Expand strategic ties

To build a genuine, long-term oriented strategic partnership, the two countries should find ways to expanding the base.

A known Indophile, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has acquired a rare distinction as far as his love affair with India is concerned: he was the first Japanese premier ever to address the joint session of the Indian Parliament in 2007 and again the first from that country to grace the Republic Day parade as its chief guest in 2014. It is equally remarkable that he, after resigning in 2007 for health and political reasons, pulled off a most unlikely victory in the December 2012 Lower House elections to take the reins of power for the second time, a rare feat in Japan.

Known for his right-wing, conservative views, besides hailing from a well-known political family, two issues dominated his second term in office. One, to pull the economy out of mire that has been virtually stuck in the vortex of deflation and a runaway budget deficit that by most accounts had reached almost unsustainable levels, and two, to deal with a China that is getting aggressive riding on its phenomenal rise by laying claims over the Senkaku islets in East China Sea that have been under Japanese administrative control for over a century.

On the economic front, Abe has proved the sceptics wrong by taking certain unorthodox initiatives. Of the three arrows that he prepared to fire, the first two have been close to the bull’s eye - both quantitative and qualitative monetary easing and huge public spending respectively, which have paid rich dividends by way of improved business sentiment in the country. The economy has picked up growth and the inflation target of 2 per cent appears achievable. The exports have gone up with the weakening of Yen and share prices have increased by over 70 per cent in the last two years. It, however, needs to be seen what unfolds in the third arrow representing a long-term strategy. 

China is the other issue that has dominated the discourse on Japan’s security. It is here probably that one can expect to see Abe’s role in fundamentally altering Japanese security perceptions and policies. Beijing exerting relentless pressure to acknowledge Senkakus as a dispute is not just one-off instance but an indication of a larger East Asian security dynamics that is undergoing fundamental shifts even as it strives to emerge as a pre-eminent power.

It appears that Beijing is using every opportunity to reiterate its status as a rising great power and to grab as much strategic space as it can. Its attempts to reorder the East Asian security architecture have already begun to push Japan to the margins even as Washington’s ‘rebalancing’ strategy faces uncertainty.

New course

Although security reforms have been going on especially since Koizumi time in the early 2000s, what Abe is trying to do is fundamentally different, which may result in a Japan that is far more strategically autonomous and self-reliant and taking proactive steps in courting friends and to counter challenges. He seems to understand the need to chart an entirely new course for Japan in dealing with China and in fashioning an East Asian security order. He has created a National Security Council, removed the self-imposed restraint on arms exports,  increased defence allocations and plans to acquire military capabilities, including the so-called offensive, to defend national interests.

It has to be seen in the context of the recent Chinese declaration of Air Defence Identification Zone that overlaps with that of Japan, and the Washington response that followed: that the US is most unlikely to risk a conflict with China for the sake of Japan. That over 36 per cent of Japanese have expressed distrust in earlier opinion polls over Washington’s security commitment to Japan corroborates this perception. Abe may be laying the foundation for a new Japan to emerge. Thus, in the evolving Japanese strategy, India becomes a key cog as both share the objective of a stable East Asia, which is possible only by building a viable regional balance of power.

India’s significance does not lie only as a potential counterweight to China but also because of its geo-strategic location, its formidable military and its rapidly expanding economy. Similarly, Japan’s utility should not be viewed from the limited perspective of China. Lest we forget, Japan played a pivotal role in the economic prosperity of virtually the entire region through generous aid, investments and technology transfers. The Japanese economy, despite last two decades of slowdown, remains the third largest.

A fraction of nearly US$18 trillion savings in its kitty can make a huge difference to India. With more than $ 36 billion, India already is the largest recipient of Japanese aid. Further, Japan continues to be leader in numerous niche advanced technologies, including civilian nuclear—Toshiba alone has more than a third of global reactor building capability. It is virtually impossible either for French Areva or the American General Electric and Westinghouse to build reactors as they source most critical components from Japanese counterparts. Tokyo’s inability to sign a nuclear deal with India should be seen in the backdrop of strong anti-nuclear public mood with Fukushima nuclear accident still hogging the headlines.

To build a genuine, long-term oriented strategic partnership, India and Japan should constantly find ways to expanding the base to encompass economic, strategic, political and cultural issues rather than focus narrowly on one or two issues. Otherwise, it is bound to lead to disappointments.

(The writer teaches at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)

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