Engage robustly

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Japan will not only give bilateral relations a much-needed boost but also push India’s ‘Look East policy’. The Joint Statement issued at the end of Singh’s visit draws attention to stepped up co-operation in a range of areas. The most visible, of course, is Japan’s role in improving India’s creaking infrastructure. Several industrial and freight corridors are at various stages of completion.

High-speed trains are in the pipeline. The two sides have not only pledged to enhance defence co-operation in the coming years but are hoping to finalise a civilian nuclear deal within the next couple of years. But for occasional hiccup, bilateral relations have been warm. Following the signing of a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement in 2011 trade increased by 38 per cent. Still, it is hard to dispel the feeling that the full potential of the India-Japan co-operation is yet to be realised. The two economies are after all complementary – Japan excels in precision hardware, India is known for its software skills. However, it is in the area of strategic co-operation that India and Japan have hesitated for far too long. It was only in 2008 that they signed a security pact. And in June last year for the first time ever the two countries’ navies participated in a bilateral joint naval exercise. During Singh’s visit the two sides have pledged to regularise and increase the frequency of these exercises.

Fear of ruffling feathers in Beijing is the reason for the timidity of India and Japan. Indeed, on the eve of Singh’s visit to Japan, a report in People’s Daily, mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, breathed fire on Japan and described its leaders as behaving like “petty burglars” on China related issues. However, Delhi and Tokyo must not allow themselves to be intimidated.  As sovereign states they have the right to conduct their diplomacy in the way they wish.

While China’s increasing bellicosity towards its neighbours is an important driver of growing India-Japan proximity, there are other shared interests as well. Japan is concerned over the safety of sea lanes in the Indian Ocean and is looking to India to help in combating piracy in these waters. India is keen to play a role in the emerging security framework in the Indo-Pacific region and close ties with Japan is a step in that direction. Hesitation in engaging with each other will not help India or Japan fulfil their ambitions or protect their interests.

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