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Devesh Kapur: Tangoing with Tokyo

India and Japan are diffident Asian partners. But the gains from closer co-operation are huge

Devesh Kapur 

Tangoing with Tokyo

There is perhaps no other pair of major world powers whose strategic interests overlap as much as they differ from each other socio-culturally as India and Japan. Japan is a capital-rich country with an ageing and declining population. India is a capital-poor country poised to reap a major demographic dividend in the next few decades. Indians are as argumentative as the Japanese are polite. India is a deeply stratified hierarchical society, in contrast to Japanese society’s much more egalitarian ethos. India is as heterogenous as Japan is homogeneous. The work culture and integrity of the lower levels of the Indian bureaucracy are almost the polar opposite of its counterparts in Japan. Indian food is as spicy as Japanese food is not.

Until recently Japan’s population density was about the same as India’s. But there can scarcely be a greater contrast between the ways in which Japan and India have managed their urban transformations. The culture of civic responsibility that seems so deep-rooted in Japanese society appears virtually absent in India, evident in the starkly different images of public cleanliness in the two countries.

Hence it is perhaps not surprising that even though India is the only large country in Asia where Japan does not have any historical baggage, and Japan has generally enjoyed favourable public in India, the reverse is less true. The most recent public surveys conducted by the Japanese government on the “current state” of Japan’s relations with the US, South Korea and China found that 73 per cent, 58.5 per cent and 18.8 per cent of Japanese think that their country’s relations with these countries are “good” while 23.2 per cent, 36 per cent and 76.3 per cent think that they are “not good” (the remainder answered “don’t know”). In 2011, around 41 per cent of the Japanese public responded “yes” when asked “feel affinity with India” while about the same (40 per cent) responded “no”. Though this was an improvement from 2008 (32.5 per cent “yes” and 60.2 per cent “no”), what is worrisome is that younger Japanese (between 20 and 39 years) feel less of an affinity with India than older Japanese (over 60 years old). Clearly, this is an area for the Public Diplomacy Division of the Ministry of External Affairs to focus on.

Although the security relationship between the two countries has been gradually strengthening, its growth has been stymied by self-imposed constraints on both sides. India has been wary, if not downright fearful, of being seen as part of any strategy of containment vis-à-vis China — even as it continues to stress that China has deployed this strategy unabashedly using Pakistan. On the Japanese side, its own laws and constitutional proscriptions, a reluctance to exercise autonomous judgement on foreign policy unless blessed by the United States, and a debilitating loss of self-confidence have made it unduly cautious and risk-averse. When you bring two reluctant dancers to the dance floor, their tango is unlikely to be sizzling.

But rapid changes in global power, when coupled with fiscal constraints in both countries, have upped the ante and are pushing both countries to shed their reticence and strengthen both the security and economic dimensions of their relationship. On the former, there is significant potential for the two countries to collaborate on joint production of defensive weapon systems despite existing Japanese laws. The growing ballistic missile threat from within the Asia-Pacific region (especially North Korea’s Nodong missile launches and 2006 nuclear test) is gradually forcing a rethinking in Japan. This is particularly the case with anti-ballistic missiles and sea-denial naval technologies, where Japan’s technological prowess is considerable. Since North Korea’s Nodong missile has similarities with Pakistan’s Ghauri (Hatf-5) missiles (given North Korea’s proliferation of its missile technologies to Pakistan), both countries share similar missile threats from unstable and unpredictable neighbours. Consequently, the advantages of co-operation here are obvious. This is also the case with regard to a range of naval technologies since both countries have shared maritime interests, especially in the Indian Ocean. As an island state, maritime security is fundamental for Japan and the Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force has emerged as a world leader in anti-submarine and diesel-electric submarine technologies, both of which India could greatly benefit from. 

While the congruence of interests in these areas is self-evident, there are two major barriers. On the Japanese side, there are proscriptions on defence equipment sales arising from its pacifist constitution. However, new realities are forcing changes. For instance, the Japanese government has subtly shifted its stance from using space only for peaceful (i.e. non-military) purposes to “non-aggressive”, thus allowing its satellites to support military operations such as ballistic missile defence. A similar interpretation could be used to facilitate co-production of radar systems and anti-submarine and coastal defence systems with India. On the Indian side, the problems are less Japan-specific, and are rather rooted in a broken system of defence procurement that has the brakes of a jet airliner and the engine of a bullock cart, seriously jeopardising the country’s defence preparedness.  

Nonetheless, the bedrock of the relationship must be economic. Unfortunately, both India and Japan have been slow to leverage the strategic possibilities of Japanese official development assistance or ODA to build this relationship. Much of Japanese ODA that is now directed towards poverty projects should be reoriented to building the necessary infrastructure to attract Japanese firms to invest in India, with the goal of growing their numbers from their current modest limited levels (less than 1,000) to those prevalent in China (more than 10,000). The Indian state can (at least in principle) undertake virtually all the poverty projects currently funded by Japanese ODA. But only the latter can plan, build and co-ordinate its investments with Japanese firms. Current plans to jointly develop the Delhi-Mumbai Infrastructure Corridor are an excellent example that could be extended (such as the Bangalore-Chennai corridor). Japanese ODA could also be deployed to develop India’s human capital (especially blue-collar skills) and leverage it not only for the labour requirements of Japanese firms intending to invest in India, but also to meet the inevitable needs of Japanese labour markets given the country’s bleak demographic projections.

In addition, both countries should also work to co-ordinate their strategies in multilateral banks (especially the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank), to fund and build the necessary connecting infrastructure between Southeast and South Asia — which would facilitate global supply chains between these two regions and Japan. India could also jump-start Japanese investment into India by selling strategic stakes in Indian state-owned enterprises to Japanese firms. However, that would require a vision and implementation capacity on the Indian side, which is unlikely.

With UPA-II now struggling on the domestic front, foreign policy offers a little more room to manoeuvre. Given that Japan is one of the few countries that matter globally as well as enjoy broad support across the political spectrum within India, pushing the boundaries on this relationship could well be among the most positive foreign-policy legacies of this government.


The writer is director of the Centre for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania

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First Published: Tue, December 27 2011. 00:39 IST