Why Japan Is Cozying Up to India

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India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who arrived in Japan for a four-day visit Wednesday, will be feted with all the traditional state visit perks, including meetings with top Japanese corporate leaders and a ceremony with Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko. But by also according Singh the unusual honor of addressing a joint session of the Japanese parliament, the Diet, Tokyo is signaling just how seriously Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is taking the summit with Singh.

Deepening ties between the two biggest democracies in Asia is part of Abe's efforts to chart a new direction for Japan's foreign policy, one less consumed with the U.S. and more embracing of Asia — albeit selectively. "With [former Prime Minister] Junichiro Koizumi, the U.S. was Number 1, Number 2 and Number 3," says Takako Hirose, a professor of South Asian politics at Tokyo's Senshu University. "I think for Abe, Asia is more important."

India has only recently emerged as a factor on Tokyo's foreign policy radar — for decades it was featured as little more than a major recipient of Japanese development aid. Japanese businessmen showed little interest in the country, turned off by the red tape, the distance — and the decided lack of karaoke bars. Such indifference is still reflected in the small amount of trade between the two countries: Japanese investment in India last year totaled just $253 million — 4% of the amount Japanese investors committed to China over the same period. And Japan receives just 3% of Indian software exports.

"Bilateral trade has not kept pace with Japan and India's relationship," says Aftab Seth, a former Indian ambassador to Tokyo. "Japanese business has always focused very heavily on China."

Singh and Abe will no doubt talk trade, and the numbers are going up — bilateral trade between the two increased by 21% last year, as Japanese auto manufacturers in particular move more aggressively into the Indian market. But for Japan, India may be more important as a potential diplomatic counterweight to a rising China, and a democratic friend in an Asia where most other nations still have sour memories of Japan's actions in World War II. Abe has argued that Japan should ally itself with Asian nations that share its values, specifically mentioning Australia and India — and not, interestingly, South Korea, a liberal democracy where anti-Japanese sentiment is strong. In Abe's policy book Towards a Beautiful Nation, published during his campaign to become Prime Minister, he even predicted that within a decade, Japan's ties with India could become more important than its relationship with China or even the U.S.

That's probably wishful thinking. Shared democratic values are unlikely to outweigh China's enormous trade potential for both Japan and India, and Japan won't replace its special relationship with the U.S. — especially if Tokyo remains diplomatically isolated in Asia. A rising India, on the other hand, may be enjoying the new experience of being courted by its neighbors. Chinese President Hu Jintao visited New Delhi last month bearing economic gifts, and Abe will almost certainly acquiesce to India's top priority: Japanese acceptance of the recent deal normalizing U.S. and India's nuclear relation. As the only victim of atomic weapons and a key supplier of nuclear technology, Japan's influential support would help India break into the exclusive Nuclear Suppliers Group, which ironically was formed in response to India's unsanctioned atomic test in 1974. It's the least Tokyo can do for a friend — especially since, right now, Japan needs India more than India needs Japan.