A royal opportunity

In a rare visit abroad, the six-day India visit of Japan’s Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, that started on November 30 is bound to catapult India-Japan bilateral ties to a higher scale and give an uplift to the burgeoning economic and strategic content to the relationship.

That India is an emerging economy is an established fact and Japan takes cognizance of this. The suffering of the Japanese economy from prolonged recession for the past two decades coincides with its deteriorating relations with China following Chinese assertiveness in regional issues and raking up the shadow of the past.

This provides a good opportunity for India and Japan to sculpt a partnership and thereby hone their economic and strategic complementarity for mutual benefit and for the region. In this background, the visit of the Emperor and Empress conveys much more than the symbolism attached to it and thus a huge milestone.

Fifty three years ago in November-December 1960, the Emperor and Empress visited India as crown prince and crown princess on their honey moon. Both retain fond memories and cherish the warmth and greeting they received at that time. That time, the royal couple in their mid-twenties had met then president Rajendra Prasad, vice president Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. They had travelled from Kolkata to Mumbai and visited various places on the way. Both cherish the memories of having firsthand experience of seeing India’s rich cultural heritage and history.

On Sunday, December 1, they took a stroll at the historic Lodi garden and exchanged pleasantries with school children. Before visiting Chennai, the royal couple met president Pranab Mukherjee, who had met them in the past in his capacity as India’s external affairs minister and with prime minister Manmohan Singh to renew the acquaintance.

The Jawaharlal Nehru University welcomed the royal couple on December 2 where they visited the Centre for Japanese Studies in the School of Languages, Literature & Culture Studies and the Library, besides meeting the Vice Chancellor. This is indeed a rare honour to the prestigious academic institution of the country. The JNU has been the pioneering institution in teaching the Japanese language and spreading knowledge of Japan’s history, culture, literature and foreign relations and can boast of having produced a galaxy of Japanologists whose contribution to India-Japan relations remains unmatched. The University will surely get a fillip in its future efforts from the royal visit to its campus.

The kind of importance that India attaches to its relations with Japan can be discerned from the fact that prime minister Singh and his wife Gursharan Kaur personally received the royal couple at the airport, a departure from the usual protocol. The Prime Minister had thrice earlier set aside protocol to receive visiting dignitaries – then US president George W Bush in 2006, Saudi King Abdullah bin Saud in 2006 and US president Barack Obama in 2010.

Bilateral ties

Japan’s Emperor is the nominal head of state and does not enjoy political powers. But the symbolism attached to the Emperor’s visit to any country signals a peak in bilateral ties. The visit of the royal couple is therefore a huge milestone in the fast-evolving partnership between Asia’s two leading democracies, whose strategic interests are converging. Though Japan has a 2,600-year history of monarchy and can boast of the world’s oldest continuous hereditary royalty despite navigating through tumultuous phases in the country’s evolution as a mature democracy and the only country in history of being a victim of nuclear bomb, and despite the old civilisational links that both India and Japan share over centuries, no other Japanese Emperor had ever visited India notwithstanding the reference made in Japan about India as Tenjiku or the heavenly country.
Notwithstanding the strategic substance to the imperial symbolism attached to the visit, the fact that Japan decided to send the royal couple to India at this critical juncture means that Japan wants to deepen strategic ties with India. India is responding positively. It transpires that mutual concern about China is the trigger, in particular China’s aggressive stance on territorial disputes targeting the Himalayas, the Senkaku islands and the South China Sea.

Japan is a strategic ally of the US and this coincides with India warming of ties with the US warming. This is another factor that is driving India-Japan strategic bonding. Like Japan, other Asian countries also want to take India on board in crucial decision-making process on Asia’s regional issues that are contentious as India’s approach of decision-making is through dialogue aimed at reaching consensus as against Chinese approach to meet the goals by coercive means. That is why India commands respect and China does not. Apart from economic imperatives, geopolitical considerations will propel both India and Japan to deepen ties and the royal visit is a huge milestone in this direction.

Japan’s investment in India is not as much as expected largely because of perceptional gaps. India needs to address this issue. But India can take a message from the fact that the visit of the royal couple to China in 1992 heralded a sharp upswing in Japan’s trade and investment with China, making China soon as the world’s major manufacturing hub. With the recent aggressive stances of China on territorial issues in the East China Sea, leading to deteriorating Japan-China ties in recent times, can India seize the opportunity to take India-Japan ties to a higher pedestal by injecting a stronger spine to the economic and strategic contents? These are huge challenges as well opportunities for the political leaders of both India and Japan.

(The writer is a visiting faculty at the Centre for Japanese Studies, JNU, New Delhi)

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