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India's Japan moment

June 19, 2013

Business Standard/ by Shyam Saran

If Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit to Washington in July 2005, with the announcement of the nuclear deal, proved to be a game-changer in India's foreign policy, his visit to Tokyo in May 2013 may assume similar significance. The joint statement issued at the end of the visit is clearly an unambiguous commitment by both sides to a transformed relationship anchored, as it was with the United States, in a convergent assessment of the emerging economic and security architecture in the interlinked Indian Ocean and Pacific theatres and the shared challenges this poses to the two countries. India has clearly signed up to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's conception of the "confluence of the two oceans", bringing India and Japan together in a strategic embrace. Mr Abe has declared repeatedly that a strong India is in Japan's interest and vice versa. India agrees.

Interestingly enough, the Washington visit took place soon after a landmark India-China summit in April that year, in which Dr Singh and the then Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, announced a bilateral strategic and co-operative partnership. In the present instance, a historic transformation has been launched in India-Japan relations virtually a week after what was meant to be a major event in India-China relations, with the new Chinese premier, Li Keqiang, making India his first overseas destination after assuming office. The Depsang incident did take some of the shine off the visit, but there was agreement on upgrading the relationship and strengthening collaboration on regional and global issues on which the two countries have convergent views.

What is noteworthy is that in each case India appears to have deftly used the enhancement of its relations with China to win greater strategic space for itself, inviting major powers like the US and now Japan to expand their ties with India. India can do this because it is a classic "swing state" at this juncture of history - but the diplomatic skills required to play this role are both subtle and sophisticated. In this case, India needs to countervail China selectively without being enmeshed in a game of containment. The dividing line may not always be clear, but it needs to be maintained.

There is another interesting parallel worth noting. There is no doubt that the transformation in India-US relations owed much to the personality of former US president George W Bush. He had a strong affinity for India, and his personal chemistry with Dr Singh helped resolve several apparently insoluble roadblocks during the negotiations on the civil nuclear agreement. In Shinzo Abe, India has a Japanese leader who wears his affection for India on his sleeve. It was Mr Abe who declared in 2007 that ties with India would be the most important relationship for Japan. He has often expressed his respect and admiration for Dr Singh in terms not very different from George Bush. To the extent that the sentiments of leaders matter, India has a most valuable friend and well-wisher in Mr Abe.

India and China agree that there is enough space for both India and China to grow and prosper in Asia and the world. Both the US and Japan agree that a strong and prosperous India is good for the countries. India, too, is convinced that a strong and prosperous US and a strong and prosperous Japan are in India's interest. There is, therefore, a qualitative difference in how India and China look at each other as emerging powers and how the US and Japan look at India and vice versa. Both the US and Japan have explicitly welcomed India's rise and are committed to supporting India's quest for economic prosperity and security capabilities.

This enables India to manage its complex relationship with China even while expanding its economic and security capabilities through the willing partnership being extended to it by major powers like the US and Japan. Similar opportunities exist in India's relations with Europe, in particular Germany. Any strategy for reviving growth in the Indian economy must include leveraging opportunities that have become available as a result of the transformed external environment.

In the case of Japan, it is necessary to put in place a congenial policy framework to attract large-scale capital investment. If we continue to be ambivalent towards foreign capital and persist with an often unpredictable regulatory and tax regime, this window of opportunity will close. Dr Singh's visit to Tokyo has revived Japanese corporate interest in investing in India. The momentum generated must not be lost.

One sometimes hears the argument that India should be cautious and measured in pursuing closer relations with the US and Japan to avoid provoking hostility from China. Firstly, India's current level of ties with these countries - whether in trade, investment, scientific and technical exchanges, and even people-to-people contact - is not even a fraction of what China currently enjoys with them. Secondly, India pursuing closer security relations with the US and Japan or with other countries in the region is no different from China pursuing similar relations with many other countries. India is not a member of any military alliance and is willing to have the same military-to-military exchanges with China as it has with other friendly countries.

China cannot have a veto over which countries India wishes to develop co-operation with or engage in consultations with on matters of mutual interest and concern. India engages with China in the China-Russia-India trilateral. It is an observer in the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation sponsored by China, and is also a member of the more recently constituted BRICS grouping, which includes Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. India has an inclusive attitude towards such platforms for engagement and co-operation. There is no reason why it should be constrained in pursuing the opportunities generated through multiple engagements with friendly countries to expand its economic and security capabilities for fear of alienating China.

India has an extraordinary opportunity, which it must not fritter away as a result of a fractured and dysfunctional domestic polity or due to a lack of confidence and boldness in pursuing its vital interests.

(The views expressed above are the personal views of the writer)

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India's Japan moment

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