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Nippon Redux

The Japan of today is a bit like Rip Van Winkle. After a 15-year hibernation, the world?s second largest economy is astir and the process has portentous consequences for not just Asia or the world, but India, writes Manoj Joshi.

india Updated: Apr 05, 2006 02:57 IST

Eighteen years ago on a visit to Japan, I had occasion to meet a senior official of the Japanese defence ministry. Given Japan’s post World War II self-deprecatory approach on defence matters, the official was civilian, and their ministry was called the Self Defence Agency. The threats to Japan, the official was emphatic, came from only one source-- the Soviet Far Eastern Fleet and the dispute over the ownership of the Kuriles islands seized by Russians in the closing days of World War II.

In 1992, following the dramatic end of the Cold War and the first Gulf War against Iraq, a similar visit and conversation with another official in the same ministry yielded a different perspective-- on Japanese access to oil from the Persian Gulf and the post-Soviet Far East. China was being handled by a process of intense engagement, underwritten by a huge Japanese investment-- through the official development assistance (ODA) as well as the private sector.

A visit a week ago revealed how the pattern in the Japanese kaleidoscope had changed again. The sharp focus of the past had been replaced by a set of jagged and, in some ways, more threatening images-- North Korean nuclear weapons and missiles, anti-Japanese sentiment in China, security of oil sea lanes and, though somewhat distant, terrorism.

Since the Sixties, Japan has always seen its security interests being resolved by a two-pronged process-- the physical security of the island, guaranteed ultimately by the US alliance and the largely Japanese-initiated and financed effort to neutralise threats by improving the international security environment through diplomatic engagement and strategic use of ODA. Deeper planning was a matter of interpreting why Japan had accumulated so much plutonium and conducted rocket tests relating to re-entry technology. But in recent years, it became clear that Tokyo could not afford to be passive about its roles. This was the reason that the Japanese government pushed through the controversial commitment of a contingent of its forces in Iraq in 2003, ostensibly for humanitarian work and reconstruction.

The Japan of today is a bit like Rip Van Winkle. After a 15-year hibernation, the world’s second largest economy is astir and the process has portentous consequences for not just Asia or the world, but India. The analogy of the long sleep will, of course, go only that far. Japan was down, but not quite out. In this period it tried to fight its way out of a recession by an unprecedented bout of public spending that has changed its cityscape. Yet, through its downward spiral, the Japanese economy remained big enough to be the world’s second largest, after the US.

But the world that Japan now awakens to has changed dramatically. North Korea, whose bizarre actions against Japan include the kidnapping of Japanese nationals for use as language teachers for its spies, is now a nuclear weapon power, at least, so it claims. Its missile capability may eventually target the US, but for the present, they have most of Japan under their range. China, on the other hand, is steadily accumulating military capability and some of it brushes past Japan occasionally.

China looms large over Japan, physically and psychologically. “Two-third of the Diet (Parliament) is anti-Chinese,and two-third of the government pro-Chinese,” says a specialist. Yet, despite the rhetoric over Yasukuni shrine and the Nanjing massacre, Japanese specialists and scholars are quite centrist in their views. Former Japanese ambassador to India and China, Sakutaro Tanino, feels that the protests, which he insists were not government-organised but media-driven, are as much aimed at Beijing as at Tokyo and poses risks for both. The ones for Japan are obvious, but, says Tanino, unregulated political mobilisation, like the one that took place, are dangerous for the authority of the Communist Party rule in China. Political analyst Takashi Inoguchi says that Chinese nationalism tends to become “too parochial” and a constraint on official Chinese policy. Patriotism, as being pushed in the anti-Japanese protests, can be a dangerous slogan, he adds, because the people will ask, “Why suppress us when we are being patriotic?” The protests, Tanino argues, are part of the dark side of the opening up of China-- corruption, deteriorating environment, gap between the rich and poor and so on.

Hiroshi Nakanishi, an international relations specialist in the University of Kyoto, too, feels that there is an element of exaggeration in media reports of difficulties between China and Japan. He feels that the anti-Japanese phase is temporary, but his major point is that the CPC simply lacks a theory for the kind of political and economic system that is emerging in China. “The next generation leaders have to ‘decommunise’ the system,” he says, “and resolve the contradiction between the society and its politics.” The challenge, many specialists maintain, is to shift Sino-Japanese relations from its present somewhat emotional discourse, to one that takes up the real issues of peace and security in the region.

Satoshi Morimoto, director of the Institute of World Studies, has a slightly more nuanced position. He believes that the Chinese will concentrate on domestic matters and not foreign policy. But he notes, the present generation of CPC leaders have a difficult task because they lack the charisma of the Long March veterans and are merely technocrats who are not above “using external issues to distract attention, such as those related to Taiwan and Japan”.

To us, the essence of Japanese strategy is that relations with China are all about risk management. Japan’s current interest in India can be seen as part of a risk-management strategy of a very risk averse country. “Japanese manufacturers remain engaged in China,” says Tanino, “but they have begun hedging their bets by opening towards India.” But in contrast to the easy business climate in China, Japanese corporates are confronted with poor infrastructure and bureaucratic delays in India. However, he says, this itself is an opportunity because India can take advantage of Japanese finance and expertise in construction to transform its infrastructure. Last week, Japan extended the largest-ever soft loan package of about Rs 5,910 crore to India for the coming year for power generation, rural electrification and environment as well as the second phase of the Delhi Metro. India has now replaced China as the largest recipient of Japanese ODA.

Yet, whatever role India may have in Tokyo’s scheme of spreading its global risks, it cannot match China’s salience for Japan, for the obvious reasons of history and geography. But the renewed interest in better relations in both countries can be mutually beneficial for both countries. If economic hedging benefits India, political hedging is of undoubted value to Japan. India has much to offer Japanese investors and they know it. The current bull run of the Sensex owes a lot to Japanese investment. But perhaps the greatest benefit can come from Japanese manufacturing prowess. The need for a manufacturing revolution in India is manifest, as is Japan’s prowess in this area.

India’s coming closer to the US-- Japan’s security guarantor, friend and partner-- has been the catalyst in its new political interest in India. In stereotypical terms, ordered Japan and chaotic India are 180 degrees apart. But Tokyo is now beginning to see that despite everything, the worldview of Japan is more similar to open and democratic India, than to probably most other Asian nations. This could be the beginning of an improbable partnership with profound consequences for Asia.