Lands of the Rising Sun

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will be India’s Republic Day guest this weekend. Traditionally this is an invitation the Indian government extends only to countries that it sees as friendly, to leaders who are not seen as controversial and to reflect relationships over whom there is a broad consensus at home.

Don’t expect to see any Chinese or Pakistani leaders taking the march-past of the Indian army regiments any time soon. Even an American president is unlikely, at least for a few decades more.

There is an assumption with most observers that this is all about balancing China. And there is not doubt that plays a key role, especially when it comes Abe. But the point to remember is that the present high in Indo-Japanese relations was driven by a consensus in Tokyo — both the Democratic Party of Japan in its pro-China phase and the more nationalistic Liberal Democratic Party supported the idea of close engagement with India.

The same was true for the nuclear deal with the United States. China was only one of the reasons it came together — and that largely in the Pentagon. The US intelligence community saw India as important to its concerns about Islamic militancy. The corporate lobbies had markets in mind. The US Congress was largely excited about the Indian American community and their donations. George W. Bush was much taken by India’s democracy. All these lobbies came together to push the nuclear deal through, though the media tended to focus on China alone.

Is there a similar mix of interests coming together when it comes to Japan’s new found interest in Japan? This would be a measure of the likelihood of the relationship moving forward over a long period of time, the more interests involved, the more likely the centre will hold.

Corporate Japan is a big part of this. They want an alternative manufacturing site to China. But not only because of the odd bout of Japanese bashing. They are also looking at China’s rising wages, but probably even more worryingly at the degree of Chinese intellectual property rights pilferage.They have looked elsewhere as well. Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand are among the countries they are investing in. Luckily for India, each has its own drawbacks.

But Japan Inc is also looking at what they see as nascent digital manufacturing capabilities developing in India, a consequence of a growing interface between India’s software and manufacturing firms. This none of these countries, including China, has shown any signs of developing. Yet digital manufacturing is the core of Japan’s competitiveness today. So partnering with India makes sense irrespective of the geopolitics.

Abe’s own vision is of a “normal” Japan. One with a military, independent foreign policy and general heft in the global system proportionate to what is, after all, the world’s third largest economy — bigger than Germany and the UK put together.

He has to face the post-modern sensibilities of his own people. As well as the postwar constitutional and normative shackles on the military and so on that he has inherited. China and North Korea’s bullyboy ways are helping break the first barrier. The second, I suspect, is where he sees India’s utility. India still has a fair amount of goodwill, or at least it attracts minimal hostility in other Asian countries. Having, in effect, New Delhi endorse a new and “normal” Japan by inviting Abe to stand before a semi-military parade, buy the first exported Japanese military equipment and hold naval exercises with Japan outside the Pacific Ocean helps provide Tokyo with the sort of legitimacy it could hope to get with other Asian states.

There are gaps in relations, many more than existed with the United States. The lack of any really deep people-to-people contacts is one. Polls show that India has been rising in approval among the Japanese, but it is still grounded in nothing concrete. This is one reason it continues to be difficult to secure a nuclear deal between the two countries — domestic Japanese opinion remains hostile as do the smaller Japanese political parties. And the Japanese military have none of the clout of the US Pentagon.

As and if Japanese investment begins to pour into the country, presumably much of this will change. For now, though, it helps to realize, as the sun rises on Rajpath this Sunday, that there is more to India and Japan than another country.

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