Japan’s India moment: Why Emperor Akihito’s visit matters

japan-emperor1japan-emperor1The foreign trips by monarchs are largely ceremonial affairs, but the first-ever visit to New Delhi by Japan’s emperor and empress later this month is a special one, and marks the transformative moment in the burgeoning relations between India and Japan.

The forthcoming six-day trip to India (Nov 30-Dec 5) by Japan’s Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko is the strongest signal yet by Tokyo to imbue the India-Japan relations with greater strategic heft and economic plenitude. The maiden visit by the imperial couple to India is also profoundly significant in so far as it’s happening at a time when Asia’s leading economies and maritime democracies are seeking to shape the contours of an emerging Asia against the backdrop of Chinese assertiveness and the much-touted US’ pivot to Asia. Long-time Japan watchers know it well that Japan’s imperial couple’s visits to foreign countries, except on ceremonial occasions, are loaded with immense symbolic significance and are quietly staged to register a turning point in Tokyo’s foreign policy. Emperor Akihito’s 1992 visit to China – the first visit by any Japanese emperor to that country – was one such defining point, opening the doors for the influx of Japanese aid, technology and capital into China, which was to play an important role in the rise of Beijing and its emergence as the world’s second largest economy.

India, a balancer and bridge-builder

The context of Emperor Akihito’s visit to New Delhi is, however, radically different and takes place against the backdrop of increasingly testy relations between Tokyo and Beijing over the disputed East China Sea islands and India’s emergence as a democratic power in the Asian hemisphere, which is seen by many countries as a bridge-builder and balancer amid the flux in the Asia-Pacific geopolitics.

That Oceanic Feeling

A complex interplay of economic and strategic imperatives is driving India and Japan to add more depth to their partnership. In a sense, Akihito’s visit to India is a powerful reaffirmation and expression of Japan’s born-again prime minister Shinzo Abe’s vision of the confluence of “the confluence of the two seas” –- the Pacific and the Indian Oceans — which he had first unveiled in his famous address to the Indian Parliament in August 2007. Six years hence, Mr Abe has made sure that the confluence theory was not an inspired rhetorical flourish, but he has shown resolute political will in taking the India-Japan relations to the next stage by agreeing to fast-track civil nuclear negotiations with India during the May 27-29 visit of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Tokyo. That he did so in the face of a firmly entrenched constituency of nuclear non-proliferation hawks in his country underlined his resolve to invest enough political capital in transforming the relationship with India which he sees as critical to the evolution of a stable, pluralistic order in Asia.

A shared vision of Asian resurgence

India, too, has been more than receptive to Tokyo’s overtures.  Manmohan Singh’s visit to Japan, the longest he had stayed in any country for a bilateral visit besides the US, underscored that New Delhi was willing to walk the extra mile to fructify the rich promise of closer India-Japan relations, grounded in shared values and a confluence of vital national interests. In a defining speech to Indian and Japanese parliamentarians and businessmen in Tokyo May 28, Manmohan Singh unveiled a shared vision of an Asian century that puts closer security and economic ties with Japan at the heart of the unfolding Asian resurgence. “Asia’s resurgence began over a century ago on this island of the Rising Sun. Ever since, Japan has shown us the way forward. India and Japan have a shared vision of a rising Asia,” he said eloquently. “We also have the greatest opportunity to chart a new course for Asia in this century,” he said. Responding to Abe’s “Two Ocean” formulation, the Indian prime minister signalled that the much-awaited transformative moment in India-Japan relations was close at hand. “We see Japan as a natural and indispensable partner in our quest for stability and peace in the vast region in Asia that is washed by the Pacific and Indian Oceans,” he underlined.

Symbolism and substance

The drive to transform India-Japan relations is mutually empowering. India has sensed the “Japan moment” and is poised to roll out the red carpet for the visiting imperial couple. Since symbolism matters in diplomacy as much as substance, Manmohan Singh will be personally receiving Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko at the special airport in Delhi. This is only the fourth time the prime minister will be receiving a visiting leader. The Saudi monarch and US presidents, Barack Obama and George Bush, are the only foreign leaders to have been given this signal honour. Underlining the importance New Delhi is attaching to this visit, the prime minister has deputed External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid as minister-in-waiting for the imperial couple.

Looking ahead, the security cooperation between the two Asian democracies is set for an upgrade, but the economic imperative will play an equally critical role in sustaining the momentum in bilateral ties. Japan, a key player in signature infrastructure projects in India like the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor Dedicated and Freight Corridor Projects on the Mumbai-Delhi and the Delhi-Howrah routes, has emerged as an important foreign investor in Asia’s third largest economy. Iconic Japanese companies are now seeing India as a new land of opportunity – India is Tenjiku (the country of heaven) in traditional Japanese culture. Sony, Suzuki, Toshiba and Honda have become almost Indian brands. India has been the largest recipient of Japan’s Official Development Assistance (ODA), with Tokyo pledging over $35 billion in the last decade.

India’s burgeoning infrastructure hunger, which needs an infusion of at least a trillion dollars over the next few years, is poised to provide Japanese companies substantive opportunities for win-win business partnerships. In this context, the $ 75 billion Delhi Mumbai Industrial Corridor is set to be a game-changer.

What is striking about the blossoming India-Japan relations is a marked synchronicity: the “Japan moment” in India’s international relations (as described so aptly by veteran diplomat Shyam Saran) is also the ‘India moment’ in Japan. It’s time for both rising Asian democracies to seize the moment, and co-create the lineaments of a stable and inclusive Asia-Pacific order.

(Manish Chand is Editor-in-Chief of www.indiawrites.org, an online magazine-journal focused on international affairs and the India Story).




Author Profile

Manish Chand
Manish Chand
Manish Chand is Founder-CEO and Editor-in-Chief of India Writes Network (www.indiawrites.org) and India and World, a pioneering magazine focused on international affairs. He is CEO/Director of TGII Media Private Limited, an India-based media, publishing, research and consultancy company.