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IDSA COMMENT

Koizumi’s Visit to India: Forgotten Friendship to Active Partnership

June 02, 2005

Japan’s relations with India are at crossroads, even as we recently completed 53 years of the establishment of diplomatic ties. The visit of Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi recently as part of his four-nation tour which took him to South Asia and Europe proved to be an apt opportunity for both countries to carve strategies to solidify ties for the future. The significance of Koizumi’s visit cannot be understated considering the fact that this is the first visit by a Japanese head of state after a hiatus of nearly half a decade. Prior to that, only two serving Japanese heads of state have visited India with a 10 year gap. While these statistics amply demonstrate that a regular exchange of high-level political visits have been a weak link in Indo-Japanese ties, perhaps Prime Minister Koizumi’s visit is a landmark one as it promises to initiate bilateral comprehensive ventures into two areas - economic and strategic, which were lying potentially untapped for several years.

The highlight of the Prime Minister’s visit was indubitably the signing of the ‘Japan-India Partnership in a New Asian Era: Strategic Orientation of a Japan-India Global Partnership’ — an eight-fold initiative announced towards strengthening Japan-India Global Partnership, which include the following:

  • Enhanced and upgraded dialogue architecture, including strengthening of the momentum of high-level exchanges, launching of a High Level Strategic Dialogue and full utilization of the existing dialogue mechanisms
  • Comprehensive economic engagement, through expansion of trade in goods and services, investment flows and other areas of economic cooperation, and exploration of a Japan-India economic partnership agreement
  • Enhanced security dialogue and cooperation
  • Science and Technology Initiative
  • Cultural an academic initiatives and strengthening of people-to-people contacts
  • Cooperation in ushering a new Asian era
  • Cooperation in the UN and other international organization, including early reform of the UN Security Council
  • Cooperation in responding to global challenges and opportunities.

While this eight-fold initiative incorporates many issues addressed by the two countries in their Joint Declaration of December 2001, it is certainly a more comprehensive delineation and framework of areas of common interests and concerns.

The two sides have realized the need to focus on the strategic dimension of the partnership, being two prominent Asian powers. As the world’s largest democracy, and a regional military and economic power, India is emerging as a critical actor in the region. The preeminence of Japan lies not only in its tremendous economic power, despite recent setbacks, but also in its rapidly expanding role both in the regional and international system. The two sides agreed to strengthen cooperation in areas like environment, energy, disarmament, non-proliferation, counter-terrorism measures and security. The two leaders have also reaffirmed the need for Tokyo and New Delhi to hold a regular dialogue in the security and defence field. A regular strategic dialogue between the National Security Advisor and Advisor to the Japanese Prime Minister has been agreed upon.

Maritime cooperation has been an integral part of such cooperation, encompassing control of piracy and security of sea-lanes of communication. Japan is the second largest energy consumer and the geo-strategic importance of India is critical to ensure a steady and uninterrupted supply of energy resources from the Middle East. Choke points like the Malacca, Sunda and other straits are prone to piracy. Japan is not alien to these problems and there have been several incidents of Japanese ships like Tenyu (1998), Global Mars (2000) and Idaten (2005) coming under attack while in transit. In fact, the Japanese vessel Alondra Rainbow hijacked by pirates in 1999 was rescued by the Indian navy. Under the aforementioned 8 point program, the two sides have envisaged interaction between the two Coast Guards and Indian Navy and Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Forces, joint exercises and information sharing and technical assistance. A decision was taken to launch oil and natural gas cooperation between Tokyo and New Delhi.

On the political front, the restructuring of the UN Security Council is of core interest to both countries and was perhaps the one of the most critical issues under discussion. The structure and present composition of the UN Security Council has come under review for it’s disconnect with the present international architecture, lack of representation of developing countries and ineffectiveness in dealing with situations. Japan and India’s quest for a permanent seat in the UN apex body as representatives from the Asian region forms the crux of the commonality of interests between the two countries. The two sides, now part of the G-4 club also comprising Brazil and Germany have joined hands towards achieving this goal. Leaders of both countries have stressed on the need to address this issue prior to the UN Summit of September 2005 and vociferously supported each other’s candidacy.

Economically, the two sides made a breakthrough in the sense that they decided to augment ties in the trade and investment field. A Japan-India Joint Study Group to be inaugurated in June 2005 is expected to make recommendations towards this end. The feasibility of establishing a FTA is also under consideration and study. The aim is to attempt to expand their annual trade with each other from 6 billion dollars to 15 billion dollars by 2010. It may be of interest and relevance to mention here that India has emerged as the largest recipient of yen loans under the official development assistance program in 2004. Besides, Japan has agreed to fund large-scale infrastructure projects. A noteworthy proposal in this regard is to examine the viability of building a freight corridor connecting Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata, expected to cost approximately 5 billion dollars.

In a nutshell, it can be stated that there is a unique paradox that has defined India-Japan relations at large. On the one hand, there has been the absence of any major dispute. On the other, however, what has been missing is the richness that could have characterized bilateral ties. In other words, the relationship to date can be chronicled as one of missed opportunities. It is clear that the synergy of Indo-Japanese cooperation is essential not just to further bilateral relations, but for the greater cause of a more secure Asia-Pacific region. Even though the visit by Prime Minister Koizumi was short, it should be used as bedrock for furthering bilateral ties. An increased awareness among the general populace of the two nations as envisaged under the eight-fold initiative is equally crucial as the extent of media coverage received by such landmark steps as Koizumi’s visit and need to be highlighted. While India’s embarkation on a ‘Look East’ policy in the last decade was symptomatic of the significance India attaches to the region, the time has come to exploit the full potential of interaction with countries like Japan. The two countries should work together in the areas of common interests and concerns in the years to come so that they can look back at their relations with pride and satisfaction at the end of the next five decades, when we celebrate a hundred years of the establishment of relations.