The India–Japan Story

Ties That Might Bind

The official relationship between India and Japan has now been elevated to a "global" and "strategic partnership." Understanding this qualitative leap in India-Japan ties is less easy than it looks. An origin story of the India-Japan relations explains how its state today is a reflection of the way Japan has changed in the last half a century.

Ties between India and Japan have never been warmer. The nadir of the bilateral relationship, not surprisingly, followed India’s nuclear tests 18 years ago. Japan’s reaction to India’s announcement that it was now, officially, a nuclear power was to shut down new loans and grants, to recall its ambassador temporarily, and to announce it was reviewing its multibillion-yen soft loan portfolio. It should be remembered that Japan was India’s single largest source of official development assistance (ODA) in 1998. Reflecting the tragic legacy of being the only country to have suffered the effects of nuclear weapons in warfare, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary expressed his country’s unhappiness explicitly, noting its “shock,” and calling the Indian testing “extremely regrettable,” very strong language in the rarefied world of diplomatese.

Fast forward to the present and a very different narrative dominates the headlines. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, torchbearer of the same political party that pulled India out of the nuclear closet, delivering the 37th Singapore Lecture in 2015, paid glowing tribute to India’s relations with Japan. Sitting in the front row of the audience at the lecture was Indian Foreign Secretary, S Jaishankar, who was serving in Tokyo when the Pokhran II tests took place. China was mentioned too as well, and in a positive way, but there was little question that the subtext of the lecture was to publicly affirm, in a highly visible Indo–Pacific forum, that India’s ties with Japan had never been stronger. In December 2015, Prime Ministers Shinzo Abe and Narendra Modi signed a multibillion-yen agreement on bullet trains, infrastructural investments, additional loans, and, not least, nuclear cooperation on multiple fronts. Even rare military equipment sales from Japan to India were discussed but not concluded. The official bilateral relationship between India and Japan has now been elevated to a “global” and “strategic partnership.”

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