Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to India as chief guest at the Republic Day parade, and the clutch of agreements signed between the two countries during the 36 hours he spent in the country, add more cement to a relationship that has been growing steadily since 2005 and is valued by both sides. As Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said, there are no two opinions in India on the importance of building ties with Japan; the country is at the heart of New Delhi’s Look East Policy. The strategic component of the relationship has increased dramatically over the last four years. Besides an annual summit, an institutionalised multi-layered strategic dialogue at several levels — between the Defence Ministers, a “two plus two” among the Foreign Secretaries and Defence Secretaries of both sides, one on maritime security, and a trilateral between India, U.S. and Japan — has kept up the momentum. In addition, as announced significantly during Mr. Abe’s visit, the head of Japan’s recently set up National Security Council and India’s National Security Adviser are to hold regular consultations. The Indian Navy and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF), as the country’s navy is called, held a joint maritime exercise off Chennai in December 2013. According to the joint statement issued after talks between Prime Minister Abe and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, both “reaffirmed the importance of such exercises, and renewed their resolution to continue to conduct them on a regular basis with increased frequency.” India is also in negotiations with Japan to buy its amphibious aircraft, Utility Seaplane-2, used by the Japanese Navy. Even as both sides deepen their strategic partnership, they should be clear that their shared wariness of China cannot be the basis for healthy ties.
Indeed, Mr. Abe’s arrival in India along with a huge business delegation was a reminder that there is a significant economic dimension to the relationship, even though this is its underperforming side. Japan-India bilateral trade, which was $18.61 billion in 2012-13, is only around 1 per cent of Japan’s total foreign trade, while it is about 2.2 to 2.5 per cent of India’s total foreign trade, despite a comprehensive free trade agreement, implemented in 2011. Tokyo has generously helped fund India’s infrastructure development, including the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor, and is also interested in a similar project in the Chennai-Bangalore belt. Discussions on a civilian nuclear deal continue, despite opposition to nuclear energy within Japan, and in particular to a deal with a country that is a Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty holdout. An agreement, if and when it comes through, will be the icing on the cake of India-Japan ties.