India should bond with Japan and stop looking over its shoulder at China

Japan occupies a large space in Manmohan Singh's heart, and he has logged enough frequent flyer miles to Tokyo to prove it. When he lands in Tokyo on Monday, Singh is certain to get the kind of reception that will show Japan reciprocates in full measure.

The PM introduced a new element during the Depsang crisis with China to announce he would stay an extra day in Japan. While that in itself would not have scared the Chinese, the growing closeness between India and Japan has added new worry lines to Beijing. Not a bad thing, both for India and Japan, even though the "softies" in the UPA carry a fatal attraction for China and Pakistan.

Japan has the kind of technological and innovation heft India needs in spades. Acknowledging this, the PM once famously listed three of India's relationships he described as "transformational" - US, Japan and Germany - that if India used these relationships wisely, they could help transform our nation. And then he fell silent.

With Shinzo Abe back in power in Japan with a convincing mandate and a will to resuscitate Japan from its "lost decades", India has a unique opportunity. Over the next couple of days, Singh will have a lot of economic talk. Abenomics - Abe's three-step plan to revive the economy - appears to be working, despite possible pitfalls in the future. Japan's flagship investment in India - the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor and a new Bangalore-Chennai corridor - should revive India's manufacturing fortunes. So far, India has made the right noises, and even been helpful.

But it will be in the area of security and the strategic future of Asia that the two countries can make a difference.

It is time India came out of the closet to strengthen the countries in the region: Indonesia, Vietnam and the real power in Asia - Japan. India should not waste its time looking for Japanese endorsement of Kashmir or Arunachal Pradesh, though many officials will tell you this is why we're kind of reticent with them. Instead, India should be more helpful on the Senkaku/Diaoyu issue - because if China gets away with this one, it will be unstoppable everywhere else.

With Abe, the prospect of reopening the nuclear story is brighter - the upper house elections in July will indicate if his nuclear ambition has popular approval. That should signal India to resume civil-nuclear negotiations - a Japanese deal is imperative for India to buy nuclear reactors or supplies from France, US and pretty much everybody.
The high seas will be where India and Japan will really bond. The two countries will do
Malabar-type exercises, and India will buy Japan's first military export - US2, possibly the world's best search-and-rescue amphibious aircraft for the high seas. But India is doing it for the wrong reason - fear of China.

India opted out of a quadrilateral exercise, going instead for smallscale bilaterals. Cooperating on the seas was Abe's vision in the first place. Speaking in Delhi in 2011, when he was out of power, he said, "Please let your navy meet the Japanese naval force more often at sea.... Our two navies can exchange flag signals.

They can speak with each other... The Americans may watch us performing small exercises, which is OK with all of us. Even the Chinese may fly over us to see what is going on, which is more than welcome." Indian ships now hang out with the Japanese in their naval base in Djibouti. India should welcome the Japanese in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

These islands are crucial, not merely as India's security posts, but also to maintain security of sea lanes on the Straits of Malacca, and freedom of navigation in South China Sea. If India is looking East, Japan is looking West.

The natural meeting point is Myanmar, where both countries have invested heavily to keep this country from falling into a Chinese honey-trap. This is a good story - of two Asian giants helping Myanmar out of the suds, keeping its dignity intact and securing their strategic future. It's a no-brainer, and needs South Block to engage more fully with Japan's foreign office.

Japanese officials complain India doesn't give them the time of day. Singh should change that. Abe's big move will be on changing Japan's constitution. He wants to change Article 9 (the "pacifist clause") to make the Japan Self-Defence Forces into a normal military.

The fact that China has increased its military spending 30 times in the last 23 years should be ample reason. The potential change has divided Japanese society and is scaring the daylights out of China and even the US. India - so vocal on strategic autonomy - should pause before accepting the Western narrative.

Thanks to Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and INA, India has a different historical narrative of a military Japan. India may not be called upon to bare its heart on the issue, but India should be clear which side of the debate it should be on. A stronger Japan is good for India.

The writer Indrani Bagchi who is diplomatic editor, 'The Times of India'