The star attraction in the Indian pavilion at the Osaka World Expo 1970 was a white tiger. There were, of course, handicrafts and Darjeeling tea. The Japanese politely praised the wonders of India, recalled Buddhist bonds, reminisced over Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose and Judge Radha Binod Pal, who defended the Japanese after the war and earned a monument for himself in the Yasukuni shrine, talked of Asian solidarity and moved on.
Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had just visited Japan a few months earlier and relations appeared cordial. Agreements to continue the modest yen credit for projects were signed. Some Japanese wanted the ashes kept at the Rinkoji temple, believed to be of Bose, to be returned to India. Indira Gandhi promised to look into it, knowing well the reaction among people in West Bengal if the ashes of a man they still believed alive were to be brought there.
India and Japan were never indifferent to each other. But both had had different preoccupations. In the 1970s, even while Japan was basking in its fame as the master manufacturer of the world, it was embarrassed by the ceremonial suicide of its young poet, Yukio Mishima, exhorting Japan to resume a militaristic posture. Ichiro Kawasaki, a diplomat, unmasked Japanese weaknesses and asserted that without a huge land mass, sizeable population and abundant resources, Japan would never be a significant world power. Japan had outsourced its foreign policy to the US. India, a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement, was a nuisance to US cold warriors, who wanted to contain the Soviet menace. Japan shared that sentiment.
Moreover, India’s defiance of the NPT was unfolding and Japan, sitting in the shade of an American nuclear umbrella, looked askance at Indian nuclear policy. The closed Indian economy had no great attraction for the export-hungry Japanese. The period of benign neglect stretched on for years.
Now that the rain has started, it is pouring. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh paid a successful visit to Tokyo in 2013, with expectations of an early agreement on nuclear cooperation. Though the agreement was not signed, the machinery for strategic cooperation was put in place. A rare visit by the emperor and empress of Japan followed and the Japanese prime minister squeezed in a visit to India to be the chief guest at the Republic Day parade. The comfort level in relations has reached such proportions that Japan is prepared to begin negotiations for the sale of sea planes, which it has never sold.
China is the unwitting cupid that has brought about the India-Japan honeymoon. Japan is open about its strategy of befriending India with an eye on China, while India remains the bashful bride. Prime Minister Abe wrote in his book, Towards a Beautiful Country (2007), that India-Japan relations would overtake Japan-US and Japan-China relations in a decade. India is right in asserting that it had never been unwilling to cultivate Japan. Strategic autonomy remains in place even in the face of Chinese provocations. Similarities between Arunachal Pradesh and the Senkaku/ Diaoyu Islands are the unspoken narrative beneath the configuration.
India does not seem to doubt Japanese motivations in pursuing a friendship offensive with India, or its logic. The weakening of the US’s global influence and China’s increased assertiveness seem to dictate an intensification of the Japan-India interaction. But Japan’s doggedness in pursuing national objectives and its ruthlessness in taking tough positions should not be forgotten. Its stiff position on non-proliferation is one example. The other example is the long history of our partnership with Japan in seeking reform of the United Nations Security Council. Japan has been a comrade in arms in that struggle from 1979, when India sought to expand the non-permanent membership of the UNSC. But whenever there was a likelihood of Japan getting an entry by itself or with Germany, it abandoned the partnership with India, in pursuit of its own agenda. When South Korea snatched the South Asian slot for membership of the UNSC by striking a deal with Sri Lanka in 1995 and India sought to contest the East Asian slot in 1996, Japan was adamant to the extent of being hostile in its contest with us. It would not even consider the various formulas we advanced and chose to fight a bitter election.
Japan and India look like natural allies today, but today’s alliance was not brought about by tradition or culture. The propitious configuration of stars that guide international relations had more to do with it. Trust and confidence may develop to prolong the productive alliance, but what will prevail is self-interest, which Japan is quick to grasp and act on with vigour.
The author, a former ambassador, is vice-chairman and executive head of the Kerala State Higher Education Council