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An India-Japan Alliance Brewing?

January 22, 2014 Topic: Security Region: JapanIndia

An India-Japan Alliance Brewing?

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

Regular contacts and exchanges have been created between the two countries’ armies, navies, and air forces, with cooperation covering disaster relief, humanitarian, and antipiracy operations, along with cyber security. Japan appears ready to relax its 1967 ban on the sale of arms and defense technology so as to clear the way for the sale to India of the ShinMaywa US-2 amphibious patrol aircraft. A Defense Policy Dialog has been inaugurated since the 2011, with meetings between the Indian and Japanese countries defense ministers, and a 2+2 Dialog, involving senior officials from the foreign and defense ministries, began in 2010, following an agreement between the Indian and Japanese prime ministers. The foreign ministers have their own Strategic Dialog, the seventh having convened in March 2013. Then there’s the Energy Dialogue, which covers such issues as maritime security and the joint effort to reduce the price differential between Persian Gulf suppliers’ LNG sales—Japan and India are major consumers of this form of energy—to western markets (where customers pay lower prices) and those in Asia.

Civilian nuclear cooperation, of particular interest to India given Japan’s technical abilities in this realm, has been more difficult to get going. Quite apart from Japan’s commitment to promoting nuclear nonproliferation, and the attendant internal political complexities of exporting nuclear technology to a nuclear-armed state such as India, the 2013 accident at the Fukushima-Daiichi reactor has proved to be an impediment. Japan joined other states in imposing sanctions on India after its 1998 nuclear tests, and while it lifted them three years later, it has persisted in trying to get India to adhere to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, something that New Delhi has steadfastly opposed. But following the India-US 123 Agreement on civilian nuclear cooperation reach during George W. Bush’s presidency, India’s admittance thereafter into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (both of which amounted to the majors powers’ acceptance that a nuclear-armed India was a reality that had to be reckoned with), and the favorable context created by the India-Japan strategic convergence, these obstacles should prove easier to surmount.

So what’s the significance of these various initiatives aimed at anchoring the India-Japan alignment? Some may prove to be more formal than substantive, while others (the sale of Japanese defense technology, to say nothing of arms) may be hard to ramp up rapidly. Neither Japan nor India has an interest in forming an overt anti-China alliance: each is exposed, by virtue of geography, to preponderant Chinese power, and anything resembling an encirclement strategy directed at Beijing is likely to make them less secure. China has certainly made it clear, including through a recent op-edpenned by its ambassador to India for a prominent Indian daily, that it has apprehensions about the direction of Japan’s defense policy and Tokyo’s strategic cooperation with India. Despite the concerns in Japan over the (admittedly slow) narrowing of the gap in power between China and the U.S., India will never have for Japan the strategic significance that the United States has.

Yet there’s no denying that, as balance of power theory would predict, China’s rise has set in motion strategic realignments in Asia and that the convergence between Japan and India is a prime example. (The others include the deepening security ties between India, on the one hand, and the United States, Australia, Indonesia, and Vietnam on the other, and between the United States and its erstwhile foe, Vietnam). What’s still missing is a robust economic relationship between India and Japan that would give greater depth to their strategic like-mindedness. True, Japan has been India’s largest source of economic assistance, Japanese companies now operate at some 1,422 locations in India (more than twice the number in 2008), and the two sides plan to phase out tariffs on most bilateral trade within the next decade. True, Japan has been, or plans to be, involved in various projects aimed at revamping India’s antiquated infrastructure and in helping building high-speed railway connections and industrial corridors between Delhi and Mumbai and Chennai and Bangalore. Still, the flow of goods, students, tourists, and investment between China and Japan far exceeds that between India and Japan (to say nothing of Japan and the United States). India’s trade with Japan was a tad over $18 billion—a paltry sum compared to Sino-Indian trade, which has soared from some $250 million in 1990 to almost $67 billion in 2012 (though with India running a persistent and increasing deficit). Japan’s foreign direct investment (FDI) in India has increased since 2006, but the cumulative total between 2000 and 2012was just under $20 billion—less than Thailand’s intake and only 9.6 percent of Japan’s total FDI in Asia.

The Tokyo-Delhi entente bids fair to proceed. But it will be substantively skewed (given the relatively weak economic component), limited by Japan’s constitutional restrictions on the projection of military force and the continuing opposition by the Japanese public to big increases in defense spending, and secondary to both countries’ strategic cooperation with the United States. What’s clear is that despite these limitations it represents a big change in Asia’s post-Cold War strategic landscape—one that’s gotten Beijing’s attention.

Rajan Menon is the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Professor of Political Science at the City College of New York/City University of New York, nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and the author, most recently, of The End of Alliances (Oxford University Press, 2007).