The Emperor and Empress return to Delhi after 30 years to open a new chapter in ties.
Along a walking path that takes you to a medieval shrine in the Japanese garden behind the Chinzanso Four Seasons Hotel in Tokyo is an impressive stone sculpture of a three-headed god with six arms. I was not able to establish if this was a rendering of Brahma-Vishnu-Maheshwara,but anyone who knows Japans ancient history would not rule it out. Both India and Japan must avoid the temptation and the trap of viewing their bilateral relationship merely from the contemporary prism of the world we live in now,and remind themselves that their relationship is based on the firm foundations of an ancient civilisational link.
One would imagine that this is the message that the emperor and empress of Japan would want to convey to their Indian hosts on the first ever official visit to India of a Japanese monarch. Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko have been to India before,in 1960,but as prince and princess on a honeymoon,at a time when neither country was looking at the other as a strategic partner. In the winter of their reign,the two arrive in Delhi to signal the beginning of a new phase in the bilateral relationship. It is significant that the visit of the emperor and empress will be followed by that of Japans charismatic leader,Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
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Taken together these visits to India,following Prime Minister Manmohan Singhs visit to Japan earlier this year,will mark the beginning of a new era in India-Japan relations. Why do I say this?
Despite the ancient civilisational relationship between the two countries and the fact that Japan played an inspirational role in Indias own national movement,drawing to its shores a great Indian philosopher and religious leader,Swami Vivekananda,a great Indian poet,Rabindranath Tagore,a great Indian engineer,Mokshagundam Vishweswarayya and offering protection and support to a great Indian freedom fighter and soldier,Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose,postwar Japans incipient engagement with an industrialising India,in the 1980s,was nipped in the bud by its decision to focus on China. During the 1990s,when India opened up to foreign investment,Japan was so mesmerised by the China opportunity that it chose to yield market space across a wide swathe of industries to South Korean competitors.
The 1990s was not just Japans wasted decade,it was also a wasted decade for the India-Japan relationship. Little wonder then that when India chose to conduct nuclear tests in the summer of 1998,Japan was quick to impose sanctions,while South Korea made a point of taking no such action,in the face of considerable pressure from the United States.
In December 1998,I was invited to be the youngest member of a high-powered Indian delegation that travelled to Tokyo to urge Japan to end the regime of sanctions. Led by the late J.N. Dixit,a former foreign secretary and later national security advisor,the team included the late Jasjit Singh,then director-general of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses,a former Indian ambassador to Japan,Arjun Asrani and N.N. Vohra,now governor of Jammu and Kashmir and at the time,director of the India International Centre. I was then a professor at the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations. Our mission,given to us by the late Brajesh Mishra,then national security advisor and principal secretary to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee,was to get Japanese thinkers,business leaders and policymakers to appreciate Indias reasons for going nuclear. An entire day was spent at Tokyos Japan Institute of International Affairs with a Japanese delegation led by Nobuo Matsunaga,a former Japanese ambassador to the US and the UN. It agreed to state Japans understanding of Indias decision,but not its appreciation of it.
Japans stake in India was so low at the time,and its focus on China so obsessive,that it did not really bother about Indian concerns. While Japan had become the largest aid donor to India in the mid-1980s,its 1990s focus on China meant that Indias relative ranking slipped down. It was only after 2001 that Japan started cutting back on aid to China and stepped up its assistance to India.
The real turn in the relationship began with Japans former prime minister,Junichiro Koizumi,during Manmohan Singhs first term in office. Abes impressive address to the Indian Parliament in August 2007 clearly defined the relationship in strategic terms for the first time. While shared concerns about Chinas rise and its new assertiveness offered the context,it would be wrong to view the India-Japan relationship purely through a unidimensional China prism.
The more enduring context is the change in Japans own view of itself,of its own place in the emerging multipolar world and the imperatives of its economic resurgence. Abe is the first postwar leader to urge his people to rise from their slumber and regain their self-confidence as a nation. Japan is,after all,Asias first industrial nation. It is Asias first military and technological power,it was the first Asian nation to challenge European power and supremacy and ignite Asian hearts across the length and breadth of this vast continent. Which is why Swami Vivekananda,Gurudev Tagore,Netaji and Vishweswarayya were so inspired by it.
Few in India today draw such inspiration from the mercantilist postwar Japan that for so long has become dependent on a US security cover for its own safety. To be viewed once again as the Land of the Rising Sun,Japan must itself rise and when it seeks to do so,many in India will stand up for Japan.
True,there are some in India who have been so dazzled by Chinas rise and so unnerved by its military capability that they go weak in the knees when it comes to rebuilding relations with Japan. Similarly,there are still so many in Tokyo whose bank accounts overflow with cash earned from doing business with China that they still think of Japan as a mercantilist nation and not as a nation that inspired Asia.
What Abe and Singh have tried to do,and continue to try,is to rebuild the relationship,based on shared values and interests and,above all,on the foundations of a civilisational link. That too will be the message of the emperor when he comes calling.
The writer is director for geo-economics and strategy,International Institute for Strategic Studies and honorary senior fellow, Centre for Policy Research,Delhi.