Friday, Dec 12, 2003
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By C. Raja Mohan
For New Delhi, the prospect of a more productive relationship with Tokyo has not come a day too soon. Japan has been the "missing link" in India's re-engagement of the great powers since the nuclear tests of May 1998. Despite many efforts in recent years to reach out, Japan had remained an elusive partner.
But all that may be behind us if the present diplomatic initiatives between the two countries succeed. New Delhi and Tokyo are looking forward to some high-level political exchanges in the coming weeks that could help unveil a "new beginning" in bilateral relations.
Japan was last among the major powers to come to terms with India's nuclear decision. Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori came to New Delhi in August 2000 with the objective of looking beyond the nuclear issues and building a political relationship with India. While Mr. Mori's personal interest in India was obvious, there was no consensus within the Japanese establishment on a new approach to New Delhi.
The much-vaunted "global partnership for the 21st century" proclaimed by Mr. Mori and the Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, remained bereft of content. The stagnation in India's relationship with Japan stood in growing contrast to the blossoming ties with other major powers.
On the economic front, trade between the two countries had got stuck at around $3.5 billion. South Korea has overtaken Japan on both trade and investment fronts in India. An explosion of economic activity has been launched by India and China, widely seen as perennial rivals. This year Sino-Indian trade will stand at $7 billion double that between India and Japan.
While Japan noticed the improving relations between India and the United States in the last few years, it has been surprised by the Sino-Indian rapprochement. Mr. Vajpayee's visit to China in June 2003, and the naval exercises between India and China a few weeks ago underlined the fact that the two Asian rivals were drawing closer while Tokyo's relations with New Delhi were yet to find some warmth.
Japan has also been impressed by India's "Look East" policy and its new determination to use free trade agreements as a means to enhance its influence in East and South East Asia. From virtually nowhere, India rapidly negotiated a framework agreement for free trade with the 10-nation Association of South East Asian Nations this year.
The Japanese Foreign Office might be the slowest among its peers; but is not without a vision. It was a matter of time before Tokyo would reconsider its policy towards India.
Signalling the change has been a symposium here this week on the theme `India: An emerging global power.' The fact that it was convened by the Japanese Foreign Office and was attended by an important cross-section of the establishment pointed to the ongoing review of the India policy. What could be the broad direction of change in the relations between India and Japan? The most obvious would be a rapid revival of the economic relationship between the two countries. Japanese businesses will hopefully pick up the new political signals in Tokyo and end their reluctance to invest in India.
The quantum of Japanese official overseas development assistance to India next year is likely to overtake that given to China. While this might be seen as an important political signal from Tokyo, India is no longer interested in the traditional aid relationship with Japan. The challenge for the two sides would be to find a way to leverage the new aid resources to direct Japanese investment into the development of Indian infrastructure.
A second objective would be to intensify the current tentative strategic dialogue between the two countries and expand the scope of interaction between the two security establishments.
With Japan no longer immune to the effects of international terrorism, cooperation in combating it is a natural item on the new agenda with India. Defence contacts between the two sides have increased in recent years; what they need is an institutional framework as well as a set of identifiable goals.
India and Japan continue to have differences on the question of nuclear non-proliferation. Political leaders on both sides have recognised the importance of avoiding too much public argument and finding some common ground on arms control.
India is often irritated by the maladroit manner in which Tokyo seeks to insert itself into Indo-Pak. disputes. If Japan begins to deal with India as a rising Asian and global power, there could be productive cooperation between New Delhi and Tokyo in transforming the subcontinent.
Japanese assistance to Pakistan could be an important lever in nudging Islamabad towards political moderation, and promoting cross-border economic integration with India.
If Indian diplomacy has found ways to get the U.S. and China to put pressure on Pakistan in recent years on terrorism, there is no reason why such a strategy with Japan too should not be successful.
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