For most of the last half century, Washington “visioners” have been trying to cement relations between Japan and India. The match seemed natural: Japan’s highly industrialized economy needed markets and raw materials from a still industrializing India. That, it has always been argued, would reinforce a political, and perhaps eventually military alliance, between Asia’s two largest democracies. After the 1949 collapse of China’s Nationalists, such a combination seemed an important contribution to The Cold War effort to halt Communist expansion in Asia. After all, it was reasoned, Japan shared India’s Hindu origins of Buddhism as well as a contemporary dedication to representative democracy.
Washington’s planners even went so far as to include such calculations in the massive economic aid programs to India, South Korea, Taiwan and South Vietnam in the 1950s and 60s. But a special fund set up for regional collaboration – essentially Japan and India — extended year after year, only produced one project. That was a development of an iron ore deposit, a railroad, and a port – originally intended to replace Calcutta as India’s then major commercial center, on the Bay of Bengal.
When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe toured India this month, it appeared that after all Washington’s huffing and puffing, the two countries were on their own settling into the kind of elaborate cooperation Washington geopolitcians hypothesized. The growing specter of Chinese economic as well as military expansion certainly played a role [China is, ironically on of both countries’ largest trading partners.] Leading the new effort is a $15 billion dollar low-interest Japanese loan to finance a favorite project of Prime Minister Narenda Modi, a new fast railway from Bombay, India’s commercial capital, to Ahmnebad, capital of Modi’s native Gujerat state – and eventually to the Indian capital of New Delhi.
Modi, trying to break the mould of a half century of Indian state capitalism, is using Japan to expand the country’s weak infrastructure which most economists see as its greatest barrier to the kind of economic take-off in China in the past three decades. India has the theoretical capacity not only to repeat China’s “miracle” but to go far beyond it with its enormous raw materials resources and one of the youngest – and soon to be largest – populations. Snuggling Japan into the Indian economic picture also could be the wedge needed to defeat the ever present “East India Complex” – the paranoia of India’s enormously powerful “babus”against foreign investment. These bureaucratic clerks whom politicians have relied on in post-British India are one of Modi’s most difficult problems.
Given the long history of Tokyo’s effort to achieve a breakthrough, it is still early to predict its ultimate success. Probably no two international negotiators have larger cultural differences than the Japanese and Indians; the first with their mania for an almost sexual satisfaction from extended negotiation, and the Indian tendency for talk for its own sake.
A shadow, too, hangs over Modi’s political following. He does represent new entrepreneurial tendencies among smaller Indian businessmen – India’s big brandnames often have chosen to go abroad rather than fight through local problems. But his party’s origins in Hindu chauvinism are dangerous at a time when the Islamicists are attempting to infiltrate India’s Muslims. [With 180-million, they are the world’s third largest the world’s third largest Islamic community, much of it mired in poverty and ignorance.] India’s blood links to the political disorder in neighboring Muslim Pakistan, carved too out of British India, make such a threat all the more real.
Still, the new Japan-India ties are a welcome development in an Asia where the Obama Administration’s “pivot” has failed to materialize, and Beijing’s aggressive intent is manifest all around – including India’s disputed Himalayan frontier with Tibet..