” China. Indeed, it would be a pity if a historic visit were to be reduced to preoccupation with a single issue – a rising China.
While concerns over China are understandable, Delhi must avoid being seen to be part of anti-China groupings as an insecure China is not in India’s long-term security interests. There are areas in which India and Japan, perhaps China too, can work together.
Ensuring the security of sea lanes in the Indian Ocean is important to all three countries as their economies run on oil carried by tankers plying its waters.
Akihito’s visit marks the start of a new era in India-Japan relations. Abe will follow the emperor to India next month, when several deals will be sealed, perhaps one on nuclear co-operation too. But India and Japan need to move beyond bilateral issues to take the lead in crafting an Asian security framework that is based on co-operation, rather than conflict and confrontation.