There is strategic substance to the imperial symbolism of the visit of the Japanese emperor to India. The Heisei Emperor no longer goes overseas, but Tokyo has decided that a tour of India is called for.
At the heart of this is a belief in Japan, the second-largest economy and the technologically most-advanced Asian nation, that wooing India is in its interest. The same sentiment though, more haphazardly, exists in India: bilateral ties is more than a normal trade and investment story.
It is about a closer relationship that will, in time, encompass strategic ties in a way that India reserves for only two or three other countries. The answer as to why this is happening is mutual concerns about China.
Beijing’s recent aggressive stance on territorial disputes has targeted the Himalayas, the Senkaku islands and the South China Sea. But it is evident that the one with Japan is the primus inter pares for China.
India has a stake in ensuring Beijing does not win these disputes through coercion — the precedent for Sino-Indian differences would not be good. However, there is a larger mutual project between India and Japan.
Both countries have leaderships that wish to change their countries. India’s focussed on economic growth and ending poverty. Which is why the Japanese willingness to fund infrastructure projects and expand India’s stunted manufacturing base are so attractive to New Delhi.
Tokyo talks about making the country a “normal” State rather than the post-modern, pacificist appendage to the United States that it has been the past half-century. Japan’s leaders now want an independent foreign policy, military capabilities and an international profile that go with having the world’s number three economy.
India, because of its size and crucially because it has no World War II baggage with Japan, is an obvious match. Nonetheless, while all this sounds nice on paper, implementation is not easy. Japanese investors have been frustrated with India’s bureaucracy, irrational tax laws and directionless political system.
The Japanese emperor’s visit is a message from Tokyo that it is prepared to commit to a strong and lasting relationship with India. Geopolitical considerations aside, there is much that India can benefit from such a relationship.
However, India’s leadership needs to come to understand the opportunity that is being handed to them. Japan is potentially a strategic ally second only to the US in terms of its ability to help India achieve greatness. It is an opportunity that should not be missed.