Manmohan Singh’s visit to Japan holds out the hope that the two countries have turned the corner of a somewhat underperforming relationship. An agreement towards a civilian nuclear deal still looks some distance away. But the decision by the Prime Minister and his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe to “accelerate” negotiations towards this, though below New Delhi’s expectations for a definite timeline, shows Tokyo remains interested despite domestic public opposition to nuclear energy and its export, especially to a non-signatory of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Japan’s commercial motivations are quite obvious. Component vendors like Toshiba, Mitsubishi and Hitachi are keen to find new markets abroad after Japan’s own decision to drastically cut its reliance on nuclear energy in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima disaster. Both sides have also agreed to set up a joint working group to discuss modalities for the sale to India of the US-2 amphibian aircraft, which is being used by the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, as its navy is called. This is the first time Japan is reconsidering its post-World War II self-imposed ban on the sale of defence equipment to another country, though the plan could well be to sell it to India as a civilian aircraft. The two Prime Ministers were appreciative of the expanding defence relations between the two countries. The Indian Navy and the JMSDF held their first bilateral exercise off the coast of Japan last year. These exercises are to become a regular feature.
The strategic dialogue between the two countries includes a regular exchange between the defence ministers of both countries, a “two plus two” dialogue involving the foreign and defence secretaries of both countries, a dialogue specifically on maritime security, besides a U.S.-Japan-India trilateral dialogue. While both sides are keen to lift their relations to the next level, New Delhi needs to guard against allowing ties with Japan to get underpinned by the shared wariness of Beijing. There is nothing to be gained for India, Japan or China in a polarised Asia. Tokyo has been large-hearted in its infrastructure development assistance to India, which it has now promised to expand. But despite the two sides talking up their “natural” partnership and their synergies, India’s trade with Japan is at a measly $17.5 billion, and the 2011 Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement has not yet delivered its promise of trade in goods and services. This aspect of the relationship — rather than the purely ‘strategic’ pivot that certain lobbies in both countries are promoting — needs much more attention than it is getting now.