LONDON — Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Japan as part of his three-nation tour of East Asia last week was intended to underscore India’s growing role in East Asia and to acknowledge that Japan has a crucial role in the emerging security environment in the Asia-Pacific.

Urging Japan to play a larger role in India’s growth story, the Indian prime minister made a strong pitch for strong India-Japan ties. He and his Japanese counterpart, Naoto Kan, signed a visa pact allowing Japanese workers to live and work in India for three years and agreed to sign, in the near future, the much awaited Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA), which has been in the works for the last four years.

As part of the CEPA, Delhi will eliminate tariffs on 90 percent of its imports from Japan, and Tokyo will remove tariffs on 97 percent of Indian imports. The Indian prime minister had to intervene personally to make sure the CEPA was in place before his visit to Japan. There were signs of bureaucratic foot-dragging on the CEPA and it is indeed a sign of healthy India-Japan ties that it will finally be signed.

For a Japan embroiled in domestic political instability and economic drift, India has not been a top priority in recent months. India, too, has ignored Tokyo, with the Indian bureaucracy unwilling to push the economic pacts that are important for signaling India’s seriousness toward Japan.

This is a crucial period of strategic flux in Asia and there is much that India and Japan working together can accomplish. India’s ties with Japan have traveled a long way since May 1998 when a chill set in following India’s nuclear tests. Japan imposed sanctions and suspended official development assistance.

Since then, however, the changing strategic milieu in Asia-Pacific has brought the two countries together so much so that the latest visit of the Indian prime minister to Japan resulted in the unfolding of a road map to transform a low-key relationship into a major strategic partnership. But ground realities are changing in Asia rapidly and India and Japan need to demonstrate a more active response.

China’s rise is the most significant variable in the Asian geostrategic landscape today. Both India and Japan would like to see a constructive China play a larger role in resolving regional and global problems rather than become a problem itself. Concerns are rising in both countries about China’s assertive diplomatic and military posture, as exemplified by events that followed the collision between a Chinese fishing boat and a Japanese Coast Guard vessel near the Senkaku Islands and by rising tensions along the Sino-Indian border.

China’s attempts to test the diplomatic and military mettle of its neighbors in the South China Sea and along the Sino-Indian border will only bring Japan and India even closer. While Delhi and Tokyo would like greater transparency and restraint on the part of China, they need to be more candid about their expectations of China’s behavior toward its neighbors.

Given the likelihood that the presence of the U.S. Navy in the South China Sea might shrink in coming years because of economic constraints, Japan should encourage a larger role for the Indian Navy in the South China Sea even as there is an urgent need for the Japanese Self-Defense Forces to expand their presence in the Indian Ocean.

Greater bilateral defense cooperation including joint development and production of defense equipment is the need of the hour. It would be even more productive if the U.S. too were involved in Japan-India military exercises so that a broader regional security framework can be nurtured.

Economic ties also need serious attention. Though Japanese investment in India has crossed the $3.7 billion mark, much remains to be done. The Delhi-Mumbai corridor remains a centerpiece of India-Japan cooperation in the infrastructure sector. Japan is also supporting the new Indian Institute of Technology at Hyderabad, laying the foundation for academic exchanges and collaboration between higher educational institutions of the two states.

Japan today appears more serious than at anytime in its recent past about economic cooperation with India. The Japanese government’s “New Growth Strategy” is aimed at developing emerging markets like India’s through infrastructure deals that combine public financing and private sector investment.

Regional institutions in Asia also need strengthening. Active U.S. involvement in the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations and ASEAN Regional Forum has been welcomed by member states. India should work toward enhancing its profile in such regional institutions.

The “hub and spokes” of U.S. alliances will continue to define the regional security architecture in the region. At the global level the two sides want to re-energize the Group of Four grouping that is pushing for reform of the U.N., particularly expansion of the Security Council and inclusion of new permanent members.

The talks on a civilian nuclear pact seem to be going nowhere at the moment with the two sides merely agreeing to speed up talks. Japan continues to insist that India sign the Nonproliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, whereas India has no intention of doing so given its long-standing concerns regarding the discriminatory nature of these treaties.

Given the involvement of Japanese firms in the U.S. and French nuclear industry, an Indo-Japanese pact is essential if U.S. and French civilian nuclear cooperation with India is to be realized. Japanese approval is needed if GE-Hitachi and Toshiba-Westinghouse are to sell nuclear reactors to India. Meanwhile, the new liability law in India could make greater civilian nuclear cooperation between Japan and India difficult to accomplish.

Delhi and Tokyo need to urgently assess the implications of their lackluster ties and get serious about remedying this situation. The Indian prime minister’s visit was a step in the right direction, but much more needs to be done to enhance regional and global stability.

Harsh V. Pant teaches at King’s College London.

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