Lessons not to emulate from Japan


Content from the Brookings Institution India Center is now archived. After seven years of an impactful partnership, as of September 11, 2020, Brookings India is now the Centre for Social and Economic Progress, an independent public policy institution based in India.

This column first appeared in Mint, on September 1, 2014. Like other products of the Brookings Institution India Center, this is intended to contribute to discussion and stimulate debate on important issues. The views are solely those of the author.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s maiden visit to Japan coincides with his 100 days in office and underlines his foreign policy emphasis on deeds (particularly deliverables) rather than words or highfalutin rhetoric (without concrete results). Predictably then the focus of the Japan trip has been on specific deliverables in trade, investment, energy and defence cooperation. These are all, doubtless, crucial to manifest India’s ascendency to become the world’s third-largest economy and a global power.

However, there are also critical lessons from Japan’s post-World War II experience, which India would do well not to emulate. Consider these:

First, while Japan emerged from the ruins of WWII to become the world’s second-largest economy (it has now slipped to third place behind China) and a formidable industrial powerhouse, it never became a global power either militarily or politically. The former was partly the result of its post-war constitution (particularly Article 9) and the decision to outsource its security solely to a bilateral alliance with the US, both of which Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is now trying to redress. However, it might be too late.

The political and diplomatic lapse is evident in Japan’s failure not only to establish cooperative regional security and economic arrangements but also its inability to appropriately atone for its wartime excesses and normalise relations with its former adversaries, notably China and South Korea. Thus, Japan’s neighbours remain unwilling to accept its role as a regional or global power. Similarly, at the global level Japan’s contribution to establishing international norms and regulations were negligible; it preferred to follow rules established by others rather than contribute to shaping them in cooperation with others.

The Japanese experience is in contrast to that of Germany, which despite suffering similar devastation during WWII, went on to normalise relations with all its neighbours (including Russia) and was also a key actor in establishing regional cooperative economic and security arrangements—EU and NATO respectively.

For India, there are three relevant lessons from Japan’s experience. First, economic prowess is an essential but inadequate condition to become a global power. Similarly, military power alone (including possession of nuclear weapons) does not translate into great power status (evident in the case of Pakistan and North Korea). It requires a combination of economic strength, political vision, diplomatic acumen and appropriate military capabilities to work in conjunction.

Second, normalizing relations, especially with adversarial neighbours, is a crucial condition for great power status. It is rare for countries to play an effective role on the global stage without having established bilateral or regional institutions that not only ensure normal relations (particularly among former adversaries) but also contribute to regional peace and prosperity. India’s recent efforts to revitalize the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation to promote a peaceful and prosperous neighbourhood are indicative of this trend.

Third, emerging global powers also contribute to shaping rules, establishing international norms and institutions that not only advance their own interests but also allow them to work closely with other established powers. The inability to shape rules, especially with other actors in a multipolar world, leaves two unattractive options: either to follow rules set by others or to break them and risk isolation. India’s blocking of WTO negotiations indicates the latter peril.

In its first 100 days, the Modi government has imbibed these three crucial lessons, even though its articulation and implementation has been hesitant or uneven. While it has predictably focused on immediate deliverables that will contribute to India’s economic, political and military growth, it will need to operationalize these lessons in the medium to long term if it is to become a global power.