When the purohit at Kashi’s Dashashwamedh Ghat applied sandalwood paste and vermilion on Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s forehead, that red dot on white paste looked like Japan’s national flag. The Sanskrit chanting that accompanied the >Ganga aarti after sunset symbolised a new beginning to an >old friendship between India and the Land of the Rising Sun.
Old bonds, new zeal More than two decades before Tagore paid his tribute to Japan’s cultural and civilisational attributes, an Indian engineer, Mokshagundam Visvesvaraya, visited Japan and wrote eloquently about its technological progress and the lessons Japan’s industrial development and economic rise have for India. India’s national leaders drew inspiration not just from Tagore’s poetic tributes and Visvesvaraya’s practical lessons, but equally from Japan’s victory over Russia at the beginning of the 20th century — the first Asian nation to vanquish a Western power. India was among the few countries that stood by Japan as it expressed remorse, nursed its wounds, and sought to rebuild after the Second World War.
Despite this bond between these two Asian nations, it has taken more than a decade of concerted effort to finally get both governments to commit themselves to a transformation of a “Special Strategic and Global Partnership… into a deep, broad-based and action-oriented partnership, which reflects a broad convergence of their long-term political, economic and strategic goals”. The >Joint Statement issued by both Prime Ministers clears many cobwebs out of the bilateral equation, especially on contentious issues such as cooperation in the development of nuclear energy and defence capability.
If United States President George Bush had to overrule what strategic affairs guru K. Subrahmanyam famously dubbed as “the Ayatollahs of nuclear non-proliferation” in Washington, D.C., to extend to India full cooperation in the field of nuclear energy, Prime Minister Abe had to battle many post-Hiroshima ghosts and Japan’s own anti-nuclear fundamentalists (ensconced within the safety of the U.S. nuclear umbrella) to be able to extend to India a hand of cooperation in the nuclear and defence field.
Seventeen Decembers ago, and six months after India declared itself a nuclear weapon state (Pokhran-II), inviting Japanese economic sanctions, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee deputed a team of security analysts and retired officials to reach out to counterparts in Japan, explain India’s strategic compulsions to Japanese opinion-makers, and secure an end to sanctions. In December 1998, K. Subrahmanyam led a delegation that included defence analyst Jasjit Singh, former Defence Secretary N.N. Vohra (now Governor of Jammu and Kashmir) and Ambassador Arjun Asrani, a Japanese-speaking diplomat. Realising the need to draw Japanese attention to India’s economic and business potential, and not just explain her security concerns, Mr. Subrahmanyam invited me, at the time the editor of a financial daily, to join this distinguished group.
Our challenge in using the carrot of business opportunity in India against the stick of Japanese economic sanctions was made worse by the fact that Japanese business was not only unenthusiastic about India but was in thrall of the lucrative business opportunity in China. Through the 1990s, China was the biggest recipient of both Japanese aid and investment while Japanese teams would visit India only to submit long lists of demands and complaints about how inhospitable India was to foreign investors.
The China factor Two things made Japan wake up to the India opportunity. First, the fact that countries like >South Korea began to overtake Japan in the >Indian market . Second, the emergence of China as the world’s second-biggest economy, overtaking Japan. However, more than the change in the business environment in India, it is the growing challenge posed by China’s rise that has finally forced Japan to invest in India’s rise.
Over the past decade, successive Indian and Japanese leaders have been paying greater attention to the bilateral relationship, but due credit should be given to Prime Ministers Abe and Modi for taking the relationship to an altogether higher level of long-term strategic, economic and cultural engagement. The India-Japan Vision 2025 statement jointly issued by both leaders in New Delhi last week is the most comprehensive statement of > long-term bilateral engagement defined by shared interests and values.
By crossing long-standing red lines in a couple of important areas, the joint statement has cut through some Gordian knots. First, the agreement on peaceful uses of nuclear energy ends years of painstaking negotiations, delayed both by the Fukushima nuclear tragedy in Japan and India’s own confused legislation of a nuclear liability law. Second, India’s decision to agree to “tied aid”, enabling Japanese funds to finance Japanese investment, especially in infrastructure and high-speed railway projects. Third, India’s willingness to promote Japanese industrial townships aimed at making India a more hospitable destination for Japanese business.
Shared strategic concerns The 44-paragraph Joint Statement sets out a detailed framework for a privileged bilateral partnership that seeks to address a range of Japanese concerns about the security, viability and profitability of Japanese investments in India. This detailing has now been made possible because both Japan and India have come to understand the strategic importance for themselves of their bilateral partnership in a world in which China looms larger and the United States and Europe remain preoccupied with their own problems.
While Japan is a member of the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and India is not, both countries are engaged in creating a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and Japan has agreed to support India’s case for membership of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), even as the U.S. continues to drag its feet over this. The Joint Statement repeatedly refers to the Indo-Pacific as the shared region of strategic engagement for both powers.
There are several interesting new initiatives that Mr. Abe and Mr. Modi have signed on for. One of them is an agreement for Japanese funding of India’s own “belt-and-road” connectivity projects across Asia. While committing itself to investing in infrastructure within India to improve road and rail connectivity, Japan has also agreed to promote India’s “Act East” policy by developing and strengthening “reliable, sustainable and resilient infrastructures that augment connectivity within India and between India and other countries in the region” aimed at advancing Asian industrial networks and regional value chains with open, fair and transparent business environment in the region. Japan and India can build road and rail connectivity across the Eurasian landmass, running parallel to China’s own “One Belt, One Road” project.
All this signals a new level of partnership between Asia’s two great democracies, imparting new self-confidence to both nations at a particularly critical moment in Asia’s emerging power structure. In 1916, Gurudev Tagore ended his Tokyo speech with these words: “When Japan is in imminent peril of neglecting to realise where she is great, it is the duty of a foreigner like myself to remind her, that she has given rise to a civilisation which is perfect in its form, and has evolved a sense of sight which clearly sees truth in beauty and beauty in truth. She has achieved something which is positive and complete… Such a civilisation has the gift of immortality; for it does not offend against the laws of creation and is not assailed by all the forces of nature. I feel it is an impiety to be indifferent to its protection from the incursion of vulgarity of power.”
In 1916 Tagore had the vulgarity of European power in mind. Today, Japan and India are mindful of new centres of assertive power and have reminded each other of the immortality of their own civilisation and the potential of their partnership in ensuring Asia’s peaceful rise.
(Sanjaya Baru is Director for Geo-economics and Strategy, International Institute of Strategic Studies, and Honorary Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi . )