The final years of the United Progressive Alliance government were marked by a relative passivity and lack of focus in the conduct of foreign policy. But there was one notable exception: the deliberate and consistent pursuit of a close partnership with Shinzo Abe's Japan. The state visit of the emperor and the empress of Japan to India in November last year, followed by Prime Minister Abe's own visit as chief guest at the Republic Day in January this year, demonstrated how significant India-Japan relations have become to both countries.
The drivers behind these transformed relations are fairly obvious. China's emergence as a major power with expanding economic and military capabilities is beginning to change the contours of the economic and security architecture in the Indo-Pacific region. On the economic front, China is already a central component of a region-wide trade and investment network. On the security front, it competes with a still pre-eminent United States and would prefer to inherit the dominance that the latter has enjoyed for the past several decades.
Neither India nor Japan view the prospect of a China-centric Asia as compatible with their own long-term interests, and see merit in working together and with other concerned powers to actively shape the emerging architecture towards an open, an inclusive, a transparent and, above all, a balanced structure. The engagement with China must go hand in hand with constraining its predilection towards unilateral assertion of power.
Japanese contribution to China's spectacular economic development has been immense, with Japanese companies providing both capital and technology on a massive scale. The political and commercial environment in China has turned adverse for Japan, even as the promise of the Indian market has revived with the advent of a market-friendly Modi government.
The two countries should look upon their economic relationship in the larger geopolitical context. Japan needs to take a long-term bet on India. India needs to make that wager count by easing entry into its market. As Prime Minister Abe has asserted, a strong and democratic India is in Japan's interest, just as a strong and democratic Japan is in India's. This goes beyond the preoccupation with China, and has its own logic in shared values and mutual benefit.
It is for this reason that India should welcome the recent re-interpretation of the Japanese Constitution by the Abe government, enabling Japan to participate in collective defence and to undertake defence exports. The increase in the Japanese defence Budget, though modest, is important, because it marks a departure from a posture of apologetic defensiveness that has characterised Japanese behaviour in the past. A Japan that plays an active role in shaping the security architecture in the region can only be in India's interest.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be visiting Japan shortly. He has a unique opportunity to transform the India-Japan relationship into a truly strategic and long-term partnership, building upon all the positive factors enumerated above. The personal chemistry between Mr Abe and Mr Modi is a major asset, and may prove decisive on issues where outcomes hang in delicate balance. One such issue is the still-to-be-concluded civil nuclear agreement between the two countries on the lines negotiated successfully with the United States in 2008.
Just as the Indo-US nuclear deal cleared the decks for a significant expansion in Indo-US relations, an Indo-Japanese nuclear deal will enhance our relations both in symbolic and substantive terms. The template is already there in the Indo-US civil nuclear agreement. India will not be able to depart from this template, which represents a very fine balance between India's strategic imperatives and international non-proliferation concerns.
India is deeply conscious of Japanese sensitivities on the nuclear issue, the latter having been the only victim of the use of nuclear weapons. However, when India has proposed an international convention against the use or the threat of use of nuclear weapons, Japan has been unable to support the initiative because it is a member of a military alliance and is covered by extended nuclear deterrence provided by the United States. Just as India appreciates Japanese security compulsions in this respect, so should Japan understand India's security imperatives and not insist on commitments that will undermine its security.
When the Nuclear Suppliers Group took a consensus decision to resume civil nuclear cooperation with India in September 2008, the Indian external affairs minister made a solemn declaration spelling out the country's commitment to non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament. A statement on these lines accompanying the conclusion of an India-Japan nuclear deal should assuage Japanese concerns. There could also be a joint project to formulate world-class safety features for nuclear reactors to allay post-Fukushima safety concerns. Political intervention at Mr Abe's level could ensure a successful outcome in time for the visit. Otherwise the negotiations may remain mired in technicalities.
The two countries have identified maritime security as a key area of security cooperation. While Indian naval forces are a significant presence in the Indian Ocean region, India's maritime assets lag far behind. In order to be reckoned as a significant maritime power, India needs to have shipbuilding capabilities, modern port facilities, and a large and modern shipping fleet to carry its growing external trade. Japan can be a valuable partner to India, helping the shipbuilding industry and improving and upgrading our port facilities.
In this context, it is worth recalling some significant remarks made by the Japanese deputy prime minister and finance minister, Taro Aso, in May last year at a Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry event: "Your port facilities need further investment. Your marine industries, in general, have much room to cooperate with the Japanese. I would like to bring here an across-the-board support from my country, involving both government and private sectors."
This is certainly worth following up as a key area of partnership between the two countries during the forthcoming visit.
More interestingly, Mr Aso also drew attention to the strategic importance of Andaman and Nicobar islands, which he described as confirming India's identity as a Southeast Asian power.
He saw the islands as playing a key role in the growing maritime cooperation between the two countries in the long stretch between Japan to the east and Africa to the west.
An India-Japan project to develop these island territories as an economic, a logistics and a maritime hub serving the entire Indo-Pacific region should be seriously considered as a key outcome of the forthcoming visit.