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Commentary (May 19, 2005)

Koizumi's India Visit Long Overdue

Masahiko ISHIZUKA (Councilor of the Foreign Press Center/Japan)

Relationship neglected in past, but now Tokyo must reassess new reality

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visited India in late April, the first Japanese leader to do so in five years. The previous one was by then Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, which was the first in 10 years. The long intervals between these visits are a telling indication of the distance that separates the two countries despite their relations, generally considered to have been favorable over the decades.

With regard to Koizumi's New Delhi visit, major Japanese newspapers invariably stressed in their editorials the importance of "strategy" or "strategic thinking." "Build strategic cooperative relations (with India)," the Mainichi newspaper demanded. "Strategic diplomacy toward South Asia is important," The Yomiuri Shimbun argued, while The Asahi Shimbun called on the prime minister to "speak his strategy" to Indian leaders. The Nihon Keizai Shimbun also sought a "strengthening of ties with India from a strategic viewpoint."

These headlines and commentaries only made clear the absence of strategy in the past, or more bluntly, the neglect of India in Japanese diplomacy despite the country's potential importance that has deserved more attention and care by Japan.

"Strategy" is a fond word of Japanese media, as in this case, especially in their criticisms of the government and political leaders who are more often than not blamed for lacking strategies or strategic thinking especially in external agenda. But what "strategy" exactly means is not necessarily clear. It presumably is used to mean ideas or policies embracing long-range viewpoints or multifaceted policies backed by a clear sense of priority about national interests.

Good relations

Japan's attitude toward India has been characterized by some fixed notions about the country. One is that India is basically favorably disposed toward Japan. One proof often cited is opinion polls taken in India that have usually ranked Japan high among countries Indians like, while the bilateral relations at the government-to-government level have generally been free from major troubles, except when New Delhi was deeply disappointed and offended by the Japanese sanctions against it in reaction to its nuclear weapons test in 1998.

In a sense, Japan has been complacent about its relationship with India and taken that relationship for granted. The second popular notion about India in Japan is that it is an underdeveloped country with a huge and poor population, which could be a burden on humanity.

In terms of economic development, India has always been considered slow and inefficient, especially in comparison with China, and India's democracy, claimed to be the world's largest, is considered to be a deterrent, in contrast with China's dictatorial or authoritarian regime which at times appeared to have worked better to push economic development than the Indian system, as the Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen explained in his book "Development as Freedom."

But the major factor for the distance in relations between the two countries seems to be the Japanese notion of cultural difference with India. Japan sticking to its traditional notion of Asia consciously or unconsciously may have kept India at arm's length. Although India is Asia geographically, it is viewed as a different kind of Asia, raising ambivalent feelings about India's position in Asia in Japanese eyes.

Indians often complain that for Japanese Asia ends at Myanmar and does not extend farther west. For Japanese India is theoretically or rhetorically part of Asia, but not psychologically or emotionally. But Japan is being forced to change its way of looking at the geopolitical situation involving India and its position in Asia. Koizumi's visit to the country apparently has been motivated by India's recent rise as an economic power and China's approaches to the country for closer ties at a time when Japan's relationship with China is in trouble and looks likely to be at loggerheads in the future.

Long-term neglect

We cannot escape the impression that the prime minister's overture toward India was something of a hasty response, and overdue. The newspapers' calls for a "strategy" in approaching India were an admission of Japan's past neglect of the long-term trends or failure to act in anticipation of them.

Okakura Tenshin, the distinguished 19th century cultural leader with a cosmopolitan vision and mindset, is still remembered for his idea to embrace India, China and Japan in a one-Asia concept. "Asia is one," he declared. In the 1950s, the heyday of India's non-alignment policy, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was perhaps the most popular foreign political leader in Japan. India was the first recipient, and in cumulative total one of the largest, of Japan's official development assistance.

But the level of the actual economic relationship is not high either in terms of Japanese investment in India or in two-way trade. When India turned to new economic opening policies in the early 1990s, it did not spark wide interest in the country among Japanese businesspeople. India's bureaucracy was hated by Japanese businessmen, but a sense of cultural unfamiliarity with India seems to have been a major deterrent as well.

Japan is now welcoming India to an East Asian summit to be held later this year in Kuala Lumpur with members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations plus Japan, China and South Korea. New Zealand and Australia are also planning to attend the summit in line with Japanese policy. But China hopes to limit the summit to the 13 countries of Northeast and Southeast Asia. Rivalry with China over Asia is clearly behind the Japanese move to expand the scope of the scheduled summit, even though Japanese may feel more comfortable with the traditional notion of Asia.

So in terms of strategic thinking, Japan needs to rethink what Asia is. In this globalized world and rapidly changing picture of the region which has been vaguely referred to as Asia, strategic thinking starts with coming to grips with that reality.

(Originally appeared in the May 16, 2005 issue of The Nikkei Weekly, reproduced here with permission.)

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