India-Japan relations after Pokhran II


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IT is something of a paradox that India’s relations with Japan, singularly free of any kind of dispute – ideological, cultural or territorial – should have been so severely affected by the nuclear tests of May 1998. If these ties had a character, it was one of warmth emanating from generous gestures and sentiments, of standing by each other at times of need.

Japan’s image in India has historically been positive, going back to its 1905 victory over Russia which was interpreted by us as the beginning of Asian resurgence. In our reading of the events leading up to the Second World War, Japan’s anti-colonial contribution overshadowed any reservations about its militarism. Japanese support and assistance to Netaji and the Indian National Army continue to shape popular thinking about Japan.

The immediate post independence experience was no less positive, with the Tokyo tribunal, waiving of reparations, conclusion of a separate Peace Treaty, the Asian Games, extension of yen loans and shared commitment to nuclear disarmament. This spirit was visible as late as 1991, in Japan’s support during our balance of payments crisis.

Popular goodwill in both societies has been a notable element in the relationship. In Japan, it was not uncommon to hear politicians refer warmly to India’s declaration of mourning at the time of the demise of the Showa Emperor. Japanese businessmen active in steel, textiles or trading are nostalgic as they recall their Indian connections during the reconstruction period. Even the varied sections of the intelligentsia saw much good in our society – the traditionalists foregrounded the source of Buddhism, the philosophers and academics a great intellectual tradition, the post war centre-left admired the Nehruvian approach, while the right wing still kept alive memories of the INA. Surprisingly, the most pervasive Indian presence was gastronomic, through a Japanese concoction known as ‘curry rice’.



In the collective Indian perception, to the wartime image of a supportive Japan was added a strong admiration for that country’s post war economic reconstruction and subsequent rapid growth. This was reaffirmed a generation later by the unique role of Maruti-Suzuki in revolutionising industrial technology and management concepts in pre-economic reform India. Somewhere in Indian thinking was embedded respect for a society which, in contrast to us, engaged the world on its own terms and preserved its unique character through a process of upheaval and change. The intuitive feeling about Japan was one of friendliness and it was not without reason that Japan consistently ranked as the most admired nation in Indian newspaper polls for a number of years.

That such an ostensibly harmonious relationship should founder on encountering its first significant obstacle calls for a reassessment of its basics. In hindsight, it would appear that the absence of problems in itself did not automatically contribute to adding substance to the ties. On the contrary, a friction free but non substantive relationship actually suffered from want of attention.

The unfortunate reality of the state of affairs between India and Japan was that over three decades neither side concretely built on the warm sentiments and good feelings. The compulsions of the Cold War and India’s closed economy apparently led us much further away from each other than we realised. The Japanese judged India by the yardstick of material progress, a criteria for their own self-evaluation, and found us wanting. Increasingly, India appeared to them like the proverbial samurai who despite an empty stomach, ostentatiously used a large toothpick in public. The initial Japanese regard for post independent India too was evidently diminished over time by our seemingly perpetual conflict with Pakistan, which in Japanese eyes only reduced our stature.

The normalisation of Sino-Japanese ties also led to a revaluation on the premium put on the India relationship till the 1970s. Its cumulative impact may be gauged from a high level interaction considerably lower than with other G-8 nations, in the 10 year gap between the visits of foreign ministers and prime ministers, the limited Japanese economic presence in India, an absence of frequent working level contacts between the governments with the associated networking, and in the minimal societal interaction which in turn led to a misreading of developments in India.



Moreover, as the Japanese economy emerged as the principal motor for economic growth in the Asia-Pacific and with Japan’s growing relationship with the ASEAN, India gradually began to be excluded from the very definition of Asia. It was no accident that our entry into the Asean Regional Forum was pushed by nations other than Japan or that our case for participation in the ASEM receives less than a sympathetic hearing in Tokyo. In part, this emanated from Japan’s historical experience which had its limits at the Arakan Hills.

A factor often overlooked in India is the dual character of Japan, identifying in part with Asia, but more often with the West with which Japan was much closer materially and ideologically. This duality, accentuated by economic prosperity, has produced two post war generations who feel little affinity with a nation like India. At our end, growing unfamiliarity and an inability to keep pace with changes aggravated the basic incomprehension of an opaque society. Putting sentiment aside, the stark reality of 1998 was that India was less relevant to Japan’s economy, its security, culture, even leisure and entertainment, than say the European Union.



Ironically, Pokhran II caught India-Japan relations at the very time when efforts were underway to repair the relative neglect of previous decades. India’s economic reform had provided an opportunity, at long last, for greater Japanese investment to enter the country. Though characteristically, the Japanese response was deliberate and overly cautious, nonetheless by 1998 there was a visible upswing in economic ties.

FDI commitment in 1997 reached a peak of $531.5 million, with actual inflows being about one-third the committed level. Big names of Japanese industry – Toyota, Honda, Sony, Mitsubishi, Matsushita, Fujitsu, YKK – were establishing their presence in India. MITI was taking a direct interest in fostering ties, the Keidanren had begun to get directly involved in the relationship, the largest financial newspaper Nihon Keizai Shimbun was actively promoting our economic reforms, Japanese banks, insurance and securities companies were waking up to the Indian market, and Japanese airlines (JAL and ANA) establishing direct flights to India.

At the political level too, shedding by now the unnecessary baggage of the Cold War, high level interaction had resumed with a MITI minister paying a first ever visit in 1995 and a foreign minister coming after a gap of a decade in 1997. India’s engagement with ASEAN fora allowed greater opportunity for discussion of larger political and security issues with Japan. There was even talk of the need for a bilateral security dialogue between the two countries, and the exchange of visits by the naval chiefs in 1997-98 broke new ground. Support sectors, such as science and technology, academic interaction and cultural exchanges were also showing signs of greater life.



In the final analysis, however, we had still not made up for lost ground. Japanese FDI in India was less than 1% of its total global commitment, only 90,000 of the 16 million Japanese who travelled abroad each year chose to make India their destination; of 52,000 foreign students in Japan, Indians numbered less than 200! Each one of these indicators speaks for themselves. Most tellingly, even the occasion of Japan being the first partner nation from Asia for the India Engineering Trade Fair in February 1997 was not deemed good enough to warrant the presence of Prime Minister Hashimoto, despite a tradition of heads of states or governments being present at such occasions. Bilateral relations, therefore, were not a significant restraining factor as Japan’s leaders contemplated a response to Pokhran II.

In the event, Japanese reaction to the Indian nuclear tests was surprisingly swift and exceptionally harsh. The Government of Japan announced, in two stages, what it described as ‘economic measures’. These included freezing of grant aid for new projects (except for emergency, humanitarian and grassroots assistance), suspension of yen loans for new projects, withdrawal of Tokyo as a venue for the India Development Forum, a ‘cautious examination’ of loans to India by international financial institutions and imposition of strict control over technology transfers. It should be noted that in contrast, only part of the grant aid to China was frozen when it tested in 1995.

The Japanese ambassador to India was recalled temporarily for consultations and Prime Minister Hashimoto, preparing to leave for the G-8 Summit at Birmingham, emphasised his determination to get the G-8 to send a clear and strong message against India’s nuclear tests. These tests were described by the Japanese government as an intolerable challenge to international society. The Diet, for its part, went further and described the tests as acts of destruction of the global environment and ecosystem and constituting a threat to the survival of human beings. Japan followed up the ‘economic measures’ by cancelling a number of official dialogues, snapping communication at a time when it was most needed.



The reaction of the Japanese public, the media and civic organisations too was one of anger and outrage, understandable if one accepts their self perception of having a moral position against nuclear weapons and tests. What was significant was that the Japanese government not only made no effort to check public reaction, but by being entirely dismissive of India’s national security concerns, added to its intensity. A closely networked society was not slow in picking up the political signals. Public reaction has always featured as an important element in Japanese policy making. But by selectively picking out elements of public perception such as opposition to nuclear tests while conveniently ignoring strong feelings about the US nuclear umbrella and the P-5’s evasion of their disarmament obligations, the Japanese government has allowed itself to be seen as using public opinion to advance its own particular agenda.

To most Indians, the Japanese reaction was not unexpected, even if not wholly acceptable. It was after all the land of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the only case of nuclear weapons actually being used in war. The emotional side of India felt that if there was one country which had a moral right to raise its voice against nuclear weapons and tests, it was Japan. The intellectual side, however, noted that Japan had in the past been singularly inconsistent in doing so. It noted too that Japan had successfully harmonised its domestic anti nuclear sentiment with its national security requirements through a security alliance with the United States.



Certainly, from a non Japanese perspective, the convoluted semantic exercises which successive Japanese governments indulged in to overlook the presence of nuclear forces on their territory, were difficult to reconcile with claims of moral leadership on the nuclear question. Its enthusiastic advocacy of the discriminatory Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty did not sit well with a society with an anti colonial history. Japan’s rationalisation of subcritical tests in the context of the CTBT detracted from its independence of position. And its claim that India’s tests would encourage nations in its own region to follow suit seemed to fly in the face of established facts.

But, as viewed by the Japanese themselves, they as a nation were victims of a unique experience which placed them in a special position. Moreover they had given up the right to make nuclear weapons despite possessing the capability to do so. It is conceivable that Japan’s reaction, however critical, may have been received better in India had it not been complicated by the vehemence of a Japanese international campaign targeting India, its determined equation of India with Pakistan, and its self-appointed role in respect of Jammu and Kashmir.

The intensity with which Japan led an international campaign against India’s nuclear tests is best encapsulated by Prime Minister Hashimoto’s position taken at the G-8 summit in Birmingham, where he was quoted as stating that countries that obey international community rules should be rewarded while those that do not should be punished. When the G-8 foreign ministers met subsequently in London, the Japanese took the initiative to set up a South Asia Task Force to coordinate pressure on India and Pakistan. Subsequently, Japan has been among the more active members of the SATF.



It was Japan again, along with Sweden, Costa Rica and Slovenia, which introduced what was to eventually become UN Security Council Resolution 1172, strongly deploring the nuclear tests by India and Pakistan, calling on the two countries not to assemble or deploy nuclear devices, cease development of ballistic missiles, and immediately and unconditionally sign the NPT and CTBT. Revealingly, the initial Japanese draft was much more strongly worded and referred, amongst others, to the need for a mutually acceptable solution that address the root cause of tensions, including Kashmir. Japan also issued an appeal to the P-5 foreign ministers’ meeting in Geneva not to grant nuclear weapon state status to India and Pakistan.

At the Asean Regional Forum, Japan unsuccessfully pressed for the participation of Pakistan (which was not a member) arguing that in view of the fact that India was already in the ARF, an invitation to Pakistan would be desirable. At the International Atomic Energy Agency, Japan joined Australia, Canada and New Zealand in criticising our nuclear tests at the Board of Governors’ meeting as also at the General Conference. It proposed that the acceptance of IAEA’s comprehensive safeguards be made a criteria for the implementation of the agency’s activities, including the technical cooperation programme. Even at the Inter Parliamentary Union meeting in Moscow in September 1998, it was Japan which sought (unsuccessfully) the inclusion of an agenda item protesting against the South Asian nuclear tests.



The Tokyo Forum on Non Proliferation and Disarmament, constituted by the Government of Japan immediately after our nuclear tests, was the most recent step in the international campaign. Its final report released on 25 July 1999, calls on the international community to continue to urge India and Pakistan to implement all requirements in UNSC Resolution 1172. It considers that the two countries should acquire no special status under the NPT, let alone legal status as nuclear weapon states, nor be rewarded with any other additional status as a result of their nuclear testing. Its key recommendations envisage the reversal of proliferation in South Asia and refer as well to the resolution of the Kashmir dispute in the nuclear context. The Indian participant at the forum withdrew after the initial meeting on finding that his views were not being taken into account.

The equation of India with Pakistan in many of these Japanese initiatives is per se disturbing to the former, seen as a carryover of the western Cold War balance of power approach to the subcontinent. Japan, over the years, has followed it assiduously, matching for example every visit to India with one to Pakistan. In the nuclear context, this balancing acquires special meaning because it pointedly ignores the critical external assistance received by Pakistan in both its nuclear and missile programmes. What made the situation particularly galling was the linkage sought to be drawn between the nuclear tests and the Jammu and Kashmir issue, reflected in the Japanese subscription to and advancement of a ‘nuclear flash point’ theory.



The first sign of bringing Jammu and Kashmir into the nuclear debate came with Prime Minister Hashimoto’s statement on 29 May 1998 that he had done his best to place the issue of Kashmir on the Security Council agenda, thinking that this was the only way to ensure Pakistan’s restraint, but the reaction (of other members) was not swift.

On 1 June 1998, then Foreign Minister Obuchi, responding to a question about settling the Kashmir dispute at the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Lower House, spoke of inviting the concerned countries to Tokyo to help find a way out as a solution to this historical dispute. Both Hashimoto and Obuchi specifically referred to the international community’s interest in Kashmir while speaking at Nikkei’s ‘Future of Asia Conference’ on 4-5 June 1998. The Japanese official spokesman, in various pronouncements during that period, projected the Kashmir problem as the ‘underlying cause’ of the nuclear tests and went to the extent of referring to a Tokyo Conference on Kashmir. References to a role for Japan as a facilitator continued well into August 1998.

The experience of this period raises a number of questions which have a bearing on the future of India-Japan relations. First and foremost, there is a clear message that our bilateral ties do not constitute an adequate counterweight to restrain Japan on an issue of significant concern. Adding substance to these ties should, therefore, constitute one of our immediate priorities. Second, the language of demands, rewards and punishments, benchmarks and so on, is reflective of a donor syndrome at its worst, a departure from the earlier history of good sentiments or with the Indian belief in mutuality of interests. Presumably, the fallout of this approach is apparent by now. The nuclear issue is, of course, being addressed on a forum larger than the bilateral one and its full resolution will take some time. But the insistence on equating India with Pakistan at every opportunity is reflective of an era gone by and does not bode well for the future. Japan must be encouraged to outgrow this paradigm.



The foray into the Jammu and Kashmir debate is, however, really the most inexplicable element. It could have been reasonably expected that given Japan’s own territorial disputes, there would have been some sensitivity for similar concerns of others. The suggestion of mediation or even facilitation emanating from a source so entirely innocent of the complexities of the Indian subcontinent is extraordinary. What really brought out the lack of understanding was the surprise on the Japanese side at the vehemence of India’s reaction to its new position on Jammu and Kashmir. A closer dialogue at the political and security level is, therefore, an imperative for this relationship.

Even as relations began to show some improvement in the first half of 1999, the Japanese position on Kargil provided confirmation, if one was needed, that the attitudinal changes necessary for a stronger relationship are still only in the making. Briefly, the Japanese approach put India and Pakistan on par, ignoring the central fact that the Line of Control had been violated, thereby projecting the issue in terms of a larger dispute rather than a unilateral violation of a mutually agreed upon line. This was justified on the grounds that who triggered off what in this dispute was not easy for Japan to comment on. Lack of evidence and absence of means of verification were cited as reasons not to pass judgement. One can reasonably infer that this was perceived as a neutral approach, and when accompanied by calls for self-restraint and cessation of hostilities, expected to meet with international approval.

In the event, Japan found itself out of step even with the G-8, giving rise to a speculation inimical to promoting bilateral understanding. One result of the international response to the Kargil episode was to upset the long standing India-Pakistan balance syndrome; this does not appear to have gone down well in Tokyo.



By the second half of 1999, the Japanese approach towards India’s nuclear policy appeared to be undergoing a reassessment. The initial G-8 consensus arrived at in May-June 1998 had begun eroding. India’s relations with China too had visibly improved. The action of the U.S. Senate was a setback to a country that had taken on the mission of seeing through the ratification of the CTBT. On the ground, there was little give on India’s insistence on maintaining a credible minimum nuclear deterrent. The sanctions were not yielding the desired results, and in fact, appeared to be affecting Pakistan much more than India. The Indian general elections brought no new factor into the calculus.

Apart from the aspect of viability, there was an element of desirability as well. The goodwill element in the relationship, taken for granted for so long, was showing signs of fraying. Moreover, the sanctions were not without some cost to the sanctioning government in the absence of similar policies on the part of other nations.



The mutual desire for normalcy in the relationship, therefore, began reasserting itself more strongly. Cancelled dialogues were restored, the Jammu and Kashmir issue was now depicted as a misunderstanding, and high level political contacts resumed. On the Japanese side, India’s signing the CTBT remains a major issue. From the Indian perspective, the shadow of sanctions continue to overhang the relationship. But it is clear that neither country wishes to reduce the relationship to a single issue. Their recent determination to agree on a forward looking agenda reflects a common interest in putting a difficult phase behind them.

If we are to analyse this period, not in a spirit of recrimination or with a desire to obfuscate events but to learn lessons for the future, some good may still come of it. It could be argued that this phase of difficult relations was really a mixed blessing. For all its downside, it provided a much needed reality check which, by briefly stripping our ties of false sentiment, allowed for a serious engagement, perhaps for the first time. The problem with India-Japan relations is that they have been starved of attention; this they are now getting in full measure on both sides. The state of ties post Pokhran II allow us the opportunity to fashion new terms of engagement.

There is a need for a better appreciation of the mutuality of interests. This will probably happen in any case once we broadbase the relationship and move away from its overwhelming ODA character. If only for that reason, a greater focus on encouraging Japanese FDI is required on our part. The second core issue relates to an appropriate recognition of each others’ security interests. Japan must accept that Indian security concerns go beyond the confines of South Asia. It is, of course, for the Japanese to determine and appropriately formulate their own requirements. But in any case, it is difficult to envisage any clash of interests in this regard.



Ultimately, what is important is that the underlying sentiment should be one of convergence rather than of competition. Healthy bilateral relations will have a natural downstream flow in terms of international cooperation. India and Japan have a number of shared interests, among them the reform of the United Nations.

Even the nuclear issue is not as intractable as it may appear at first glance. Time will reassure Japan that there is no automatic spread effect to the Indian nuclear tests and that its own immediate security environment is not adversely affected. Nor need there be any apprehension about the intentions or even ambitions of a nuclear India. Recent history has frequently demonstrated Japan’s pragmatism and there is no reason to suppose that this would not extend to India. Some influential Japanese are already arguing that India’s nuclear weapons programme should lead to greater transparency and self-restraint on the part of China. It is only natural that a new factor, however disturbing initially, would be put to best use as Japan assesses its own security environment. On our side, clearly we must remedy our failure to adequately communicate the full complexity of our security concerns.

Japan and India are both in the process of globalising, each of course in their own way and responding to their individual compulsions. Whether or not we are fully cognisant of the long term implications of the road we have chosen, there can be little argument that most of us have an inadequate feel for the changes currently underway in Japan. Our picture of that society, its concerns and its moving forces, is still very much frozen in the past. Japanese corporations today are increasingly accepting the need for global partnerships. Key sectors of the economy, such as banking, securities, energy, health, telecom and so on are opening up. The current recession should not obscure a reform and restructuring designed to maintain and even enhance Japan’s competitiveness. At the societal level, there is a very marked internationalisation, visible in language, in food and dress habits, and in leisure activities. Most important, the political ‘coming out’ of Japan has begun.



Increasing participation in peace-keeping operations and a higher profile in international organisations are only the first step. More significant, sensitive issues kept pending for half a century such as the status of the national flag and anthem, are now being decisively addressed. There is much greater realism about meeting security challenges and a much stronger will in securing national goals. As with most processes in Japan, this one too will be incremental until the final quantum leap.

For us there is a clear message: Japan will inevitably be a larger political, economic and cultural presence in the world, and particularly so in Asia. Japan too must give more thought to where India would be 15 to 20 years hence and plan a relationship keeping that in mind. This time around, mutual interest demands that we engage each other more substantially and more productively.

* The author is a diplomat serving in Japan. The views expressed and assessments made in the article are entirely personal.