Prime Minister Narendra Modi was scheduled to visit Japan on July 3, but the trip was cancelled, on June 19, as it was deemed too close to the budget session.

Why was it cancelled so suddenly when the date of the budget session could hardly have been a surprise? At first there was speculation that he wasn’t accorded an audience with Japan’s emperor and empress, but that seems unlikely: in April, the Australian prime minister Tony Abott was given an imperial audience; US President Barack Obama also met the Japanese imperial couple in the same month; and Sheikh Hasina, prime minister of Bangladesh, led a 109-member delegation to Japan and met the emperor. In addition, given the strategic interests Japan and India share, that speculation seems unwarranted.

Reports from Japan suggest they are viewing the postponement as an early sign that India is eyeing Chinese investments and does not want to ruffle the Chinese.

But India’s bilateral relationships with Japan and China must be seen in the context of the US pivot to Asia and its projection of China as a threat to regional security. China has asserted its claims both against Japan, over the Senkaku islands, and against six countries in the South China Sea. The problems are complex, a legacy of the post-World War II settlement, and the situation is further complicated by the 1982 Convention on the UN Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

This law has actually restricted the freedom of the seas. To give one example, Japan regards rocks such as those in the Senkaku or Okinotorishima as islands, and this has resulted in a huge maritime entitlement – 4.5 million square kilometres, five times more than China’s 879,666 square kilometres. The territorial disputes that arise from these claims have serious consequences for regional stability and cannot be resolved through an appeal to aggressive nationalism. There is a middle ground that has to be cultivated.

India’s acceptance of arbitration in its dispute with Bangladesh is an example of how to resolve such issues. The Permanent Court of Arbitration has given an award in favour of Bangladesh, which the foreign minister of Bangladesh called “a victory of friendship” between the two countries.

Abe Guts the Constitution
Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe’s pressing desire is to free his nation of the militaristic and ideological shackles that followed World War II. But his nationalist rhetoric is undermining both its democracy and alienating even allies such as the South Koreans. He has, through an administrative measure, re-interpreted Article 9 of the Japanese constitution to allow Japan to participate in “collective self-defence”. He should have done this through the Diet, the Japanese parliament. The Japan Times, Japan’s leading newspaper, headlined it “Abe Guts the Constitution” and most of the public has opposed the move.

In fact, the right to self-defence had never been renounced, but now Japan can, for instance, use its troops in conflict situations, and more importantly, call upon the troops of its allies. Coupled with the statement US president Barack Obama made about the disputed Senkaku islands falling within the scope of a US-Japanese security treaty, implying that the US would commit troops if there were a clash, there is no doubt a confrontational atmosphere has been created.

It would be naïve to think that this sparring – and much of it is just that – can be used to India’s advantage. Japan and China are locked in a tight economic embrace and have a dense network of relationships that will outlast these present tensions.

India should remain disentangled
It remains in India’s interests to build relations with Japan without getting entangled in the current military goals of the island nation. Japanese ambitions, at the moment, are in part a result of its alliance with the US. The rhetoric of the danger of China only helps to re-enforce the role of the US as a global policeman. This undermines efforts to strengthen regional alliances and institutions.

India has a long history of cordial relations with Japan that go beyond party politics. India waived reparation payments from Japan after World War II and sent a gift of an elephant to the Tokyo Zoo that was a great hit with Japanese children. Japan was invited to the first Asian Games held in Delhi in 1951, when Britain had kept it out of the Olympic Games in 1948. Cold War politics kept the two countries apart, but from the 1990’s India’s ‘look East’ policy brought in greater investment, joint ventures, aid as well as led to developing closer political ties.

Since 2006, Japan has been India’s global strategic partner and the two have held an annual strategic dialogue. India has worked with Japan on anti-piracy issues; India just invited Japan to participate in the Indo-US Malabar naval exercises.

India is currently negotiating the import of amphibious aircraft. This is a major step for Japan. It is exporting military hardware for the first time since 1967. Japan has the capital and experience to play a major role in India’s economic sphere. But the larger issue is that there are other areas that need as much, perhaps even greater, attention. To take just two examples of areas that call for greater cooperation: public education and public health.

Why can’t we collaborate with the Japanese, both in improving the infrastructure of public education and, through research collaboration between the universities and research institutions, to scale up capabilities? Two, public health is crucial and here Japanese medical technologies and expertise could play a pivotal role in improving the medical infrastructure that will improve the quality of life and lay the basis for well-rounded development.

Such collaborations between India and Japan will address the greater challenges of political authoritarianism and skewed development that this region faces, and provide new opportunities for both countries to help re-shape their own countries while simultaneously building a better regional environment.

Brij Tankha is a scholar of contemporary Japan.