India and Japan Draw Closer: Risks and Rewards

February 19, 2014 Topic: Global Governance Region: JapanIndia

India and Japan Draw Closer: Risks and Rewards

Some elements of their cooperation could work against American goals.

Japanese rightists may be loath to dwell on the portions of Pal’s opinion discussing cruelties inflicted on other Asian peoples, but they have enthusiastically embraced the judge’s assertion that their nation was subjected to a double standard. Initially sealed due to concerns about its inflammatory content, the opinion was made public after Japan signed the San Francisco Peace Treaty in 1951. Fifteen years later, in his waning months, Pal was invited to Tokyo to receive the First Class Order of the Sacred Treasure from Emperor Hirohito; today, monuments bearing his likeness can be found at Yasukuni and the Ryozen Gokoku shrine in Kyoto.

While Pal’s name has no similar currency in his home country, Indian prime minister Manhoman Singh has not been shy about playing on admiration for the judge in wooing Tokyo. In 2005, for example, Singh told Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi that Pal’s dissent symbolizes “the affection and regard our people have for yours”; the next year, Singh said that Pal’s “principled judgment” reflects “the depth of our friendship, and the fact that we have stood by each other at critical moments in our history.” (Some revisionist scholars in India have also taken an interest in the wartime relationship, with one arguing that Japan and Bose—rather than Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi—deserve primary credit for Indian independence.)

FOR THOSE already inclined to regard Abe as a dangerous revanchist, his interest in figures like Bose and Pal merely serves to confirm their darkest fears. Not surprisingly, China has paid close attention to summits between Abe and Singh, with a recent op-ed in its hawkish Global Times warning New Delhi that complicity in Japanese revisionism “can only bring trouble to India and threaten its relationships with … East Asian countries.” The fact that Beijing has cynically stoked anti-Japanese sentiment for decades—blaming its prosperous neighbor for domestic problems even as Tokyo has showered Beijing with aid—does not render Abe’s musings on history any less problematic, but rather heightens the imperative for him to correct the notion that Japan seeks anything but security, prosperity and peace for its own people.

For the United States, this situation presents something of a dilemma. On the one hand, there are real advantages to be found in trilateral security cooperation with India and Japan. As Patrick Cronin of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) observed at a recent event hosted by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), more alignment between the three democratic countries could pressure a rising China to participate in a rules-based regional order, and also limit Beijing’s ability to close vital sea lines of communication like the Strait of Malacca.

On the other hand, the same historical notes which Abe likes to play in India have contributed to an enormously counterproductive rift between Japan and South Korea—the latter a steadfast U.S. ally and a significant military power in its own right, which ought to be working with Japan to reduce the danger both face from North Korea and finding ways to limit the risk of region-wide conflict. Mutual antagonism between Tokyo and Seoul may not be the fault of either nation alone, but enduring Korean bitterness clearly owes much to recurring efforts by prominent Japanese rightists to rationalize or flatly deny past wrongs.


Having tried and failed to dissuade Abe from visiting the Yasukuni shrine in the first place, the United States is hardly in a position to order the Japanese premier to modify his line when speaking New Delhi. That said, it will be important for Washington to monitor the tenor of India-Japan ties, and to avoid association with passions that the United States does not share—and beliefs it explicitly rejects. When Abe forgoes the history lessons, and focuses instead on Japan’s estimable democratic tradition and the revitalization of its powerful economy, he can be a compelling advocate for its interests. Yet he continues to undermine his commendable efforts to improve Japan’s defensive posture by pointlessly needling its closest neighbors, sacrificing the country’s physical security at the altar of a sanitized past.

For Washington, this is just another reminder of the complexities that can arise when working with allies and partners in Asia. Rising nationalism in the states around China will not balance or silence chauvinist voices in Beijing, but empower them—and also deepen fissures between nations sharing valid American concerns about China’s trajectory. The point is not that Washington should remain aloof from or discourage collaboration between India and Japan, but that the trilateral relationship offers risks as well as rewards, and must be navigated with an eye on the historical undertow that could drag it off course.


Taylor Washburn is a lawyer studying at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and was previously a visiting professor at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology. He can be followed on Twitter @washburnt.

Image: Flickr/Abe Bingham. CC BY 2.0.

[1] Mao’s telegram is quoted in K. Subrahmanyam, “Nehru and the India-China Conflict of 1962,” in B.R. Nanda, ed., Indian Foreign Policy: The Nehru Years (1990).="#_ftnref1">