A little over five years ago, India’s moribund and sometimes distant relations with Japan got a dramatic boost when that country’s visiting prime minister, Shinzo Abe, told India’s Parliament that he looked forward to a “confluence of the two seas” (the Indian and Pacific oceans), and a “broader Asia” that would create “an arc of freedom and prosperity”. Mr Abe declared that Japan had “rediscovered India as a partner that shares the same values and interests”. His strategic vision included Australia and the United States, with which India and Japan launched what was called a “Quadrilateral initiative” that included joint military exercises. The exclusion of China from this “concert of powers” was self-evident, and Beijing protested strongly against the birth of what it called an “Asian Nato”. In the event, Mr Abe was forced by ill-health and political circumstances to step down as prime minister in less than a month of his speech in New Delhi, and the Chinese protests ensured that the Quadrilateral initiative was quietly dropped after Australia developed cold feet.
Five years later, Mr Abe is back as prime minister, having campaigned on a typically nationalistic platform. Japan and China have crossed swords over some uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, and when anti-Japanese feelings have been drummed up on the Chinese mainland. Mr Abe’s response has been to call for a freer role for Japan’s self-defence forces. Economically too, Mr Abe’s strong policy line calls for reflating the Japanese economy so that it manages better growth. It is of course in Mr Abe’s interest to seek a sensible modus vivendi with China, which since 2007 has emerged as an even more powerful system, and a bigger economy than Japan. That should not come in the way of Mr Abe reviving his bid to forge much closer ties with the leading democracies in the region, as forces of stability in a region with rising tensions.
Mr Abe’s India visit resulted in much greater Japanese engagement with India’s development plans, and the financing of major infrastructure development projects. What is needed now is more direct engagement by Japan’s leading companies, not all of which have been enthusiastic about India. The fact is that Japan and India are, after China, the largest economies in Asia, and the degree of mutual economic engagement should reflect that reality. Yet bilateral trade last year was no more than $12 billion — a small fraction of Sino-Indian trade. Trade with Japan is expected to double in three years, now that the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement has been signed, but it is also true that the tariff cuts envisaged under the agreement will be dragged out over a decade. It is clear that India too needs to get its act together, and become more competitive, in order to expand bilateral ties.