Narendra Modi, who recently became prime minister of India, is scheduled to visit Japan later this summer. Geostrategist Brahma Chellaney revisits the Indo-Japanese relationship and finds it thriving on both the economic and security fronts. What is the strategic outlook for these partners moving forward?
The upcoming visit to Japan of India’s newly elected prime minister, Narendra Modi, is likely to strengthen the strategic bonds between Asia’s oldest (and richest) democracy and the world’s largest democracy. Modi has intentionally chosen Japan as the first major country for a state visit, underscoring New Delhi’s recognition of Japan’s critical importance to Indian economic and security interests.
A similar recognition in Tokyo of India’s vital role for Japan prompted the historic Indian tour of Japan’s venerated Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko late last year. The emperor’s visit is likely to mark a watershed in Indo-Japanese ties, just as his 1992 China trip—at the height of Japan’s pro-China foreign policy—led to increased Japanese aid, investment, and technology transfer to that country. Also significant was Prime Minister Abe Shinzō’s presence as the chief guest at India’s January 26, 2014, Republic Day parade.
A New Era of Warm Ties
Modi’s election is good news for Japan-India relations, with his visit to Tokyo in August promising to take those ties to a new level of economic and strategic engagement. Modi’s 2007 and 2012 visits to Japan as the chief minister (governor) of the western Indian state of Gujarat helped forge a special relationship with Japan and also build personal rapport with Abe. Today, Abe follows only three people on Twitter: his outspoken wife Akie, author-turned-politician Inose Naoki, and Modi.
“Personally, I have a wonderful experience of working with Japan . . . I am sure we will take India-Japan ties to newer heights,” Modi said in one of his tweets after winning a landslide election victory. In response, Abe, after making a congratulatory telephone call, posted on Twitter: “Great talking to you, Mr. Modi. I look forward to welcoming you in Tokyo and further deepening our friendly ties.”
Abe and Modi both champion pro-market reforms and share similar political values and strategic approaches, including seeking close ties with Asian democracies to help create a web of interlocking strategic partnerships. They also share a keen interest in ensuring stable power equilibrium in Asia.
Asia’s balance of power will be determined by events in two principal regions: East Asia and the Indian Ocean. As the two leading maritime democracies in Asia, Japan and India must take the lead in helping to safeguard vital sea-lanes in the wider Indo-Pacific region. After all, as energy-poor countries heavily dependent on oil and gas imports, they are seriously concerned by mercantilist efforts to assert control over energy supplies and transport routes.
With One Eye on the Security Scene
The Japan-India partnership indeed holds the potential to shape Asian geopolitics in much the same way as China’s rise or US President Barack Obama’s “pivot” to Asia. It can, for example, impose discreet checks on China’s exercise of its rapidly accumulating power, which currently risks sliding into arrogance. China has made not-so-subtle efforts to block the rise of Japan and India, including by opposing the expansion of the United Nations Security Council’s permanent membership.
India can serve as the southern anchor and Japan the eastern anchor of an Asian balance of power.
Abe has gone to the extent of saying that Japan-India relations hold “the greatest potential of any bilateral relationship anywhere in the world.” Abe’s push for closer ties with India actually dates back to his first stint as prime minister in 2006–7, when Japan and India unveiled their “strategic and global partnership.”
Japan is to join this year’s Malabar exercises, the Indo-US naval maneuvers in the Pacific. The last such trilateral naval exercises occurred in 2009. In extending the invitation to Japan that year, Modi’s predecessor, Manmohan Singh, declared Japan to be “at the heart of India’s Look East policy.”
Some in Japan have claimed that India is too diverse and complex a partner for homogenous Japan, and that the only reason the two countries are coming closer is because they are geographically distant and free of bilateral disputes. But rather than geographical distance or cultural factors, it is the convergence of key strategic interests that matters in interstate relations. In an era of increasing global interdependence and reduced transportation costs, shared economic and security interests are the main drivers of any intercountry relationship.
Building on Synergies
The dissimilarities between India and Japan, in fact, increase the potential for mutually beneficial economic collaboration.
Japan has a solid heavy manufacturing base, while India boasts services-led growth. India has the world’s largest youthful population, while Japan is aging more rapidly than any other major developed country. Whereas Japan has financial and technological power, India has human capital. Such contrasting features make their economies complementary and open a path to generating strong synergies.
Even in the strategic realm, the two countries’ dissimilar backgrounds are no drawback. For example, India has always valued strategic autonomy, while Japan remains a model US ally that hosts not only a large presence of American troops but also pays generously for their upkeep.
Indian and Japanese strategic policies are now evolving in parallel. Long used to practicing passive, checkbook diplomacy, Tokyo is now signaling its willingness to play a greater geopolitical role. India, for its part, has progressed from doctrinaire nonalignment to geopolitical pragmatism.
Since Japan and India unveiled their strategic and global partnership, their political and economic engagement has deepened significantly. Their free-trade pact, formally known as the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, came into force in 2011. They have even established an alliance to jointly develop rare earths so as to reduce their dependence on China, which has a near-monopoly on the global supply of these vital minerals.
Japan has become a critical source of capital and commercial technology for India, which has emerged as the largest destination for Japanese foreign direct investment among major industrialized nations. India surpassed China more than a decade ago as the biggest recipient of Japan’s Official Development Assistance, which is currently funding more than 60 Indian projects, such as the Western Freight Corridor, the New Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor, and the Bangalore Metro Rail Project.
In Pursuit of Mutual Benefits
Japan sees India as central to its own economic-revival and security-building strategies. Japan’s prolonged economic woes have obscured one of the most far-reaching but least-noticed developments in Asia—the country’s political resurgence. Japan believes it has little option but to become more competitive and shore up its security by building strategic ties with new partners, such as India.
It is against this background that India and Japan boast the fastest-growing bilateral relationship in Asia today.
But if this emerging democratic axis is to turn into a game-changer in Asia, the two countries need to make their collaboration meatier through deeper economic and security linkages. Modi’s rise opens a window of opportunity to build such linkages, including by making India the leading market for Japan’s new drive to export arms. Some of Abe’s recent steps, including easing a longstanding arms-export ban and reasserting the right of collective defense, are most promising in relation to India.
This will likely be a win-win partnership, helping to drive India’s infrastructure development and great-power aspirations, while catalyzing Japan’s revival as a world power.
(Originally written in English on June 25, 2014. Banner photo: Reuters/Aflo.)
Geostrategist and professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi. Has served in several security- and diplomacy-related posts in the Indian government. Is the author of numerous books, most recently Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis. His website is Chellaney.net.