An India-Japan Alliance Brewing?

China's rise is pushing Tokyo and New Delhi toward greater cooperation, but there are limits.

On January 26, India will celebrate its sixty-fourth year as a republic, and the chief guest for the Republic Day festivities will be Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe. It’s an honor no Japanese leader has been accorded for four decades. The Indians have a clear purpose in extending it to the man whose efforts to break the strictures imposed by Japan’s “peace constitution” have elicited concern, and in the case of South and North Korea and China condemnation, in various Asian countries. That’s because for India, a Japan with greater military muscle is not something to be feared but rather something to be welcomed. The reason for this attitude on New Delhi’s part can be summarized in five letters: China.

As for Japan, particularly since Abe’s last (and ill-fated) stint as Prime Minister (2006-2007), it has come to see India—a country with 1.3 billion people, Asia’s third-largest economy, and substantial and growing military power—as a natural partner given Tokyo’s worries about what it sees as an increasingly powerful, assertive and threatening China. There’s a natural fit between the two putative partners: Japan’s technological prowess and wealth complements India’s size, and a New Delhi-Tokyo duet would stretch China’s power across two widely separated fronts (and more if the partnership can be complemented by the United States, Australia, Vietnam and Indonesia, something that Japan would like to see) while also serving as a counterweight to a Pax Sinica in East Asia.

Like Japan, India is a democracy, a fact that facilitates cooperation between New Delhi and Tokyo and makes it easier to build trust and to gain public support for the alignment in both societies. In contrast to India’s relationship with China, there are no major issues on which Japanese and Indian interests clash. As part of its Look East policy, India is seeking partners and among its aims is to create counterbalances to China and to ensure that Beijing’s quest for primacy in East Asia does not go uncontested and enable it to build strategic depth in India’s eastern flank. More specifically, the 4,200-kilometer Sino-Indian border remains disputed and continues to be a flashpoint, as witnessed by the reported incursion last April of Chinese troops into terrain claimed by India in the Depsang Valley, in Ladakh region in the western sector of the frontier.

Yes, there has been a surge in Sino-Indian trade (up from $250 million in 1990 to $66 billion in 2012), which, depending on the year one considers, now makes China India’s largest or second-largest trade partner. Yet the humiliating defeat India suffered at Chinese hands in 1962 has left a lasting mark. One needn’t speak to very many of its members to understand that the national-security establishment in New Delhi still sees China as India’s premier security threat. By comparison, the recent fracas created by the nanny problems of an Indian diplomat based in the United States amounts to a hiccup.

Like India, Japan has a territorial dispute with China. The contested ownership of the Senkaku/Diaoyutai island cluster, controlled by Japan but claimed by China, has become particularly tense in the last few years, with Chinese fishing boats regularly loitering in the waters off the islands and Chinese naval vessels and aircraft conducting what Japan regards as provocative patrols. Occasionally, this game of chicken cascades into crisis, a case in point being the Japanese coast guard’s arrest in 2010 of the captain of a Chinese trawler that was not only at work off the islands but then rammed two Japanese vessels when intercepted. The captain’s arrest set off frenzied anti-Japanese riots in China and angry protests from a Beijing government that is obliged to be sensitive to the nationalism that’s gained ground in Chinese society. More recently, last November, the Chinese declared an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) that extended into the contested islands, prompting denunciations from Tokyo. Then there is the bitter legacy of World War II, which comes to the surface especially when Japanese leaders visit, as Abe did last December, the Yasukuni war memorial or suggest that Japan intends to increase its military power, something else that Abe has done.

Apart from being embroiled in territorial disputes with China and troubled by its growing power, Japan and India are united by what each regards, and routinely touts, as a convergence of values stemming from their democratic polities. The shared commitment to democracy was what, in 2006, led then foreign minister Taro Aso (well known for his hawkish views on China) to include India, along with Australia, Europe, and the United States in the “arc of freedom and prosperity” that he believed should guide Japan’s “values oriented diplomacy.”