Last week’s visit to Japan by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is an important step forward in the long-delayed process of creating a durable and forward-looking relationship between two Asian powers. Japan and India are natural partners, whose relationship is based on shared interests, values and concerns. The relationship will not be friction free, but if the two countries focus on the things that they can accomplish together, they will be able to achieve a truly strategic partnership.

While there are long-standing ties between Japan and India, official relations were frustrated by the Cold War — in which Japan aligned with the West while India championed the nonaligned movement and sometimes backed the Soviet line — and, more recently, its determination to become a nuclear power. Fortunately, the two countries recognized that those issues could be better dealt with within a positive and cooperative relationship.

Thus, in 2000 then Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori established a Global Partnership on his visit to Delhi, and during last year’s visit to India by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi the two sides agreed to reinforce the strategic orientation of that partnership. Last week, Mr. Singh and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe agreed to establish a “Strategic and Global Partnership” that “involves closer political and diplomatic coordination on bilateral, regional, multilateral and global issues, comprehensive economic engagement, stronger defense relations, greater technological cooperation as well as increased cultural ties, educational linkages and people-to-people contacts.”

Some cringe at the use of the word “strategic.” For them, it is code for containing China. Those observers see Japan and India as natural bookends and counterweights to China’s regional ambitions. A strategic relationship between Tokyo and Delhi is part of a grand design — constructed in Washington in the more fantastic versions — that will constrain Beijing.

There are three flaws in this logic. First, India has proven itself more than capable of acting in its own interest. Delhi will not be used by any country to further any agenda that is not its own. Second, no country that seeks to contain China would be its largest source of development assistance, would have invested $66.6 billion in China through 2004, and have total bilateral trade in excess of $168 billion, as Japan has.

Third, and perhaps most important, is the simple fact that there is much that ties Japan and India together. Japan and India are democracies that respect human rights and strive to support individual dignity. Both countries seek peace and stability in Asia and on its periphery. They both have a stake in China’s development and want it to be a responsible stakeholder that supports international norms and institutions rather than undermines them; each has a territorial dispute with Beijing. Both have made the case for United Nations reform and each seeks a permanent seat on the Security Council. And both recognize that their economic relationship has been stunted and can grow to the benefit of both nations and their people.

India has the third-largest economy in Asia, trailing Japan and China, and it is rapidly expanding: GDP is forecast to grow 8.1 percent in 2006. Japan’s trade with India reached 740 billion yen ($6.5 billion) last year, a 22 percent boost from 2004 but it still leaves Japan as India’s 10th-biggest trading partner. Japanese invested 11 billion yen in the first quarter of 2006. By comparison, Japanese trade with India is less than 4 percent of Japan’s trade with China and total investment is less than one-tenth of that in China. There is much room for growth.

To remedy the situation, Mr. Abe and Mr. Singh agreed last week to conclude an economic partnership agreement by 2009; talks will begin early next year. Speaking to the Diet, Mr. Singh told legislators that his country was focusing on building infrastructure that would support manufacturers and boost India’s competitiveness and efficiency. Those efforts are being facilitated by Japanese aid: India has overtaken China as the leading destination for Japan’s low-interest loans.

While both leaders appear committed to building a real partnership, trouble spots remain. Foremost is India’s nuclear program. India remains outside the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and has recently reached an agreement with the United States that seems to legitimize Delhi’s nuclear ambitions.

Mr. Singh had hoped that Japan would give its blessing to that deal, opening the door to the acquisition of more and newer technology to feed its rapidly expanding energy needs. Mr. Abe apparently did not provide the assurance he sought, saying instead that Japan would discuss the agreement in the appropriate international forums. Here, too, Japan and India have much to talk about. Japan’s energy efficient technologies could provide another enduring cornerstone to this evolving relationship.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.