India-Japan ties continue to hover uncertainly between symbolism and substance.
India’s engagement with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe over the Republic Day weekend was probably the last of the major diplomatic acts in the UPA government’s decade-long tenure. The gap between the rich possibilities of Abe’s visit and the modest outcomes from the talks between PM Manmohan Singh and Abe sums up the tragedy of the UPA’s foreign policy. Few governments in New Delhi were blessed with such strong domestic fundamentals and extraordinary external options to transform India’s critical bilateral relations and expand its comprehensive national power as the UPA.
Abe’s visit underlined a rare confluence of objective and subjective factors in relations between India and Japan. Over the last decade, there has been a rapid expansion of the bilateral engagement. Japan’s traditional development assistance to India acquired a strategic character as Tokyo backed the construction of two very large infrastructure projects — the freight and industrial corridors between Delhi and Mumbai. A comprehensive economic partnership agreement has begun to boost bilateral trade. The two sides have also initiated productive defence and security cooperation. India’s nuclear deal with the US helped end Japan’s hostility to India’s atomic policies. On the political front, India and Japan drew closer as they campaigned, if unsuccessfully, for reform and expansion of the UN Security Council and discovered a growing convergence of interests in promoting peace and prosperity in Asia.
This objective transformation of bilateral ties has coincided with the persona of Abe, who has boldly sought to revive Japan’s economy, remake Japan into a “normal” nation, and reclaim its rightful role in Asia and the world. On top of it all, Abe has had an abiding personal commitment to make the relationship with India central to Japan’s foreign policy. This context set the stage for an ambitious agenda for Abe’s visit — wrapping up negotiations on key issues and outlining a bold vision for the future of bilateral relations. Delhi, however, appears to have fallen short. Whether it was the finalisation of the nuclear cooperation agreement or the expansion of defence industrial cooperation, Delhi has been unable to come up with creative solutions. Nor has it been able to articulate a long-term vision for the India-Japan partnership in Asia at a moment when great turbulence has enveloped the continent. The UPA government has clearly run out of big ideas and the administrative capacity to implement goals it had set for itself.