The relationship between India and Japan ought to be closer, one would think, given the geopolitical reality which the two countries are facing. But, curiously enough, this relationship is still like a sideshow for both countries. Against China’s rise, India and Japan must have stronger military ties to each other but this is not the case as the facts tell us. Foreign policy in the Indo-Japanese case is more influenced by other factors such as the economy and raw material resources. The Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s recent visit to Japan clearly showed this.
During Singh’s three-day visit from 24 to 26 October, the greatest achievement was the conclusion of the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA). Under the CEPA, Japan and India will get rid of tariffs on goods that account for more than 90 per cent of their two-way trade flows, in a period of ten years after the agreement takes effect. For Japan, it was the twelfth CEPA after those with Mexico and the ASEAN countries, and for the new Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) government, it was its first major economic deal. The Agreement has taken four years since the talks started in 2007 to fructify, but it is not too slow in comparison with other pending negotiations, such as the Japan-Korea and Japan-China EPA. All five major Japanese newspapers featured the CEPA as a top news headline, possibly the biggest ever India-related news event in the last 10 years.
Japanese newspapers of course, wrote about China as an important factor in the deepening of India-Japan relations, but according to the Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara, newspapers had emphasized too much about China in the media conference, and stressed that Japan should build a more independent relationship with India. It is reported that two Prime Ministers talked about China for ten minutes in a 40-minute meeting. Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan explained the territorial issue between Japan and China but the two leaders agreed that both countries had to try to have improved relations with China.
Even if China was the most important factor for both countries, it was more in terms of the economy and the question of resources, not in terms of pure security issues at this summit. Although the territorial dispute and the sequence of events in the last two months were real concerns for Japan, the matter still remains a bilateral one and Tokyo does not deem it necessary to seek other countries’ help to resolve it. For better or for worse, China is Japan’s No.1 economic partner and as one newspaper quoted the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “it is not realistic to slough off China’s influence rapidly” (Asahi Shinbun, 26 October 2010).
Nevertheless, Japan must reduce its economic dependency on China and India is a very attractive option as a big potential market, despite India’s current ranking of No. 27 among Japan’s trading partners. And in this perspective, the fact that India has rare metals and rare earths is a potential area of cooperation. It needs to be remembered that China had sought to restrict exports of rare earths to Japan, during the standoff between them in September when the Japanese arrested and detained a Chinese fishing vessel captain for ramming his boat into Japanese naval vessels. This incident had happened in the waters off Japan’s Senkaku islands which are disputed by China and led to considerable tensions between the two countries. In this context, if India and Japan can cooperate in this field and in other areas of economics and trade, it could also enhance the importance of each country as a reliable security partner for the other.
Even though Japan’s Prime Ministers have changed almost every summit since 2000, one thing that has remained constant among the seven leaders that have occupied that post in this period – from Yoshiro Mori to Naoto Kan – has been their forward-looking attitude as far as the relationship with India was concerned. This trend will continue. But it should be more than a ‘sideshow’ when it comes to questions of geopolitics. The first steps are being taken with Japan and India engaging in a 2 plus 2 dialogue at foreign and defence ministers’ level, and agreeing to deepen their Global Partnership.
After the Cold War, the world has continued to remain unstable. Rising powers – such as China and India – and existing powers – such as the US, Europe, Russia and Japan – are now engaged in creating a new world order. Japan cannot afford to be submerged by the tide of events since it is a small, island country which depends on a trading relationship. For its survival, Japan must seek diplomatic options besides the Japan-US alliance and India is the best possible partner for Japan. In addition to being an economic giant, their similar democratic political systems, non-Western societies, desire to gain permanent seats on the UN Security Council and security environments are all factors which the two countries can use for a building a strategic alliance. Hopefully, the Singh visit will provide greater impetus and ambition to both countries.