For four decades, Indians have been humming “Sayonara”, one of the tracks to Love in Tokyo, the 1966 Bollywood blockbuster.

Hopes are running high in New Delhi and Tokyo that Friday’s meeting between Manmohan Singh, prime minister of India, and Shinzo Abe, his Japanese counterpart, will put some passion back into a relationship that petered out in the 1970s and 1980s as India’s economy stagnated, then went through a painful divorce after Delhi’s 1998 nuclear tests.

“This visit must become Love in Tokyo 2,” says Raman Sopory, an adviser to Wipro, the Indian software group. “We need a sequel.” C. Raja Mohan, an Indian strategic affairs expert, says: “Japan has been the missing link in India’s post-1991 engagement with the world, both on the economic front and on the political front.” Now pulling the two countries closer together, however, is shared concern at the implications of the rise of China.

Even if neither has any desire to confront or contain China, which is Japan’s largest trade partner and will soon become India’s, the two see each other as potential partners in the future security architecture of the region.

“This is a significant visit because for the first time in our histories, the idea of shared political values is going to be introduced as well as the idea that democracies need to work with other democracies,” says Mr Mohan.

Judging by the number of times Mr Abe’s speeches mention India, a country as chaotic and unpredictable as Japan is organised, the world’s biggest democracy looms larger than ever in Tokyo’s diplomatic thinking.

A frequent visitor to India – he went only last year when he was chief cabinet secretary – Mr Abe likes to talk about the countries’ “shared values” of democracy and respect for human rights as the basis for a “new Asian order” that pointedly sidelines China.

On the eve of taking office, Mr Abe said it was “of crucial importance to Japan’s national interest that we further strengthen our ties with India”.

The prime minister said it would be surprising if within 10 years, Japan-India relations had not overtaken Japan-US and Japan-China relations. Like the US, which is offering to end India’s nuclear isolation, Tokyo is working hard to build up India’s potential as a strategic partner able eventually to help balance China’s might in the region.

Rhetoric is running far ahead of reality. On the trade front, relations have yet to recover from the deep freeze that followed India’s nuclear tests.

Two-way trade with India, at Y800bn ($6.8bn, €5.2bn, £3.5bn) is dwarfed by the Y25,000bn of goods moving between China and Japan. India’s trade with Japan has not kept pace with its business with the rest of the world. Japan’s share in India’s trade basket was only 2.6 per cent last year, down from 3.2 per cent in 2002-03.

In a speech last month setting out Japan’s vision for “an arc of freedom and prosperity” linking like-minded regional powers, Taro Aso, foreign minister, conceded there was a long way to go. There were 676 direct flights a week between Japan and China, Mr Aso said, against a paltry 11 between Japan and India. (The hope is to quadruple that almost immediately). Some 80,000 Chinese students come to Japan each year to learn Japanese, compared with just 400 Indians.

“It is true, business interest is lagging far behind the vision thing,” says one foreign ministry official. “In real terms, it is still a very tiny relationship.” Kazuhiko Tanaka, director of the Japan Bank of International Co-operation’s international finance department, says the business relationship is growing fast, albeit from a low base. The number of companies with investments in India has doubled to 352 over the past few years, though that compares with 6,000 in Thailand.

But things are changing. India in 2004 surpassed China as the biggest recipient of Japanese aid, receiving Y120bn in soft loans. Although it is trying to shed its image as a chequebook diplomat, the aid trail is a sure sign of Tokyo’s intentions.

The Asian Development Bank, the development organisation in which Japan and the US are the two largest shareholders with a combined 25.6 per cent of the votes, this year announced plans to double its annual lending to India by 2007-08.

In another sign of progress, a JBIC survey found that Japanese companies named India second only to China as a developing country they might invest in, with Vietnam third. “These days, there is a business delegation going to India every month,” says Mr Tanaka. Outside the car industry – where Suzuki’s venture with Maruti commands a roughly 40 per cent share of the 1.3m car market – on-the-ground Japanese presence is patchy.

During the summit, Mr Singh will seek assurances from Japan that it will not oppose the Indo-US civil nuclear co-operation agreement in the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers Group. The two prime ministers will agree to start negotiating a comprehensive economic partnership agreement and to designate 2007 a year of friendship and tourism promotion. With just 60,000 Indians visiting Japan last year, the sequel to Love in Tokyo is long overdue.

Get alerts on World when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.

Comments have not been enabled for this article.

Follow the topics in this article