Written by Avantika Deb.

The existing partnership and amicable relations between India and Japan are rooted in strong cultural and civilizational linkages. Formal diplomatic relations between the two countries were established in 1952, and the bilateral relationship has evolved dramatically. In the backdrop of the rapidly changing dynamics of the Asia-Pacific region, especially regarding the rise of an assertive China, the Indo-Japanese relationship assumes utmost significance. Another major aspect contributing to the utility of the relationship is the compatible and mutually beneficial domestic agendas of the two countries. Prime Minister Modi has undertaken extensive measures to ensure a steady progress of India-Japan ties, especially by making it a cornerstone of his revived ‘Act East’ policy.

India’s emerging economy, expanding population, lower costs of production, and an accessible market, are thus complementary to Japan’s technological superiority, manufacturing skills and financial resources. Mutual benefits can thus be derived. Easy immigration laws allowing the Indian workforce to be a part of the Japanese society could be a case in point.

Japan and India have been referred to as “Asia’s natural-born allies”, owing to decades of cordial relations minus any historical baggage. After the end of the Second World War, India was one of the first few countries to reach out to a war-ravaged Japan. After the establishment of diplomatic relations, several high-level exchanges took place, including Japanese Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi’s visit to India in 1957 and Prime Minister Nehru’s return visit to Tokyo the same year with a gift of two Indian elephants. The government of the late P.V. Narasimha Rao, which was undertaking an economic liberalization agenda in India, embarked upon a serious engagement with its Eastern and Southeastern neighbours in Asia.

This foreign policy decision yielded significant results, as Japan turned out to be not only one of the biggest investors in the Indian economy, but also a strong partner for pursuing political and military engagement. Japan’s support was indispensable during India’s balance of payment crisis in 1991. However, India’s nuclear tests of May 1998 severely affected the warm relationship between the two countries. However, the beginning of the 21st century witnessed a dramatic transformation in bilateral ties. PM Yoshiro Mori’s visit to India in 2000 provided the much-needed impetus for the relationship to grow. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, a known-Japanophile, aptly described India’s relationship with Japan as “transformational“.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made remarkable efforts for enriching this special relationship between Japan and India. Compared to the previous administrations, the Modi government has proved to be less inhibited when it comes to actively pursuing all aspects of the relationship, including the strategic side. He reintroduced the ‘Look East’ policy as ‘Act East’ policy under which India’s relations with its East Asian neighbours have received a boost as a foreign policy priority. After assuming office, Modi made Japan his second overseas destination, indicating the high degree of importance attached to this relationship. During PM Modi’s visit to Japan in 2014, the two sides decided to upgrade their relationship to a ‘Special Strategic and Global Partnership’ and launched a scheme under which Japan expressed its intention to invest approximately USD 35 billion in India over a span of 5 years.  Modi claimed that adding “special” is not just a “play of words”, but it indicates Japan’s role in India’s economic development and defence-related issues.

On the strategic front, China’s rise has been a common concern for the two regional players India and Japan. With its vastly expanding economic growth and political clout, China’s foreign policy agenda has witnessed its aggressive stance in the neighbourhood.  Even more disconcerting than China being a “geopolitical migraine“, is the fact that the United States under the Trump administration cannot be relied upon for security. During the annual summit in Tokyo in 2016, Modi and Abe highlighted the need for “strengthening rules-based international order in the Indo-Pacific region” and strengthening their partnership to tackle Chinese dominance in the region. Both have expressed their commitment to respecting freedom of navigation and over-flight and their desire for a peaceful settlement of the territorial disputes in the South China Sea. There have been talks of ramping up maritime cooperation between Japan, India and the United States beyond the existing joint Malabar naval exercises.

Defence industry cooperation has also been gaining momentum in the India-Japan partnership. Under Modi’s ‘Make in India’ initiative, Japan is also looking forward to exchanges with India in the defence and aerospace sectors.

On the economic front, despite considerable success, some analysts have claimed that the Indo-Japanese relationship has been unable to reach its full potential. Even though economic cooperation has been an integral part of the foundation of this bilateral relationship since the beginning, the progress in recent years has been limited. Total trade has come down to $14.51 billion in 2015-16 from a peak of $18.5 billion in 2012-13. In 2016-17, India’s exports further fell by 17.38% to $3.85 billion and imports by 2.2% to $9.63 billion. This regression in trade with Japan is quite alarming as there exists great scope for faster progress on goods and services trade.  A major point of focus is the complementary nature of the Indian and Japanese economies.

Japan’s economy, despite being technologically advanced, is faced with grave challenges related to its ageing population and the lack of a young workforce. India on the other hand lacks sufficient infrastructure and financial resources although it has an increasingly young and capable population. India’s emerging economy, expanding population, lower costs of production, and an accessible market, are thus complementary to Japan’s technological superiority, manufacturing skills and financial resources. Mutual benefits can thus be derived. Easy immigration laws allowing the Indian workforce to be a part of the Japanese society could be a case in point.

However, the greatest achievement of the Modi administration vis-à-vis Japan is the 2016 civil nuclear agreement that came into force in July this year. The landmark deal became effective as Indian Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar and the Japanese Ambassador to India H.E. Mr. Kenji Hiramatsu exchanged diplomatic notes to formalize the completion of the process. This is a massive step in the direction of cooperation in energy security and clean energy, especially keeping in mind Japan’s extremely bitter memories of encountering nuclear weapons. Most importantly, the nuclear deal indicates Tokyo’s willingness to share its state-of-the-art atomic technology for the first time with a country that has not signed the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. The reformist Abe administration has been trying to carve out a more assertive role and greater strategic self-sufficiency for Japan. India-Japan relations are thus mutually beneficial and compatible in multiple ways.

In summary, India’s Japan policy under the Narendra Modi government has yielded significant positive outcomes. A stark example of reliable and deepening bilateral ties is the very recent statement by Ambassador Hiramatsu in support of India in the two-month long Doklam standoff near Sikkim. In a show of unambiguous support to India, Japan has claimed that no party should “resort to unilateral attempts to change the status quo by force.” This exhibits India’s success in developing strategic bonds with Japan. However, the economic cooperation aspect still needs to be pursued more vigorously by the Indian government.

Avantika Deb is a research assistant at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. She tweets @AvantikaDeb. Image credit: CC by Narendra Modi/Flickr.

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