Japan and India: A Special Relationship?

Ships from the Indian navy, Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force and U.S. Navy during a group sail signifying the end of Malabar 2016. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Navy

Tokyo and New Delhi may have to deal with China's bellicosity without the United States.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent three-day visit to Japan is a sign that the bilateral relationship between India and Japan is headed for newer heights. More importantly, there seems to be a palpable method to this resurgent Asian connection that does not just attempt to restore the balance of power in Asia. The two sides are astutely restructuring regional formulations in the Asian geopolitical theatre through a mix of economic, political and strategic accomplishments. India was able to draw Japan’s support for membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), negotiate small but significant progress in the Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train timeline, ease Indian student visas and facilitate the training of 30 thousand Indians in Japanese manufacturing practices.

Two other developments that took place during Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Japan could turn the India-Japan relationship into an unwavering geostrategic alliance in Asia. One is the decision by both the countries to merge their contiguous maritime corridors to create a single geostrategic maritime expanse running from the Far East up to the western Indian Ocean. Modi’s Japan visit drew assurances for merging India’s “Act East Policy” with Japan’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy.” The second is the significant progress made in negotiations for the sale of Shinmaywa US-2i search and rescue aircraft from Japan to India. Both of these developments could recalibrate the Asian power balance by resetting the maritime heft in Asian waters, which has increasingly tilted in China’s favor since the beginning of this decade.

When India and Japan committed to work together for the "peace and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific region and the world" in December 2015, it presaged a new bilateral relationship that would have bearing on regional order. The latest decision to merge India’s eastward regional maritime strategic reach with Japan’s westward approach to Asian waters has added a new element of resolve in the intended maritime policy corridor that spreads well beyond the Indo-Pacific in its scope and intent. Both countries replaced the hackneyed “Indo-Pacific” with terms like Pacific Corridor and India-Pacific. The semantic play at work here cannot be ignored. The move projects both India and Japan as important security nodes in the Pacific corridor and advances India’s long-held desire to play the net-security provider in the region.

Resurrecting Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific

The Indo-Pacific region has been on the geostrategic radars of both countries ever since the Japanese Prime Minister Abe proposed cooperation in the region in his famous 2007 speech. From India’s point of view, the region assumed special policy significance when the Modi government changed its erstwhile “Look East Policy” to “Act East Policy.” In 2015, both countries identified the Indo-Pacific region as the “epicentre of global prosperity” and decided to cooperate under the banner of “Proactive Contribution to Peace” based on the principle of international cooperation. This, Japan highlighted, would be achieved through a special partnership with India. In the past, both countries have shown interest in maintaining stable seas across Asia. Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region is critically important for both countries as the maritime expanse of the region ties the Pacific Ocean, the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean in a single riparian strand.

Both India and Japan also find convergences in their common goal of maintaining stability of the seas. Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region will be mutually beneficial. For Japan, it will help strengthen the “three principles of the rule of law at sea” outlined by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe:  making and clarifying claims based on international law; not using force or coercion in trying to drive claims; and settling disputes by peaceful means. On the other hand, through its cooperation with Japan and other Southeast Asian countries like Malaysia and Vietnam, India will seek to fulfill the promise that it echoed in its joint statement with the United States: U.S.-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region. More recently, India has tried to raise its stakes in the South China Sea like never before.

The deal between India and Japan for the US-2i ShinMaywa amphibious search-and-rescue aircraft currently being worked out carries immense potential for extending India’s security perimeter to its east. The deal for procuring US-2i from Japan could enhance India's capabilities for search, rescue and surveillance over the Indo-Pacific and the Indian Ocean waters. India's deal with the United States to procure the Boeing P8I (Poseidon Eight India) Long Range Maritime Patrol aircraft can serve as motivation for the ongoing negotiations.

Preparing for Contingencies