By Izaaz Ahmed
India’s ties with Japan can be traced back to 552 AD when Buddhism travelled into Japan. Although technically, the religion spread to Japan from Korea, the fact that Buddhism origited in India was well accepted. Such deep was the impression that Indian goddesses including Saraswati and Lakshmi became an integral part of Japanese Buddhism. Unfortutely, this cultural affinity shared by India and Japan took a back seat under the Britishers, for they always gave precedence to their imperialistic designs over upholding India’s long-standing ties with East Asia and Southeast Asia.
Even after India gained independence, both the tions remained distant from each other for more than half a century. While India was trying to gain its feet following a devastating colonial rule, Japan, after learning the futility of war the hard way during the Second World War, invested all its resources towards the cause of development, and soon emerged as a superpower. It was only in the year 2000 that Japan showed signs of engaging with India, when Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori visited India. However, relations between the two took concrete shape only with the visit of Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in 2005.
In the recent years, Indo-Japan ties have been infused with a new lease of life, especially in the backdrop of Chi’s growing transgression in the Asia-Pacific region. If India has serious territorial disputes with Chi with the latter rejecting the McMahon Line, Chi-Japan bilateral relationship is not cordial either due to historical reasons. In such circumstances, greater cooperation between New Delhi and Tokyo is of strategic importance. This realisation, fortutely, has been felt by both the tions, and as such, many agreements have been signed over the past couple of years with the ultimate objective of ensuring peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.
India continues to be the biggest recipient of Japan’s Official Development Assistance (ODA) – a fincial aid India has utilized in projects including the Delhi Metro Rail Connection and Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor. Japan, in 2014, also agreed to extend an aid of 35 billion US dollars to India for developing projects like ‘Smart City Mission’ and ‘Clean Ganga Mission’. The relationship got a further shot in the arm when Japan signed a civil nuclear deal with India in 2016, despite the latter being a non-sigtory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
The two countries have also jointly launched an initiative called ‘Asia-Africa Growth Corridor’ in 2017. This corridor envisages realising a free and open Indo-Pacific region by connecting parts of eastern Africa with Asia via sea. This initiative would not only benefit the disadvantaged countries of the region, but would also help India and Japan inch towards their respective Sustaible Development Goals (SDGs). The corridor is also a reply to Chi’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and is in conformity with India’s ‘Look East Policy’ as well as Japan’s ‘Free and Open Asia-Pacific Strategy’.
During the recent visit of Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to India, both the strategic partners also signed a Memorandum of Understanding to set up the ‘Indo Japan Act East Forum’. Through this, Japan would help India carry out developmental and infrastructural projects in India’s Northeast region. Interestingly, Japan is the only foreign country that has been allowed to invest in this region after it expressed a keen interest to do so on historical accounts. This gesture by Japan would further advance India’s ‘Act East Policy’ as four Northeastern states share land borders with Myanmar – India’s gateway to the rest of ASEAN. Besides, both countries have also agreed for joint investments in the ASEAN region. It was during the same visit that Abe declared to provide India with a soft loan as well as technical assistance to develop its High Speed Rail Project (HSRP) between Ahmedabad and Mumbai, better known as the Bullet Train service.
India and Japan are also partnering on the front of maritime security. India has a vast coastline, and therefore, securing the coastal areas as well as the high seas is a must. Moreover, Chi, of late, has shown an inclition to encircle India from three sides by establishing sea ports in Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Known as the ‘String of Pearls’ strategy of Chi, it poses a direct threat to India’s interl security. To raise further concerns, Chi has also set up its first overseas military base at Djibouti in the Horn of Africa. The land of dragon has long been a cause of tension in the South Chi Sea too, with its illegitimate claims over it, and bearing an uncompromising attitude towards countries like Philippines, Vietm and Laos - the other stakeholders of the South Chi Sea. This results in frequent turmoil in the region, thereby posing a threat to the sea lines of Japan.
In such precarious situations, India and Japan have recently entered into a quadrilateral relationship along with USA and Australia. With an aim to contain Chi’s unhindered transgressions as well as to bring prosperity and stability to the Indo-Pacific region, the group has already held its first round of talks on the sidelines of the recently concluded 31st ASEAN Summit. Other than this, India has also started reaching out to France for its maritime security. This is a very wise move as France has been a major maritime power in the Indo-Pacific region for centuries and has territories and military bases in the Indian Ocean and South Pacific.
Despite sharing the common values of democracy and human rights, India and Japan couldn’t develop close ties for many years due to cold-war politics as well as other unknown reasons. Now that they have, sincere efforts should be made to bolster the bond. This would be a win-win situation as both have strategic interests in the Asia-Pacific region in general and the oil and mineral rich South Chi Sea, in particular. Also, while India would gain from Japan’s fincial help and technology, Japan can reap the benefits of India’s demographic dividend. With an ageing workforce, and strained relations with Chi, the country, in the coming years, would have to rely heavily on India’s human resource as well as the vast Indian market for exporting its goods.
India, on the other hand, presently looks at Japan as one of its most trusted allies. Given the capricious Trump administration, and relations with Russia losing lustre, Japan is the only other regiol power India can lean on to check the expansionist policies of Chi. As such, India should increase the engagement level with Japan even more. Along with holding joint val exercises in places like East Chi Sea, India should also pursue Track-II diplomacy with Japan. People-to-people contact and cultural exchanges should be promoted with more alacrity.
Having said that, while teaming with Japan, India can’t afford to disrupt its ties with Chi as it is India’s largest trading partner. The Indo-Sino bilateral trade, for the period of April-October 2017, stood at over 50,000 million US dollars, with India’s exports to Chi showing a much welcome growth of around 43% against the same period last year. In such conditions, India’s foreign policy for Chi should be driven by pragmatism, not idealism. Former Indian PM Dr. Manmohan Singh seconded the same when he emphasized that India’s cooperation with Japan for economic and security needs should not be at the cost of any third country, especially Chi.
(The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)