Talking Tokyo

The India-Japan relationship holds rich potential for both. Delhi must ignore the dragon in the room

As he lands in Tokyo Monday evening, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will find his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe ready to think bold on transforming the bilateral relationship with India. A deeper partnership with India is central to Abe’s effort to bring Japan back to Asia’s centrestage. Since his landslide victory in the general elections last December, Abe has sought to shake Japan out of its prolonged economic stupor, revive its national spirit, rewrite Japan’s constitution, stand up to China, and reclaim its rightful place in Asia. But is Singh ready to play ball with Abe?

“Don’t provoke China” has been the mantra behind New Delhi’s recent “go slow” strategy with Japan. At the very moment when many Asian countries are frightened by the prospect of China’s non-peaceful rise and are looking to Indian leadership in constructing a stable Asian balance of power, Delhi seems trapped in strategic hesitation. The Depsang intrusion by the Chinese armed forces last month brought into sharp relief the many problems in India’s China policy, especially the hopes for an early deal on the disputed boundary with Beijing.

If the Ladakh flare-up highlighted the danger of putting all eggs in the China basket, Singh must now return to the sensible strategy of engaging all Asian powers without ceding a veto on its foreign policy to any one of them. This principle can be traced back to Jawaharlal Nehru’s approach to China and Japan, when hostility between Beijing and Tokyo was at its peak at the end of World War II. Despite the widespread Asian fears about the newly formed communist republic in China and outrage against Japanese imperialism in East Asia, Nehru argued against all attempts to isolate them. Nehru insisted that the People’s Republic must be recognised as the legitimate representative of China and integrated into the global order. Nehru was equally adamant against treating defeated Japan as an “enemy state”. Nehru waived India’s claims against Japan for war reparations and stood by Tokyo

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