Through the last decade, India and Japan have made determined efforts to transform their bilateral ties. The week-long two-city state visit to India by Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko is evidence that those efforts have been successful. The Japanese emperor strictly stays away from politics, but his visits abroad are high in symbolism, usually signifying an important juncture in Japan’s relations with that country. After hitting a low in 1998 when Japanese sanctions against India for the Pokharan nuclear tests left relations crippled for more than two years, bilateral ties have grown rapidly within a short time to embrace a strategic partnership and defence links. Constant high-level interaction — the annual India-Japan summit, the regular exchanges between the two defence ministers, a “two plus two” dialogue involving the foreign and defence secretaries, a dialogue on maritime security, and a trilateral dialogue that includes the United States — has kept up the momentum. The two countries are also part of the G4 nations that recently intensified efforts towards text-based negotiations on the expansion of the U.N. Security Council. The Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement has boosted trade ties, though the movement of professionals it was meant to facilitate is yet to take off. Japan has been generous with financial assistance for infrastructure projects such as the Delhi Metro and the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor. Emperor Akihito’s visit to Chennai testifies to the significant Japanese investment in Indian industry, especially automobiles, a dominant sector in Tamil Nadu.
What has remained elusive though is a civilian nuclear agreement. At their last summit in May 2013, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe directed their officials to “accelerate” negotiations towards this. But it will not be easy. Tokyo is interested, and so are Japanese vendors looking for markets abroad after Japan’s decision to cut down dependence on nuclear energy post-Fukushima. The two sides will take it up when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visits New Delhi next month, but the domestic opposition to any such deal is bound to weigh on his mind. The healthy state of India-Japan relations is best seen in its own terms rather than as a result of a shared wariness of China. New Delhi and Beijing are engaged in improving relations at various levels, while China-Japan relations are a separate category. For all the sparring, their bilateral trade exceeds $300 billion, and contacts between the two countries exist at many levels. It would be absurd to construe Emperor Akihito’s India visit, planned many months ago, as a move to counter China against the backdrop of new tensions in the East China Sea.