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.”
These commonalities weren’t sufficient to draw Japan and India together during the Cold War. For one thing, Japan worried less about China then and was more confident that such threats as China might present could be parried by Tokyo’s alliance with the United States, particularly since America maintained a massive military and economic advantage over China. For another, India wasn’t then seen as a necessary partner, or even a potential one, given that it wasn’t being routinely touted as a rising power as it is now (sometimes to excess, it should be said). But as China’s post-1978 economic boom advanced, generating technological and military modernization and, with that, an increasing capacity to raise the risks Washington would have to run to defend Japan, Tokyo has moved to supplement its traditional strategy, in essence reliance on American power, by attempting to orchestrate an Asian coalition whose members are united by a common apprehension of China. What better partner than India, an Asian behemoth, to welcome into such a grouping? Thus a natural overlap of interest has developed between Tokyo’s new—and less favorable—strategic circumstances and India’s largely China-driven Look East policy.
So what have been the results of the Tokyo-New Delhi convergence? Lots as it happens, though it’s too soon to say how the alignment will shape the Asian balance of power or either country’s relationship with Beijing. First, there has been a steady stream of high-level visits to and from Tokyo and New Delhi in the last few years alone. Take some recent examples: with his Republic Day visit, Abe will have been to India twice since his first official trip in 2007. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda visited India in 2011. His counterpart Manmohan Singh was in Tokyo in 2008, 2010, and 2013. At the invitation of the Indian government, Emperor Akihito and his wife came to New Delhi at the end of 2013, the first visit by a member of Japan’s royal family since 1975, when Akihito stopped over while he was the Crown Prince. (He’d made an earlier visit in 1960.) Japan’s defense minister, Itsunori Onodera, met with his opposite number, A.K. Anthony, this month and, among other things, briefed him on Japan’s new defense-planning guidelines. Last March, India’s external affairs minister, Salman Khurshid, was in Tokyo for consultations. You get the drift.
This sample of the recent traffic in luminaries represents a remarkable change from the Cold War years, when US-aligned Japan and non-aligned India had few strategic transactions to speak of. Moreover, with the exception of Akihito’s visit, the rest have featured thinly veiled references to the strategic concord created by China’s rise. Defense Minister Onodera, for example, spoke of China’s “provocative” behavior to Indian reporters, adding that cooperation between India and Japan could encourage Beijing to settle dispute through dialog. The ever reticent Manmohan Singh avoided mentioning China directly while in Tokyo in 2013, but his reference to “multiple challenges, unresolved issues and unsettled questions” that present “continuing threats to stability and security” did not leave much to the imagination of the Beijing leadership; nor did his characterization of Japan as India’s “natural and indispensible partner in our quest for peace and security in the vast region in Asia that is washed by the Pacific and Indian Oceans.” China’s leaders would immediately have recognized that the second of Singh’s statements was meant to echo Shinzo Abe’s 2007 speech in New Delhi in which he referred to India and Japan as strategic partners brought together by “the confluence of the two seas.”
More significant than the peregrinations of their prominent political personages is what one might call the institutionalization of India and Japan’s strategic convergence. This gives it a foundation, depersonalizes it, and, in so doing, provides it the capacity to extend beyond the terms and inclinations of particular leaders.
Aside from Russia, Japan is the only country with which India holds annual summits, and since 2006 the two countries claim to be united by a “strategic and global partnership.” More concretely, India and Japan have conducted bilateral naval exercises, referred to as JIMEX, since 2012—the first in the north Pacific, the second (2013) in the Bay of Bengal. Japan has been seeking to join the US-India “Malabar” naval exercises, which have been in place since 1992, but India has balked at making it a regular member—Japan did take part in 2007 and 2009, though the maneuvers were not in the Indian Ocean but the Pacific—so as not to stir up passions in Beijing. During Defense Minister Onodera’s meetings with A.K. Anthony in 2013, Japan again raised the matter of becoming a regular in the Malabar exercise. Were India to consent, it would be proof that the strategic element in India-Japan relations is being strengthened.