Japan, despite brief period of warmth in the 1950s, turned its back on an India that became too socialist and pro-Soviet for its liking. The end of the Cold War, the Goldman Sach BRIC report and the heightened strategic interest in India showed by Washington made Tokyo begin to think again.
Japan signed up to a broader Western strategy to promote India’s rise. Initially, this was about Tokyo redirected its foreign aid towards infrastructure. Japan, already facing its first signs of friction with China, also made India its largest aid recipient. But the big goal was to encourage Japanese firms to invest in India.
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Japan assumed India, faced with prospect of billions of dollars of FDI, would quickly build infrastructure to capture this prize — as the Southeast Asian countries and China had done. But New Delhi did nothing. “It’s hard to help your country,” a bewildered Japanese diplomat said at the time.
Tokyo began to conclude it would have to make the infrastructure itself. The Delhi Metro, Japan’s first experiment in big-time infrastructure, proved successful.
Shinzo Abe, visiting India during his first term as prime minister in 2007, proposed taking it to the next level: recreating the Pacific corridor that services the industrial heartland of Japan.
Presently budgeted at $150 billion, the 1400 km-long Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor would augment India’s industrial infrastructure by a quarter and provide a base around which hundreds of export-oriented manufacturers can cluster.
He could not have found a greater Japanophile than Manmohan Singh who speaks of only two countries as having the ability to “transform” India: the US and Japan.
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Japan’s political leadership remained divided as to the purpose of the outreach to India, including the DMIC. The Democratic Party of Japan saw the corridor, 40 per cent of which it calculated would be built by Japanese firms, as a means to boost the economy at home. There was no strategic element: the DPJ believed in close ties with China.
Abe’s more conservative Liberal Democratic Party, however, believed that Beijing was a threat not an opportunity. Japan had to become a “normal” country with an offensive military capacity and a foreign policy that sought to defend Japanese interests.
Tokyo’s India policy went back and forth. Thus it was all about business under Prime Ministers Yukio Hatamayo and Yasuo Fukuda, but strategic under Taro Aso who served in-between them. The deciding factor proved to be China. Beijing rejected the overtures of the DPJ government. It did not want a friendly Japan, only a subjugated one.
By 2010, there was only one India policy in Tokyo. Today, says Takenori Horimoto of Kyoto University, “The strategic community of Japan and to a lesser degree the ordinary people understand Abe’s calculus of an Asian policy centering around India.”
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The reelection of Abe in 2013, nailed the policy shut. Japan’s India policy would be both economic and strategic. Abe’s gameplan has three elements.
The most important, is about normalising Japan, shedding the postwar shackles that forced Japan to take a back seat out of place for an economy larger than Germany’s and Britain’s combined. He seeks to reinvent Japan — as it periodically does in its history.
Abe speaks of making Tokyo a genuinely international city like New York, “drastically changing the inward-looking mindset” of his people and giving Japanese women a leadership role in his society.
Towards this end, India is important in two ways.
One, with the US’s commitment to Asia-Pacific security uncertain, Abe needs to work towards constraining China. Abe is called “the bullet train” by Japanese diplomats because of the amount of travelling he has done. And when he goes to an Asian country, his defence minister follows.
India is his biggest bet. Over 14000 Japanese firms in China are looking for an alternate investment site. If India can get the necessary infrastructure to let them use it as an export base, they could move here and provide the country what it desperately lacks: a competitive manufacturing base.