Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Tuesday, January 9, 2001

Look Delhi, talk Tokyo

by Ashok Ashta


IN THE New Year, two and a half years after the Pokhran tests, soon after Prime Minister Mori? visit to India, and after all the hype in the Indian press about the warming Indo-Japanese relations ·where does India really stand in the Japanese mind? The Japanese Embassy in Delhi through a survey commissioned by them found that Indians admire Japan most, even more than the US.

I went to a Japanese junior high school and spoke to an assembly of 250 class IX students on my experience in India. When asked what the students know about India, after a moment? silence, a boy lazily lifted his hand and said, ?he beef curry is very spicy.

The ?eef curry·oxymoron is symbolic of the current state of Indo-Japanese relations. While interaction is increasing and political relations are also thawing ·the spicy curry holding true ·the beef is not quite there either in the common Indian curries or in the feelings of the common Japanese. No one in Japan is quite convinced that Indian information technology skills are going to save their country and give them the know-how to maintain their lead in the 21st century.

In the sphere of politics, many Japanese who monitor international politics consider India an important strategic ally or a potential ally. The number of such people is limited but fortunately these people occupy positions of influence and so their views are important. To them it is not India per se that is important; rather, it is the balancing role that India can play given Japan? problematic relations with China that is important. As a result, economic and political ties with India are seen by many opinion leaders of Japan in relation or in direct connection with ties with China.

The reason why China plays such a central role in Indo-Japanese relations is that they have tried to invade Japan twice in the past, failing each time because the kamikaze (?od? Wind· favoured Japan. Japan went to war with China in the late 19th century and occupied it. After World War II, China has continued to grow militarily; Japan has sheltered mainly under the American nuclear umbrella. China remains a military threat not only because of its current might but also because of its historical designs. At the same time, China? threat to India is also recognised by the Japanese who are aware of the Chinese occupation of Tibet and other incursions in India? North-east.

Influential Japanese with a broader perspective of international politics recognise that India lost its own nuclear umbrella when the Soviet Union begun to dismantle and are pragmatic enough to understand India? need for ICBMs. While few Japanese opinion leaders would support in public India? decision to conduct nuclear tests, many are now pragmatic enough to recognise India? security requirements. This may be considered a success of post-Pokhran Indian diplomacy and the underlying reason why Japan would continue discussing and developing strategic alliances with India, even in the area of defence, while the CTBT issue is left to be considered and talked about separately.

Moving into the realm of business, and again within the context of China, India is perceived to be the better partner for four main reasons. First, business communication in India is in English, an international language. Even though the Japanese themselves are not great speakers of the language, they are more familiar with it than Chinese, irrespective of the Chinese characters that their written language has borrowed. Secondly, India has an independent judiciary. Third, India accepts capitalism (irrespective of the swadeshi debate) ideologically and socially.

Most important for business is that few Japanese have succeeded with their investments in mainland China. For India, the Maruti Udyog Limited can be used as a highlight of long-term success (the Department of Industries would do well to keep this in mind, despite Maruti? current state).

Even so, as one visits the different international business promotion organisations in Japan, there is no rush or waiting list of Japanese companies wanting to tie-up or work with Indian IT companies, or companies in other industries for that matter. The emphasis remains on China and Korea. The fact is that unlike the elderly, the newer generation of Japanese businessmen (below 60 years of age) do not suffer from a sense of guilt or the accompanying affinity to China.

Even so, as one visits the different international business promotion organisations in Japan, there is no rush or waiting list of Japanese companies wanting to tie-up or work with Indian IT companies, or companies in other industries for that matter. The emphasis remains on China and Korea. The fact is that unlike the elderly, the newer generation of Japanese businessmen (below 60 years of age) do not suffer from a sense of guilt or the accompanying affinity to China.

So, if Pokhran has been put in the closet for the time being and the climate is favourable for the Japanese to start looking towards India, then what happened with Mori? visit? Why is there no rush of small and medium sized companies in IT tying up and working together with India? Why is there no rush in other industries?

First, it seems that what Mori said and did is not important to the Japanese businessmen. They are alienated from their leader. According to Japanese media reports, his approval ratings are the lowest for a Japanese Prime Minister since the days of Uno. The second, and this comes out more as undertones rather than directly in conversation, is that even though some elite opinion leaders monitoring Asian international politics favour putting CTBT aside for the moment, the ordinary businessman does get affected by any press coverage during the CTBT debate.

Most of the serious damage to larger commercial and industrial buildings and infrastructure occurred in areas of soft soil and reclaimed land ·the worst soil possible for earthquakes. While the latest seismic engineering techniques had been applied, they had been done so without the benefit of adequate testing in strong earthquakes. Cooperation with the United States to further improve on seismic engineering has since been enhanced.

Most important for business is that few Japanese have succeeded with their investments in mainland China. For India, the Maruti Udyog Limited can be used as a highlight of long-term success (the Department of Industries would do well to keep this in mind, despite Maruti? current state).

It now lies on all levels of diplomatic interaction by India to ride the favourable winds of change in Asian international politics and seize the opportunity to strengthen political, economic, business and cultural ties with Japan. Especially in the area of business, our commercial ambassadors must highlight our advantages as outlined above to broader segments of Japanese business, including those heading small and medium scale enterprises.

Ashok Ashta is President of BUSINESS-INDIA/JAPAN, a private enterprise promoting Indo-Japanese Cultural and Business relations.



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