The conclusion of a defense deal between India and Japan marked a new high in the burgeoning relationship between the two countries. Had it not been for the constrains imposed by the COVID-19 and Prime minister Abe’s announcement to lay down his office, Prime Minister Modi would have made it an occasion of grandest celebrations. This indeed marks the occasion of that import.

By Dr Anil Rawat

After the sudden resignation of Prime Minster Abe it was feared whether India-Japan relations will sustain the same momentum; the recent exchanges and meetings between the foreign ministers and conclusion of information communication technology (ICT) related agreements suggests that both the countries seem committed to carry on the building up an open and free and inclusive Indo-Pacific Asia.

Realizing the inherent synergy in India-Japan relations and strong necessity of the times, the two leaders always emphasized the need to acquire greater depth in understanding to explore the full potential to further elevate bilateral relations. This demands the resurrection of deeply embedded cultural and historical perspectives underpinning this relationship.

Most thoughtful Japanese imbued with cultural sentimentalism like to trace the beginning of their country’s association with India to the rise of Buddhism. In ancient Japanese literature India was always referred to by an honorific name “Tenjiku” which means “Center of Heaven”. Fabio Rambelli noted, that “Until the nineteenth century, the Japanese Buddhists envisioned a world system in which India was the centre, many Japanese intellectuals envisioned their country and its culture in relation not only to China, but also and especially to India or Tenjiku…, as it was commonly known…” Indian civilization played a very significant role in pre-modern Japanese culture to the extent that there was a “systematic self-identification of Japan with India”. Immersed in such sentimental mindscape most Japanese derive a sense of pride for locating the roots of their own cultural traditions in the deep historical past and thus being integral part of composite oriental heritage. Since those times immemorial, India- Japan relations have never been so intimate and the prevailing political, economic and strategic environment as very conducive as it is today. Never has Japan been as popular among the mass of the Indian people as today. Japanese nationalism has become the benchmark of an ideal that is running through the mass of Indian psyche.

The social media is full of adjectives for things Japanese. “If it is Japanese, it must be good” is the new élan of the social media. This is truly a historic opportunity to broaden the horizontal expanse and add vertical depth to the now burgeoning relationship. It is time for both the nations at the Eastern and Western flank of Asia to engage and explore newer avenues of cooperation both at bilateral as well as multilateral levels and redefine the strategic architecture of Asia and the Indo-Pacific. Broadening relationship must necessarily be cemented by the depth of historical imagery comprising cultural heritage and social value system.

Resurrecting historical imagery is set to bring forth certain ideals and sentiments, now dormant, but once held the potential of a bilateral relationship that could change the course of history and rewrite a new strategic architecture and developmental roadmap for Asia. Swami Vivekananda during his visit to Japan in 1893 introduced an important theme of “Asian Consciousness” which was later embraced by Kakuzo (Tenshin) Okakura, Rabindranath Tagore, Sri Aurobindo, and Benoy Sarkar and many others. Okakura developed close relationship with Swami Vivekananda and deeply imbibed his vision of Asiatic consciousness. Swamiji embraced Okakura as “We are two brothers who have found each other again after coming from the opposite ends of the earth.” It is during these formative years of Asiatic consciousness that the Japan-India Friendship Association was set up in 1903, which counts among the oldest international friendship bodies in Japan.

Later Okakura spent several years in India staying with Tagore in Calcutta (Kolkata) where he wrote two of his famous books expounding his vision of Asianism. However, an element of geographical and racial exclusivity in Okakura’s vision of Asia baffled many of his contemporary literary compatriots including Tagore. But, Tagore remained faithful to Swami Vivekananda’s Asiatic ideals and subsequently recast the moral fabric of the Asiatic consciousness in the context of new nationalism. Foundations of Tagorean nationalism and Asiatic consciousness became the fulcrum of India’s post independence perspectives and its relationship with Japan.

This reflected in India’s position on signing of the Peace Treaty and the issues pertaining to reparations. An independent action by Justice Radha Binod Pal in Tokyo Trials had a remarkable impact on Japanese national psyche. The positive impact of these events continued for nearly a decade topped by the visit of the then Crown Prince Akihito and Princess Michiko raising hopes of an emergent Asiatic coalition of peace against the destabilizing forces of great power rivalry. “The maintenance of the independence and sovereignty of Asian countries as well as the end of colonial and foreign rule are essential for the prosperity of Asian peoples and for peace of the world” declared the first architect of India’s foreign policy. But soon this initial India-Japan bonhomie was subsumed in the muddle of the very same power politics of cold war between the great powers.

However, this divergence in cold war perspectives notwithstanding, the overarching force of deeply embedded historico-cultural bond of antiquity proved much stronger that helped the two nations develop a positive viewpoint towards future relationship. With the positive impact of cultural legacy the two modern nations, holding their belief in democracy, individual freedom and rule of law, continued to build an aggregate of politico-economic relationship that has never slipped below a threshold assiduously fostered by high level bilateral visits by Prime Ministers and other important Government functionaries.

Suzuki Motor Corporation’s decision to enter India’s automobile manufacturing sector at the beginning of 1980s (24th February 1981) marked a landmark development elevating the bilateral economic relationship. It is important to note that the sum total of politico-economic relationship that came to exist during the 1960s and 70s was a result of a mutually exclusive desire of each country, not burdened by their relations with any third party, to nurture the relationship at a sustainable level that over time acted as a pool of good will. Suzuki Motor Corporation proved more perceptive in realizing the significance of this pool of goodwill to take initiative to write a new economic agenda for India-Japan economic relations. Having sensed the changing Japanese perception of India as a major potential destination for its foreign investments India decided to draw greater Japanese interest in Indian economy. In a short period of time, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi made three visits to Japan and launched a yearlong Festival of India in Japan. Japan’s positive response came in the form of unconditional support to overcome India’s balance of payment crisis in 1991. Soon, thereafter, under the leadership of P V Narasimha Rao as the Prime minister and Dr. Man Mohan Singh as the Finance Minister India made a dramatic shift in its Foreign policy perspectives. The change in international environment with the collapse of Soviet Union and the end of Cold War prompted India to reassess its position in the new context.

Responding to these changes India revealed its “Look East policy”. This reorientation of India’s foreign policy had a welcome effect on the Japanese perception of India’s position in the new global context. At the same time, diminishing US engagement in the region raised concerns that prompted both the countries to consider strategic issues related to peace, freedom and security of the region. These strategic concerns gained momentum in the bilateral discussions leading to the conclusion of the “Global Partnership between Japan and India” in the year 2000 between Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori and Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. This aspect of India-Japan relationship was elevated to the “Global and Strategic Partnership” when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Japan in December 2006.

In 2007 Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited India, the most significant foreign policy initiative of his very first term, with clear vision and determined objective to enhance relations between India and Japan in the broader context of Asian resurgence. Abe belonged to a political family that has held sway over Post-war Japanese politics for long time. He imbibed his political orientation from his elders Nobusuke Kishi, Eisaku Sato, both Prime Ministers of Japan and Shintaro Abe, one time Foreign Minister of Japan. His ideal was his Grand Father Nobusuke Kishi, himself an admirer of India for the judgment of Justice Radha Binod Pal. An important functionary in the wartime Japanese Government Kishi himself was never charged or tried for any war crime but he was very friendly with most of the top war time leaders. It is in the lap of his grandfather that Abe listened to stories about India. Imbued with such sentiments in his heart Abe visited India to mount pillars of a new architecture for resurgent and vibrant Asia.

Speaking before the Indian Parliament, the First ever Japanese Prime Minister to do so, Abe laid out his new vision of ‘Broader Asia’. “Japan has undergone ‘The Discovery of India’, that “we have rediscovered India as a partner that shares the same values and interests… that will work alongside us to enrich the seas of freedom and prosperity….” And then elaborating his strategic vision he spoke about the “Confluence of the Two Seas” and reflected how “the Pacific and the Indian Oceans are now bringing about a dynamic coupling as seas of freedom and of prosperity”. He emphasized that “This partnership is an association in which we share fundamental values such as freedom, democracy, and the respect for basic human rights as well as strategic interests. Japanese diplomacy is now promoting various concepts in a host of different areas so that a region called ‘the Arc of Freedom and Prosperity’ will be formed along the outer rim of the Eurasian continent. The Strategic Global Partnership of Japan and India is pivotal for such pursuits to be successful.”

During this visit a “Joint Statement on the Roadmap for New Dimensions to the Strategic and Global Partnership between India and Japan” was signed elevating the bilateral relations to newer heights.

Two outstanding features emerged out of this Roadmap:

For the first time one of the most comprehensive agreement signed encompassing whole range of activities for the improvement of bilateral relations.

Introduction of “Indo-Pacific” region as special area of focus for peace and stability for the advancement of prosperity of people in Asia.

In order to harness full potential of this partnership both the countries reaffirmed the importance of Strategic and Global Partnership in a joint declaration in 2008 emphasizing that “Japan and India, as major countries in Asia that share common values and interests, must advance bilateral cooperation as well as cooperation in regional and multilateral areas with the objective of promoting peace, stability and prosperity in Asia and the world”.

As soon as the Prime Minister Modi took charge of the office in his very first meeting with Prime Minister Abe, with whom he had established very close contacts, India – Japan relationship was elevated to “Special Strategic and Global Partnership.” Rapid and giant strides were made and in the year 2015 the two leaders announced “Japan and India Vision 2025 Special Strategic and Global Partnership Working Together for Peace and Prosperity of the Indo-Pacific Region and the World” a guide post for the “new era in Japan-India relations.” In October 2018, two leaders reiterated their unwavering commitment to working together towards a free and open Indo-Pacific. Modi-Abe friendship reminded one of what Swami Vivekananda spoke of his meeting with Okakura as “two brothers who have found each other again after coming from the opposite ends of the earth.”
India-Japan Strategic Cooperation: “Lotus Waters in Chrysanthemum Lake”.

Ever since the signing of the “Global Partnership between Japan and India” in the year 2000 the bilateral relations have steadily grown expressing the desire of both the countries to play a major role in securing the global peace and security. One might notice that in subsequent agreements and Declarations a term “strategic” has crept in repeatedly. In popular parlance this term is associated with something related to military or defence etc. but in case of emerging India-Japan relations it cannot be taken to mean any indication of military alliance. It is important to note that in every joint statement or agreement and summit meetings both India and Japan have been particular in emphasizing the peace, progress and prosperity of Asian people.

Therefore, the term strategic would connote such critical issues important to maintain peace and ensure prosperity and well being of all people in the Asian region. In essence Prime Minister Abe’s allegorical reference to the “Confluence of the Two Seas” must be taken as “Lotus Waters in Chrysanthemum Lake” wherein the people of Asia and Indo-Pacific region shall enjoy peaceful living and prosperity. The Chrysanthemum represents happiness, love, longevity and joy and the Lotus symbolizes purity, enlightenment, self-regeneration and rebirth, the values and beliefs cherished by the people of Eastern Cultures. These characteristics are a perfect analogy for the human condition.

Subsequent agreements and frameworks such as “2+2” meeting, annual Defense Ministerial Dialogue and Coast Guard-to-Coast Guard dialogue, conclusion of the Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA) and the Foreign and Defence Ministerial Meetings are all aimed at exploring finer points of cooperation to ensure security and peace in the region. Participation of Japan’s Maritime Self Defense Forces in bilateral exercises or participation in Japan’s proposed QUAD, ACSA or recently concluded JIMEX cannot be construed as military alliance. Content and composition of these exercises clearly suggest that these are primarily aimed at ameliorating such impediments that may appear in the way of preserving peace, prosperity and well being of people in this region. Japan’s participation was facilitated by a suitable modification of now redundant Article 9 of the Japanese constitution that may have raised some concerns about the militarization or military dominance in Japanese politics. Far from it; it must be recognized that India has always been averse to military alliances and a self-sufficient Japan will be less inclined to depend on military alliances. In fact it is the presence of Article 9 that made Japan dependent on military alliance.

Even if other Asian members such as Vietnam and others are included and certain members of QUAD might like to think in terms of military pact, the presence of India and Japan with their commitment to peace, progress and prosperity will never allow it to become an Asian NATO as calculated fears are being raised in some quarters. There shall be no doubt that India and Japan’s Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative and ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, all strive for an Indo-Pacific region that is inclusive and open to all countries in the region. The conclusion of agreements like the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) in 2011 is testament to greater economic content of this relationship.

The years between 2014 and 2020 have been a momentous period in India-Japan relations that have grown in substance expanding to multifarious dimensions and transforming into a robust and matured partnership based on convergence in their strategic geopolitical and security concerns and deepening economic relations.

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