A Fine Balance: India, Japan and the United States

January 24, 2014 Topic: Global CommonsGlobal Governance Region: JapanIndiaUnited States

A Fine Balance: India, Japan and the United States

A triangular relationship that could define the century. 


This weekend, the world will be treated to an unusual sight: Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe inspecting a military parade which will be showcasing, among other things, nuclear-capable ballistic missiles. This scene will not be taking place in Japan, which has rejected nuclear weapons and whose constitution famously renounces war as a sovereign right, but rather in India's foggy capital, New Delhi, near an iconic British memorial commemorating the Indians killed in World War I and the Third Anglo-Afghan War. The Indian government’s intention in inviting Abe to be chief guest at its Republic Day parade is nothing if not calculated. In fact, it is about as clear a signal that India seeks to facilitate Japan’s emergence as a ‘normal’ military power.

Japan and India may at first glance appear unusual partners. Japan is a nominally pacific, aging and technologically advanced ally of the United States, whereas India is notoriously sceptical of alliances, boasts the world’s second-largest army, has a youthful population, and is still in the process of modernizing its economy. But Abe’s visit marks the next step in a series of overtures between Asia’s two largest democratic economies, beginning with Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori’s 2000 visit to India, and continuing under the stewardships of Junichiro Koizumi, Taro Aso, and Abe. For its part, New Delhi has reciprocated the goodwill under successive governments. In a speech last year in Tokyo, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called Japan “a natural and indispensable partner” of India, with which it enjoyed “shared values and shared interests” and “a shared commitment to the ideals of democracy, peace and freedom.”


It is unclear how much attention Washington is paying to this emerging Asian strategic compact, despite its strong security relations with both Tokyo and New Delhi. In fact, scepticism about the United States’ reliability as a defense partner may be contributing to the growing bonhomie between India and Japan. But there are good enough reasons for all three countries to invest further in trilateral security cooperation.

For one thing, China’s rise and behaviour represents a distinct challenge to all three powers. China makes no qualms about its claims to territory currently controlled by both India and Japan, and it is also the most credible peer competitor of the United States. Both the Sino-Indian border dispute and tensions over competing Sino-Japanese claims in the East China Sea have grown in salience over the past year. This competitiveness extends into the economic realm as well, with respect to such matters as India’s trade imbalances, Japanese fears about China suspending rare-earth exports, and American complaints about cyber-espionage.

There are further reasons—beyond China—for the three countries to work more closely together on matters of security. Amid a certain amount of strategic retrenchment on the part of the United States, coordination with Japan and India—particularly in the maritime domain—will be increasingly important for preserving the security architecture in the Indo-Pacific that many have come to take for granted. Additionally, the three countries enjoy complementarities in the defense realm. India’s armed forces are manpower-intensive and battle-experienced, the United States enjoys global reach and military-technological leadership, and Japan has a strategic location and high-tech advantages that manifest themselves primarily in civilian pursuits. These characteristics could contribute to a mutually reinforcing security partnership. While limited by continuing bureaucratic reservations in Japan over India's nuclear status, proliferation represents another area of common concern and potential cooperation.

There is also a broad convergence of values. Japan’s new National Security Strategy makes explicit mention of India as a country with which it shares “universal values and strategic interests.” Despite notable differences, the three countries—which constitute the two largest and two wealthiest democracies—have a shared belief in the desirability of a status-quo-oriented, rules-based international order. These common values could underwrite both mechanisms of consultation and provide a basis for managing disputes in Asia.

However, despite these obvious drivers of closer collaboration, trilateral security ties so far are characterized more by promise than by reality. Political and bureaucratic dialogues have certainly taken important steps forward, particularly between India and Japan. Working off of a 2008 joint declaration on security cooperation, the two countries now have a senior-level Defense Policy Dialogue and a so-called “2+2” dialogue involving the foreign and defense ministries, Japan being the only country with which India has such an arrangement. These dialogues have been complemented by growing military-to-military contacts. In 2012, India and Japan held their first bilateral maritime exercises which were repeated just last month, with a third edition being planned for later this year. Exercises with India are particularly important for affording Japan’s Self Defense Force (SDF) the opportunity to prepare for out-of-area contingencies. And on his visit earlier this month to India, Japan’s Defense Minister Istunori Onodera discussed the possibility of extending bilateral cooperation to the two air forces.

Trilateral defense cooperation also involving the United States is centered on the annual Malabar series, nominally bilateral U.S.-India exercises in which Japan has often been involved. The 2007 Malabar exercises also included Japan, Australia and Singapore—much to the consternation of Beijing—and Japan’s maritime SDF returned to participate after a short hiatus. The nature, intricacy, and level of participation in these exercises could perhaps be the best indicator of trilateral security cooperation going forward. Additionally, India's inclusion in the 2014 RIMPAC exercises is another important step forward for defining its role in multilateral defense cooperation in the Indo-Pacific.

Meanwhile, defense commerce—although promising—is still very much in its infancy, with joint production and R&D representing more remote but nonetheless enticing possibilities. India has now been a recipient of more than twenty foreign military sales from the United States, including major contracts for C-17, P-8 and C-130 aircraft. In dollar terms, defence commerce has gone from zero to $6 billion in a decade. Japan is gradually getting in on the act, with talks on for the sale of ShinMaywa’s US-2 amphibious aircraft to the Indian navy.

Despite the compelling logic for deeper collaboration and clearly improving military ties, why has trilateral security cooperation not yet lived up to expectations? For one thing, the shared threat perception is nebulous, episodic, and not always deemed urgent. This is not our grandfathers’ Cold War (commentators have termed these countries’ competitions with China as everything from the “Cool War” to the “Cold Peace”). The fact is that the United States, Japan, and India rely to varying degrees on their economic partnerships with China, and would far prefer Beijing’s military modernization to be more transparent, its economic policies more fair, and its intentions more in line with the territorial status quo than for China’s rise to be entirely unsuccessful. Nor are alliance structures quite the same as before: it is impossible, for example, to imagine Japanese forces supporting their Indian counterparts in the remote reaches of the Tibetan plateau just as India's navy is not about to confront China’s over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. And, it is also important to keep in mind that the United States, Japan, and India all operate under resource constraints of different kinds and degrees.

There are also plenty of political reservations about trilateral cooperation in all three capitals, which, to use a turn of phrase that might be employed in China, could be thought of as the “three reticences” holding back trilateral security cooperation. For one thing, Japan is reticent about its own military normalization. While it has certainly shed some of its reluctance about assuming the burdens of security under Abe, its leadership and public opinion remain of two minds about Japan’s remilitarization. For its part, India remains reticent about the wisdom of multilateral cooperation with the United States. Many Indian political leaders still appear to believe that there is mileage to be gained from anti-American posturing. And finally, the United States remains reticent about Japan’s emergence as a military power, in large part a legacy of history. Washington’s position may, in fact, be the hardest to reverse and will almost certainly have ripple effects: if Washington chooses to adopt an even-handed approach to a dispute between its closest Asian ally and its chief Asian competitor, it becomes harder to make the case for closer U.S.-India relations in New Delhi.

The catalysts, realities, and limitations of security ties between Japan, India, and the United States will be important to keep in mind as Abe visits New Delhi this week. But so should the immense opportunities afforded by the broad political consensus in India about better relations with Japan. Abe may have ruffled feathers in Beijing, Seoul, and Washington for visiting the controversial Yasukuni Shrine that honors Japan’s war dead, an act which led to Japanese militarism being compared by Chinese officials to “He Who Must Not Be Named”. But with all the pomp and protocol that comes with being chief guest at a Republic Day parade, India, at least, is welcoming him a lot more like they would “The Boy Who Lived.”

Dhruva Jaishankar is a fellow with the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) in Washington DC. This article is adapted from a presentation made at the American Enterprise Institute.