The visit of the Japanese emperor and empress underscored an important bilateral relationship
There was grand symbolism to the first-ever India visit of the Japanese monarch. The evolution of one of India’s most important and enduring bilateral relationships, however, has been more unobtrusive and steady. Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko have been here before, 53 years ago, as crown prince and princess. At that time, Japan and India were not strategic partners and had hardly any economic ties to show. In these five decades, the world has transformed, as have the two countries. Knowing that Tokyo uses the emperor’s visits to signal the status of its relations with another capital, it’s difficult to miss the rising momentum of this partnership. It draws from a decade-and-a-half of rebuilding of ties from the post-Pokhran low of 1998, which itself had followed Japan’s own “lost decade” of the 1990s. The six-day royal visit was preceded by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Japan in May and it will be followed by Japanese PM Shinzo Abe’s trip to India next month.
After decades of Japanese investment in India, ties between the two countries have recently expanded to a strategic and defence partnership. Besides the annual bilateral summit and regular defence and security dialogues, the increasing significance of maritime security and Sino-Japanese tensions in East Asia have added a challenging dimension. However, notwithstanding the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (2010), Japanese investment in India remains far below its potential. Japanese firms have not been proactive in investing in sectors bringing in the most FDI to India, particularly the services sector. Propelled by the momentum that is recently visible, Japan could move beyond its old investments in the automobile industry and the current concessional loans for the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor and Dedicated Freight Corridor. Abe’s visit could also offer the opportunity to give a push to civilian nuclear cooperation.
Certainly, Abe’s energetic approach has boosted the pace of progress in the bilateral engagement. Amid growing anxieties about China’s military rise, Tokyo would like a stronger US commitment to its Asia-Pacific pivot and a clearer display of initiative from Delhi. At the same time, India cannot ignore or downplay Japan’s overtures out of fear of China. As Asia witnesses new geopolitical realignments, India and Japan must rework and renew their terms of engagement.