By Archis Mohan
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will be the chief guest at the Republic Day Parade this year, the first ever Japanese dignitary to grace the occasion.
New Delhi and Tokyo view Abe's visit to India, which comes a bit over a month and a half after the historic first ever visit to India of Japanese Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, as pinnacle of India-Japan bilateral relations.
Cooperation between Asia's number two and three economies have never been as close across as wide a gamut of areas. These include trade, technology, energy and now increasingly even defence. Japanese Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera visited New Delhi earlier
this month to discuss deepening of defence cooperation between India and Japan.
The visits of the Emperor and Empress, Japanese defence minister Onodera and the forthcoming visit of Prime Minister Abe come at a juncture when
Tokyo finds itself reviewing its approach to be more in tune with its current geo-strategic challenges. Abe has for long been a votary of strong India-Japan strategic ties.(Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko at the ceremonial
reception at Rashtrapathi Bhawan during their visit to India in November-December 2013)
Abe: A strong India in the best interest of Japan
At an Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA) lecture in September 2011, Abe said: "a strong India is in the best interest of Japan, and a strong Japan is in the best interest of India." Abe has pushed for stronger India-Japan relations ever since returning
as the PM of Japan in end-2012, the first ever former Japanese PM to return to office since 1948.
Abe was the Prime Minister of Japan for a year in September 2006 to September 2007 during which time he did much to better India-Japan bilateral
ties. In 2007, Abe became the first ever Japanese PM to address a joint session of Indian Parliament.He told the Indian MPs about the the time India's first PM Jawaharlal Nehru hosted Abe's maternal grandfather the then Japanese Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi
in New Delhi in 1957. Nehru introduced Kishi at a public reception thus: "This is the Prime Minister of Japan, a country I hold in the greatest esteem." It was rare in the aftermath of the Second World War for a Japanese PM to be felicitated such at a public
rally and that too by a leader of Nehru's stature.Caption: Prime Minister Nehru with visiting Japanese Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi in New Delhi on May 20, 1957
Abe reminisced at his 2011 ICWA speech about how deeply Nehru's gesture had touched his grandfather. Abe said: "As a young boy seated on his knee, I would hear him telling me that Prime Minister Nehru introduced him to the biggest audience he had ever seen
in his lifetime of a hundred thousand people. He told me that it was India that came forward before any other country to accept the ODA Japan wanted to extend as a proud member of the international community. For all that, he remained deeply thankful throughout
Japan continues to be the largest bilateral donor to India. The ODA (Official Development Assistance) has supported several infrastructure projects in India. Japan had cumulatively committed until March 2013 ODA of US $ 40 billion. Over 60 projects are being
implemented under this assistance as of February 2013. These are in the power sector, transportation, shipping, railways, renewable energy, etc.
India's crucial political support to Japan post World War II
The recent visit of the Emperor and Empress was another historic moment in India-Japan relations. The couple reprised their visit to India made over five decades back. Crown Prince Akihito and Princess Michiko's 1960 visit had acknowledged the strong hand of
friendship that a newly independent India had extended towards Japan, already an economic powerhouse but recovering from the damage that World War II had wreaked on its economic and social life.
India's expression of friendship was its gratitude for the Japanese help to the Indian National Army (INA). Japan had released Indian prisoners of war at the request of Subhas Chandra Bose to help build the INA which fought alongside the Japanese in Singapore,
Burma and northeast India. The war cemetery in Imphal where Indian and Japanese soldiers lie buried together is a testimony to that sacrifice.In the 1950s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru pushed Indian iron ore exporters to supply the mineral in large quantities
to Japan to help rebuild its steel industry. This was a time when Japan found it difficult to get iron ore from Australia and other countries.
Nehru, in a humanitarian gesture that is remembered to this day, donated a baby elephant to Tokyo's Ueno Zoo. Most animals at the zoo had been
poisoned or had starved to death during the war years. The elephant, named Indira after Nehru's daughter, brought much joy to Japanese children. Its passing away in 1983 was widely mourned in Japan.(Nehru and daughter Indira
with Emperor Hirohito, Empress Nagako and Crown Prince Akihito in Tokyo in 1957)
These were also the years when India under Nehru declined to sign the Peace Treaty of San Francisco which Japan found as offending its dignity. The treaty was signed on September 8, 1951 by 48 nations and came into force on April 28, 1952. India considered
the treaty as putting unfair limitations to Japanese sovereignty. India signed a separate treaty of peace with Japan in 1952 that waived all rights to reparations.
Linked to this was another instance of India and Indians showing solidarity with Japan. Radhabinod Pal was an Indian justice on the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal who dissented with the other judges to claim that the trial was an exercise in retribution by the victors
of the war and that Japan's wartime leaders were not guilty.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recalled Pal's contribution to India-Japan relations in a speech in the Diet on December 14, 2006. "The principled judgment of Justice Radhabinod Pal after the War is remembered even today in Japan. Ladies and Gentlemen, these
events reflect the depth of our friendship and the fact that we have stood by each other at critical moments of our history." Japanese PM Shinzo Abe met Pal's octogenarian son Prasanta in Kolkata in August 2007.
Such instances of goodwill are replete in India-Japan relations. Japanese politicians refer warmly to India's declaration of national mourning at the time of the demise of the Showa (Hirohito) Emperor in 1989.However, this momentum of close ties weakened between
1960s to 1980s. Japanese PM Hayato Ikeda visited India in 1961 but the next visit by a Japanese PM took place over two decades later in 1984 by PM Yasuhiro Nakasone. PM Rajiv Gandhi visited Tokyo in 1988, which marked the revival of sustained political contacts.
A Partnership to Build a Peaceful Asia
Today, Japan and India are the closest of friends. New Delhi has an institutionalised system of annual summits with Tokyo since 2006. Russia is the only other country with which India has this mechanism in place. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Japan
in May 2013 for the seventh annual summit.
India and Japan are partners busy knitting a fabric of a peaceful and stable Asia-Pacific. As two of Asia's bigger democracies and amongst its largest economies it is in New Delhi and Tokyo's interest as also responsibility that the region's maritime commerce
continues unimpeded to contribute to mutual economic prosperity not only for India and Japan but also the ASEAN countries.
Strong Economic ties
India still remembers Japan as one of the few countries that helped it during the 1991 balance of payments crisis. In the early-1980s, Japan's Suzuki Motors changed the way Indians travelled by making the dream of owning a car a reality for millions of middle
class Indians with its Maruti 800.A little over a decade later, it was Japan again which changed the way Delhi travelled. Japan's contribution in making Delhi Metro and its help in similar projects in a dozen other cities is well known as its assistance in
Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor Project and Dedicated Freight Corridor Projects on the Mumbai-Delhi and Delhi-Howrah routes.
India and Japan, however, need to boost their bilateral trade. It stood at $18.61 billion in 2012-13, increasing marginally from $18.43 in 2011-12. India's exports to Japan in 2012-13 were US$ 6.1 billion and imports were $12.51 billion.
The India-Japan Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) became effective in August 2011. It is one of the most comprehensive of all
such agreements concluded by India and aims at eliminating tariffs over 94 percent of items traded between India and Japan, say MEA officials. This agreement is expected to help bolster the bilateral trade volume.(Prime Minister
Shinzo Abe during his 2007 visit to New Delhi)
*Archis Mohan is foreign policy editor StratPost.com. Views expressed here are the personal views of the author.
- August 2000: PMs Yoshiro Mori and A.B. Vajpayee ink 'Global Partnership in the 21st Century'
- 2006: PMs Shinzo Abe and Manmohan Singh sign 'India-Japan Strategic and Global Partnership', also the first annual summit
- 2007: Abe and Singh sign 'The Roadmap for New Dimensions to the Strategic and Global Partnership between India and Japan' and on the "Enhancement of Cooperation on Environmental Protection and Energy Security'
- 2008: sign a Joint Declaration on 'Security Cooperation' and a Joint Statement on the 'Advancement of Strategic and Global Partnership between India and Japan'
- 2009: Joint Statement on 'New Stage of Japan-India Strategic and Global Partnership' signed
- 2010: Joint Statement 'Vision for India-Japan Strategic and Global Partnership in the Next Decade' and a Joint Declaration on the India-Japan Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA)
- 2011: Joint statement entitled 'Vision for the Enhancement of India-Japan Strategic and Global Partnership' upon entering the year of the 60th Anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations