India's Relations with Japan: Post Pokhran-II

12 Jan, 1999    ·   168

Report of IPCS seminar held on India's Relations with China, Japan and USA: Pokhran-II, held on 23 December 1998

(Note: This part of the report is based on the presentation made by Prof. Ramesh Thakur, Vice-Rector, United Nations University. The report of other presentations in the seminar by C.V. Ranganathan on Sino-Indian relations and P.R. Chari on India-US relations can be found in the China Related and US Related sections respectively.)



Ramesh Thakur began by reviewing the strategic context within which Japanese foreign policy operates and attempted to locate India-Japan relations in it. The cornerstone of the entire Asia-Pacific security structure is the US-Japan special relationship. This is largely due to the combined economic capabilities of the two countries. Japan has the world’s largest surplus savings that is complemented by the formidable size and the inherent balance within the US economy. The terms of the relationship have changed somewhat since the 1980s when the Japanese economy was booming while US was perceived to be a declining power. Currently, there is an acknowledgement that the US economy has more self-sustainable components while Japanese economy is shrinking relatively to the promise of the 1980s.



The US-Japan relationship looks likely to endure. If it does break down, fears concerning Japanese militarism will arise. By all counts, Japan is very much a formidable military power. Japan may take the path of militarization if relations deteriorate with US; it might possibly exercise the nuclear option. The Chinese would be more worried about that prospect than India ’s nuclear weapons.



On India-Japan relations, Thakur stated that both countries lack much knowledge and appreciation of each other until the end of the 1980s. “They tended to interact with each other more through Western capitals than directly. India ’s policy of nonalignment with a Moscow tilt contrasted sharply with Japan ’s role as the bastion of US forward deployment in the Asia-Pacific. The Japanese were irritated at perceived airs of sanctimonious superiority among Indians; Indians were unimpressed by Japan ’s materialistic drive to economic growth. But increasing prosperity in Japan and continued poverty in India changed the basis of the relationship between New Delhi and Tokyo . Japanese interests and capabilities are so much at variance with India ’s that New Delhi has never vied for competition with Tokyo for influence in Southeast Asia . Not having shared the rest of the Asia-Pacific’s experience of wartime Japanese militarism, India has always been more relaxed at the prospect of a militarily more powerful Japan . That in any case, would keep Chinese attention focused to its east.”



Japan ’s presence in South Asia is not constrained by memories of wartime hostilities and atrocities. But since India has been relevant neither to Japan ’s security interests nor to its international economic strategy, New Delhi has figured little in Tokyo ’s hierarchy of foreign policy priorities. By the same token, India’s support from the beginning for reintegrating Japan into the world community after the Second World War, its invitation to Japan to take part in the first Asian Games in New Delhi in 1951, the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1952, its refusal to demand reparations and limit Japanese rearmament, its potential importance as a trading partner and its political influence in the non-aligned movement and the UN, ensured that India was not totally ignored by Japan. But historical and linguistic ties to the West, economic policies of import-substitution and protectionism and political policies of close relations with the Soviet Union kept India at a distance from Japan . By the 1990s, Japanese investment in China was about 20 times more than in India ; only 0.3 percent of Japan ’s direct investment abroad in 1990 had gone to India .”



Japan has been critical of India ’s protectionist economic policies and its nuclear policies. In the 1990s, Japanese ambassadors have delivered some unusually blunt addresses to Indian audiences directing the country towards greater domestic and international competition. Japan ’s importance to India has, however, increased with its enlarged role as an aid donor. While Japanese foreign aid to India has increased, there has been no commensurate increase in Japanese trade and investment. Despite Japan ’s status as the world’s largest capital exporter, India has failed to attract much investment. The Japanese have been discouraged in part by the social and political instability of South Asia , `but the main deterrents are the complex and restrictive foreign capital laws and miles of red tape that confront investors.’ India , thus, is merely a blip on the Japanese economic radar.



The four principles listed in the Japan ’s 1992 ODA Charter will be of some significance for future India-Japan relations. India has had little difficulty with three of the principles dealing with sustainable development, prohibiting the use of ODA for military purpose and urging the promotion of democratization and marketization. The third principle poses problems. It states that in granting ODA, Japan will pay close attention: “to trends in recipient countries’ military expenditure, their development and production of mass destruction weapons and missiles, their export and import of arms . . so as to maintain and strengthen international peace and security, and from the viewpoint that developing countries should place appropriate priorities in the allocation of their resources on their own economic and social development.”



This is relevant to an understanding of Japan ’s response to Pokhran-II. One must remember that Japan is to date the only victim of nuclear weapons. For the Japanese people, this is not a subject for dispassionate rational inquiry but a deeply emotional matter. The objects on display at the museums in Nagasaki and Hiroshima bear witness to that - a fact that should not be forgotten when assessing bilateral relations with a country that has gone nuclear. Many Japanese who looked to India for moral leadership expressed shock, outrage and bewilderment. They are not prone to empathize with India ’s strategic circumstances that have purportedly propelled Pokhran-II.



The intensity of official Japanese criticism of nuclear tests was expected since India is a country with no economic or political leverage nor does it constitute a sphere of special interest in Japan . The problem for India is that it has not established a `web of relationships’ with the Japanese political leadership and other élites. India is not important to the Japanese. The donor-recipient relationship is manifest.



At the strategic level, Japan is concerned about militarization in the region with the instance of the firing of North Korean missiles across it in Autumn 1998. It has since approved plans to go ahead with an indigenous satellite based intelligence gathering system. At the regional plane, Japan has done most to bail out the troubled Southeast Asian economies; considerably more than the US . The US , in turn, in forging closer relations with China have ignored Japanese sensitivities. Not only did President Clinton criticized Japan for its trading practices when he was in China . Besides, not many noticed the symbolism of President Clinton arriving in China from Honolulu rather than the customary stopover in Japan since the Chinese had reportedly insisted that the visit will come across as exclusively for China . China intends to be known as the only major superpower in Asia . The choices for India is to challenge it implicitly or explicitly or reconcile to a second-level power status.



Comments and questions: A participant asked Thakur whether the Japanese were interested in broadening explicit contact with India bearing China in mind. A Japanese affairs expert characterized the India-Japan relations as being in “suspended animation”; indicating that mistakes were made by both the countries in not deepening relations. He pointed out that the principles of the ODA charter were not uniformly applied as Japan desisted from taking punitive action against China after its nuclear tests. Japan made a mistake, which they immediately rectified, when it mentioned Kashmir in the course of its denunciation of India ’s tests. This is probably the first instance when they appeared to link ODA with “political questions.” On nuclear matters, it must be noted that 30% of all power in Japan is harnessed from nuclear energy and that there is considerable plutonium accumulation in Japan . Nonetheless, India should have sent a special envoy to Japan immediately after the tests to appraise it of its compulsions to test in view of the emotional factor that determines Japanese perception of nuclear weapons. India has to take Japan more seriously and note that Japan has shown a willingness, in the case of China , to separate political matters from economic interests.



Another participant commenting on Japan ’s military stance said that various Japanese interlocutors from various NGOs expressed concerns about Chinese military capability and noted that the theatre ballistic missile defense system that Japan intends to procure is aimed at China and not towards North Korea . They already have the largest reprocessing breeder reactors. He disagreed with the view that Japan, in its capacity as the donor, “has all the options and that we have none.”



Another participant said Japan ’s worldview is shaped by its history of waging wars against Russia , China and the United States . Therefore, India can never really fit into its strategic calculus. One participant stated that Japan does not need nuclear testing since it is under a nuclear umbrella apart from its own capability.



Thakur responding to the comments said there is a lack of a “multi-dimensional texture to India-Japan relations.” That is natural to an extent since India does not have “a deep unidimensional relationship” with any country. The bilateral relationship is hampered by the absence of “broad knowledge” about each other’s decision-making elite. Raising the issue of Kashmir was a mistake by Japan ; though it merely highlighted the basic level of ignorance of each other’s sensitivities. A measure of hypocrisy can be gleaned as regards Japan ’s muted reaction to China ’s tests as opposed to India ’s, but  a measure of hypocrisy is to be expected in international politics.



On Japan ’s nuclear ambitions, if any, Thakur said nuclearization will be an option when its relations with the US deteriorates. It is a realistic option since Japan has enough economic, political, scientific and technological capability to be able move from being a virtual nuclear weapons state to an actual NWS. However, this current generation of Japan ’s political leaders will strive to reaffirm the close relationship with the US . Japan overwhelmingly supported the recent US bombing of Iraq amid widespread international condemnation for the action.