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ASIA: Japan, India Set to Forge New Regional Order

Suvendrini Kakuchi

TOKYO, Dec 15 2006 (IPS) - Fledgling bilateral relations between Japan, Asia’s powerhouse, and India, a major player in the region, are reckoned to have received a boost as Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s four-day visit here winds up on Friday.

Tokyo rolled out a red carpet welcome for Singh whose country is increasingly viewed as a strategic bilateral partner under the leadership of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is spearheading a more active role for Japan in shaping Asian regional politics.

”In India, Japan finds a partner that is both influential in the establishment of a regional order for East Asia and that shares common values such as freedom and democracy,” opined the ‘Yomiuri’ newspaper, Japan’s largest daily, on Thursday. The newspaper called for increasing Japanese economic support for India and described the new partnership as being ‘the heart of the Asian order’.

‘Sankei’, a leading conservative newspaper, also praised the visit, calling it a critical landmark for Japan.

The media referred to Abe’s book, ‘Toward A Beautiful Country’, that outlined an Asian order grouping Japan with India, Australia and the United States, but not China, to work towards security and prosperity in the region. Singh’s visit is being seen as the first step in this direction.

In the book, Abe points out that India is very important for Japan’s national interests. In Tokyo, both leaders pledged to hold talks on this framework which Abe hopes to establish soon.

‘’There is now a new perspective on India in Japan. Influential politicians and policy makers are urging Japan to rethink the old stance and develop closer ties that could include accepting India as a nuclear power,” said Prof. Masao Fukunaga, an India watcher at the Gifu Women’s University based in Nagoya.

Indian experts in Tokyo are reciprocating with equal warmth. Ramesh Thakur, senior vice-rector of the United Nations University in Tokyo, in a lengthy article ahead of the visit, glowed over the prospect of warming ties between the country – not only on the economic front but also on the political and military.

Compared the West, Japan maybe a latecomer in recognising the potential of India for its vast domestic market, skilled low-cost labour and military strength but this, he writes, is no reason for further delay. “‘Japan’s interests and capabilities are so different from India’s that the two have never vied for competitive influence in Asia. India can be a useful conduit for Japan to outflank uncomfortable historical memories thereà” concludes Thakur in the article that appeared in the Yomiuri on Dec. 12.

Thakur was referring to Japan’s close but difficult ties with China, hot on economic relations but cool on diplomacy, which are overshadowed by Japan’s past colonisation of the neighbouring country in the mid-20th century.

Experts contend that Japan-India ties have come a long way from the early nineties when Tokyo imposed economic sanctions on New Delhi following India’s nuclear tests in 1998.

Indeed, Japan’s weak relations with India, that currently records 8 percent annual growth rate, have become a hot national debate as New Delhi forges ahead with new pacts with the United States and China.

The fact that Sino-Indian trade ties are soaring – two-way trade reached 17 billion dollars in 2005 or three times more than that with Japan has been noted and also how during a November visit to India by Chinese President Hu Jintao, both sides set a target to double their trade by 2010.

On the other hand, India and China failed to agree on a free trade agreement (FTA) while Singh’s visit has already seen movement in the direction of an FTA that to be signed in the next two years.

An important landmark is the controversial nuclear cooperation agreement India signed with the U.S., a year ago and passed by Congress last week, clearing the way for providing sophisticated nuclear materials and technology to support growing fuel needs and also indirectly recognising India as a nuclear power.

The agreement, criticised by anti-nuclear groups, has proved to be a headache for Japan which is a leader in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to which India is not a signatory. Japan is yet to make known its official position on the deal.

‘’Blessings from Japan for the U.S.-India deal is of crucial importance for Delhi. I do hope Singh’s visit will not lead to Tokyo changing its mind. If this is where the visit is leading to, we will be disappointed,” said Hideyuki Ban, anti-nuclear activist with the respected Citizen’s Nuclear Information Centre, a non-governmental organiation.

Analysts, however, predict Tokyo will inevitably end its opposition. Fukunaga points to the recent debate launched by politicians in the Abe cabinet to review Japan’s own anti-nuclear policy against North Korea’s nuclear weapons development programme, signalling a major shift from old policy.

Hisao Iwashima, a security expert, warned that Abe’s thrust to work closer with India could fall into narrow political interests – using India as a counterweight to China as Japan embarks on more involvement in Asia.

‘’Abe’s strategy is to bolster his falling public support by harping on nationalism and his friendship with India can be to win the backing of conservatives in Japan who dislike China for bringing up past historical animosity,” he said.

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