Focus on Japan

A marriage between India's young workforce and Japan's capital and technology could sustain long-term growth for both.

The long-awaited visit of prime minister Manmohan Singh to Japan will take place from May 27 to 30.  Accompanied by cabinet colleagues and senior government officials, Singh and wife Mrs Gursharan Kaur will be received in audience by the emperor and empress of Japan. Prime minister Shinzo Abe will hold a summit meeting with Singh on May 29. The visit is seen with high expectations as it comes at a crucial juncture for both the countries.

As a part of annual summit, Singh was to visit Japan in November 2012 but the trip had to be scrapped after a general election was called in Japan. Former prime minister Yasuhiko Noda’s visit in December 2011 had served as a good opportunity for both sides to enhance mutual trust and consolidate cooperation. Before Noda, Hatoyama Yukio had visited India in December 2009, which was followed by Singh’s return visit to Japan in October 2010. The broad spectrum of past talks between the two sides clearly demonstrated that both are strategically important to each other and Singh’s coming visit will not be any different.

The talks are expected to centre on issues such as infrastructure, energy, industry, nuclear and currency swap, the last with a view to stabilise their respective currencies.
The purpose of Singh’s visit will be to tap potential synergies between the two countries. Indeed, a marriage between India’s young workforce and Japan’s capital and technology could help build better infrastructure to sustain long-term growth.

Singh is also likely to push for a civil nuclear cooperation pact and Japan's possible export of nuclear power technologies to India. Negotiations for the accord have stalled since Japan was struck by a powerful earthquake in March 2011 and the subsequent nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. India is conscious of the fact that there is a domestic debate in Japan on the country’s future nuclear policy and India is willing to wait until Japan resolves the safety issue in the public domain before it moves forward. The accord on a legal framework for the peaceful use and transfer of nuclear technology would enable Japanese companies to export nuclear power generation equipment to India. 

It needs to be noted that on May 15, the Nuclear Regulation Authority ordered the Japan Atomic Energy Agency to not engage in further preparatory work to restart the trouble-plagued Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor until the operator improves its safety management to prevent a recurrence of trouble. Monju, located in Tsuruga, Fukui prefecture, is a core component of Japan’s nuclear fuel cycle project along with the spent nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in Rokkasho, Aomori prefecture.

Economic diplomacy

Also, besides the possibility of signing of infrastructure projects worth $15 billion, Singh is also expected to discuss export of Japan’s Shinkansen rail technology to India as a part of Tokyo’s efforts to promote economic diplomacy.  However, it would be too early for the two countries to reach a deal on the transfer of the Shinkansen system to India, as New Delhi needs to more closely examine the project’s financial aspects and priorities in railway system investment. India will look at Japan’s offer to provide the high-speed railway system “in all dimensions.” Both need to have some innovative thinking on how to realise this dream project.

Besides strengthening the strategic and global partnership between the two countries, the two leaders are expected to discuss regional and global issues of common interests. From Japan’s perspective, India is strategically important as it is located on sea lanes from the Middle East, where Japan gets much of its oil imports. Therefore, maritime security cooperation will always remain high on the agenda. In a recent speech in New Delhi, Aso called for more contact between the navies of the two countries to take maritime cooperation to a much higher level.

At this juncture of history when China has been displaying unnecessary assertiveness by flexing its bulging military muscle and racking up past history as well as territorial disputes with countries such as Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam and India without realising that its actions are driving these adversaries to find common grounds, Japan under Abe is ideally positioned to build a partnership to meet the China challenge. Being a nationalist, Abe is geared up to face China by advocating further expansion of ties with India.

In fact, in his previous tenure as the prime minister of Japan in 2006, he had surprised many when he predicted that Japan-India relations had the potential to overtake Japan-US and Japan-China ties. His deputy Taro Aso, recalled at a public gathering in Tokyo recently Abe’s speech in Indian Parliament then in which he had said that “a strong Japan was in the best interest of India, and a strong India was in the best interest of Japan”.

On the economic front, Japan is a major partner for the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor and has committed funds. The dedicated freight corridor, India’s high-speed rail system and the Chennai-Bangalore Industrial Corridor are other projects that will dramatically transform the economic component of India-Japan bilateral relations in the coming years. If one compares Japan-China trade ($300 billion) and India-China trade ($75 billion) with India-Japan trade ($20 billion), one gets a pessimistic picture. But given the political factors, these pale into insignificance as economy is run by private investors and things can change overnight if political situation are beneficial for business.

(The writer is a visiting faculty at JNU, New Delhi)

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