Yukio Hatoyama, who is on his first visit to New Delhi as Prime Minister of Japan, is unlike any other Japanese leader that the Indian side has dealt with in the past decade.

After the bilateral chill that set in with the 1998 nuclear tests at Pokhran, political relations steadily improved from 2001 onwards, during the tenures of Junichiro Koizumi, Shinzo Abe, Yasuo Fukuda, and finally Taro Aso. Defence cooperation, including high-level visits and joint exercises began. Despite the immense sensitivity of the nuclear question, Japan finally went along with the Nuclear Suppliers Group consensus decision to lift sanctions on India. And in October 2008, when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was in Tokyo for the annual summit, the two countries signed a potentially far-reaching security declaration that seemed to suggest Japan looked at India as a potential strategic partner in the long-term game of hedging against the rise of Chinese power in Asia. As foreign minister during Mr. Koizumi and Mr. Abe’s tenures, Taro Aso was the strongest advocate of the short-lived and ill-fated ‘quadrilateral’ concept that saw India joining Japan, Australia and the United States in joint political consultations and even war games in the Bay of Bengal. Mr. Aso also spoke openly of the need to build an ‘arc of democracy and prosperity’ across Asia, a geopolitical construct clearly designed to exclude China, though business and pragmatic considerations within Japan helped to staunch any serious deterioration in relations with the Chinese side.

With the victory of the Democratic Party in parliamentary elections this September and the arrival of Mr. Hatoyama in the Prime Minister’s office in Tokyo, the entire conception of Japan’s relations with China and the rest of Asia has undergone a radical change.

Looked at superficially, his eagerness to mend Tokyo’s fences with Beijing and break free from Washington’s vice-like grip on Japanese foreign and security policy may not augur well for bilateral relations with an India accustomed to looking at Japan as a hedge against a rising China and an extension of American power in Asia. But Mr. Hatoyama’s vision of an East Asian Community and his desire to work with China provides India and Japan with an opportunity to build their bilateral relations on ground firmer than the quicksand of ‘balance of power.’ Japanese foreign minister Katsuya Okada has spoken of India and Australia as part of the proposed EAC, a formulation that is in line with the East Asia Summit process run on the basis of Asean+6 rather than the more limited Asean+3 (i.e. China, Japan, South Korea) concept that would exclude India. There is also no reason why triangular relations between India, Japan and China should be zero-sum: all lines of the triangle can and should be strengthened without adversely affecting each other. Indeed, now that the Japanese government is less paranoid about China, an excellent opportunity exists for Indo-Japanese political and strategic relations to be strengthened as something desirable for cooperative security in Asia as a whole. And the first test will be the concrete steps the two sides take to implement the 2008 Security Declaration.

The Hatoyama-Okada approach to nuclear disarmament also offers India the prospect of starting a serious dialogue with Japan on how best global efforts to eliminate weapons of mass destruction can be pursued. In the past, India’s refusal to accede to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty and Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty has been a major irritant. But on other fronts – the proposed Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty, for example – there is no reason why India and Japan cannot work together. As for the CTBT, the Indian side should have no problem reiterating its test moratorium. Most importantly, the new Japanese government has begun to debate an issue close to the India’s global disarmament initiative – the policy of no-first use (NFU).

Today, among all declared nuclear weapon states, only India and China adhere to an NFU posture. Japan, which is shielded by the American nuclear umbrella, has traditionally argued that extended deterrence is credible only with the threat of a U.S. first strike on any nuclear-armed adversary. Mr. Okada has spoken of the desirability of NFU but there is, at present, within the Pentagon, no appetite for this. The U.S. focus is on ‘non-proliferation,’ with the elimination of nuclear weapons a long-term goal that President Barack Obama has said will not be reached in his lifetime. The DPJ’s views on disarmament open a door for India and Japan to begin a constructive dialogue on intermediate steps like NFU that serve to delegitimise the role of nuclear weapons in military planning.