This may not be the age of empire, but an imperial visit is rarely without a political context. The office of Emperor Akihito of Japan has been careful to explain that his visit to India is not intended to “counter” China. It has also been stated that there is no “strategic intent” to the visit. The last time the Japanese emperor had been to India was 53 years ago as the Crown Prince. His current visit may not be overtly political, but it is impossible to miss the strategic context of recent India-Japan relations. It is this context that makes the visit significant. And, despite the Japanese denials, China’s rise as a major power provides an important context of current India-Japan relations. Important changes are taking place within Japan and outside in the neighbourhood. In both spheres, China, with its economic might and territorial assertiveness, is playing an important role. If Japan’s politics is increasingly taking on jingoistic overtones and if there is a growing demand for changing the country’s pacifist constitution, these are largely owing to suspicions of Chinese ambitions. The emperor’s visit to India comes soon after recent visits by Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, to 10 Southeast Asian countries. The fact is that Japan is trying to create a new role for itself in Asia to balance Chinese power and influence.
However, the question that New Delhi has to ask itself is what it makes of India-Japan relations and of the new Japanese role in the region. The relations between the two countries have changed faster and more substantially over the past few years than in the previous decades. They are partners in economic and strategic cooperation. Japan’s assistance to major infrastructure projects in India has increased substantially in recent years. As major democracies in Asia, the two countries share identical views on political and security issues. It is only to be expected that the two will like to get even closer for mutual benefits. But New Delhi should be careful not to allow its ties with Japan to get unnecessarily entangled in a regional race for power. If China and Japan have territorial problems in the East China Sea, it should be none of India’s business to take sides. And, India’s security cooperation with Japan should not be used to “contain” China. The so-called China factor must not be allowed to derail India’s relations with other countries in the region.