India and Japan Draw Closer: Risks and Rewards

Some elements of their cooperation could work against American goals.

In a thoughtful commentary for The National Interest published on January 24 (“A Fine Balance: India, Japan and the United States”), Dhruva Jaishankar used the occasion of a New Delhi visit by Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe to discuss the evolving relationship between Asia’s second- and third-largest economies. Jaishankar identified strategic advantages that both could realize through security collaboration, and also emphasized the importance of Japan-India ties for the United States, arguing that “there are good enough reasons for all three countries to invest further in trilateral security cooperation,” even as each is wary of antagonizing China.

In his final paragraph, Jaishankar observes that India makes a particularly appealing partner for Japan because New Delhi broached no objection to Abe’s December 26 visit Tokyo’s controversial Yasukuni shrine—a move that not only exacerbated tensions with China and further alienated should-be ally South Korea, but also elicited public “disappointment” from Washington. Even as other Asian nations were still fuming over Abe’s visit to a religious edifice that, since 1978, has enshrined the souls of fourteen men convicted of “Class A” war crimes after World War II, New Delhi was preparing to welcome Japan’s hawkish premier with open arms.

Indeed, far from dividing Japan and India, the twentieth century actually provides each country with a narrative that may facilitate future cooperation, reinforcing a sense of shared purpose and personal affinity between their leaders. While the historical roots of ongoing Sino-Japanese animosity are widely understood, fewer in the West are familiar with the events that poisoned relations between the Republic of India and the People’s Republic of China before either state had reached the age of fifteen. Not only does India share a rival with Japan, but the slim history of these nations’ own bilateral relationship also includes a strange chapter which might have faded into obscurity if not for Abe’s personal obsession with the past.

Even if history will not drive the India-Japan relationship, themes drawn from the last century have been prominent in several of their leaders’ recent interactions, and will backdrop any future cooperation. Some of these historical narratives are disquieting—and although the United States should certainly welcome bilateral and trilateral initiatives that could reduce the cost of hedging against Chinese aggression, Washington must also keep a watchful eye on the Indo-Japanese relationship as it evolves, lest U.S. policy in Asia become overexposed to nationalist passions unrelated to American interest.

AT THEIR BIRTHS, in 1949 and 1950, the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of India may have looked like natural allies, each newly liberated from foreign domination, and now facing the inestimable challenge of governing and feeding a vast and largely impoverished population. Moreover, while India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, may not have been a communist, he was nonetheless a man of the left, who burned with an unrivaled hatred of imperialism. Two decades earlier, Nehru had worked alongside the widow of Chinese revolutionary Sun Yat-sen in the League Against Imperialism; and in 1940, Nehru had received a note of solidarity from Mao Zedong, saying that the liberation of India and China would serve as a “signal of the emancipation of all the down-trodden and oppressed” around the world.[1]

Like Mao, however, Nehru was also a passionate nationalist, and understood from the outset of his premiership the danger that could be posed by a revival of Chinese confidence and power. The proximate irritant in the bilateral relationship was the issue of Himalayan borders, left in a shambles after Britain’s hasty retreat from the Subcontinent in 1947. Most notably, two large pieces of noncontiguous territory were now subject to overlapping Sino-Indian claims: Aksai Chin, a frigid wilderness at the nexus of Kashmir, Xinjiang and Tibet; and a more hospitable region now known as Arunachal Pradesh, which shares borders with Bhutan and Burma.

Sino-Indian tensions mounted over these and other issues during the late 1950s, particularly after 1959, when India granted asylum to Tibet’s Dalai Lama and appeared to be growing closer to the Soviet Union just as Beijing and Moscow were drifting apart. In October 1962, after years of border skirmishes, Mao responded to Nehru’s adoption of a “forward policy” along the perimeters by launching simultaneous attacks in each of the disputed regions. Although China won a decisive victory in the brief war that followed, Beijing did not elect to seize all the territory that it claimed, but essentially reset the prewar status quo, holding desolate Aksai Chin for itself while withdrawing from Arunachal Pradesh, which is today similar in size and population to the state of Maine. (China did not, however, drop its claim to most of the latter region, a stance reiterated by a map added to Chinese passports in 2012.)