India and Japan are made for each other

Tags: Op-ed
India and Japan are made for each other
AP
TWO TO TANGO: Prime minister Narendra Modi addressing the national assembly in Thimphu, Bhutan on Monday. It is important to note that Modi’s reformist drive is not just directed at small changes in administration and governance
It is a very wise decision of India’s prime minister Narendra Modi to make Japan the destination of his second trip abroad after he had assumed the leadership of the nation’s government. Together with his decision to invite the leaders of the Saarc countries and of Mauritius to his inauguration, the clear priority given to Tokyo is a strong indication of Modi’s intention to position India as a major Asian power. For all too long, Delhi had been looking to the west and to Moscow, while the future is clearly in eastern Asia.

Japanese media have noted since some time that there is great mutual respect between Modi and his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe. Both leaders face equally daunting challenges to modernise their country’s stagnating economy, having to face entrenched interests. Shortly after he assumed the prime ministership in December 2012, Abe launched what is called “Abenomics”, a three-pronged reform of the Japanese economy. Like India, Japan had been postponing essential structural changes until there was no other way left but to embark on a new path.

The ground for a substantial historic approachment of India and Japan has been well prepared. Since a number of years, Japanese companies have established factories and invested substantial sums of money in India. In recent years, the focus on India has intensified as Japanese companies increasingly need overseas markets to compensate for shrinking domestic markets. As tensions with neighbouring giant China have been increasing, Japanese companies have seen the need to diversify their foreign investments, their overseas markets and their production abroad. Obviously, the giant potentials of the Indian market are on the radar of the Japanese.

International trade is closely linked to geopolitics and in that respect, too, Japan must be interested in a higher Asian profile of India, not only in South Asia but also in southeast Asia. Most southeast Asian nations have territorial disputes with China and the only counterweight to Beijing’s overbearing power is India, which today still commands, after the US, the second most important naval power in the Indian Ocean, the sea, through which a significant part of Japanese trade and particularly Japanese energy imports have to pass.

Japan’s Emperor Akihito last year celebrated his 80th birthday and due to his age, has greatly reduced his overseas travels. It was, therefore, particularly significant that last autumn, he went on a state visit to India. 53 years after, as a young crown prince, he had laid the foundation stone of the India International Centre in Delhi. Then, for this year’s Republic Day parade, Abe was invited as the chief guest. And now, Japan will roll out the red carpet for Modi.

The new Indian government has raised the expectations of the electorate. While people know that to restore the seriously damaged Indian economy to its full strength will take a lot of time, they are nevertheless impatient and want to see quick results. For Modi, Japan can become the safest and most efficient partner in the difficult task to speedily restore the strength of the Indian economy. In many important respects, Japan has the technology that India needs. I think of energy saving equipment in transportation and machinery as well as health and education. I also think of life sciences and service industries.

Going through the speeches and declarations of Modi, both in his electoral campaign and now as prime minister, it is important to note that his reformist drive is not just directed at small changes in administration and governance. His aspirations reach much further and it is important to understand that his ambition is nothing less than to change India from top to bottom. One expects that India in five years’ time would be a fundamentally different country, changed as profoundly as China after the acceleration of Deng Xiaoping’s reforms.

While the Europeans continue to be sceptical of India’s potentials, Tokyo has clearly understood the huge assets of India both as a destination of investments and as market for goods and services. One has also witnessed with great interest the emphasis Modi puts on good governance, on discipline, efficiency and cleanliness. All these are values at the core of Japanese society. In this Japan is not only a role model for India and China but also for the industrialised west where lax attitudes have seriously undermined traditional values such as thrift and hard work.

One can only hope that in the years to come, India would welcome many more new Japanese investors, traders and tourists. Delhi should never forget that India as the country where Buddha attained enlightenment, continues to attract far too little attention. When Modi lands in Tokyo, he will encounter a country that is eager to intensify bilateral relations and to cooperate to make Asia a more stable and peaceful continent. It is important that Modi does not disappoint his hosts. The Japanese have a very long memory and they will never forget if a golden opportunity to strengthen ties with India is missed.

(The writer is the Far East correspondent of Swiss daily Neue Zurcher Zeitung)

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