India and Japan have reasons to strengthen their Indo-Pacific partnership, though it may never amount to a formal alliance, Tan Ming Hui and Nazia Hussain write.
In October last year, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Prime Minister Narendra Modi reaffirmed their commitment to economic and defence cooperation at the 13th India-Japan annual summit in Tokyo.
The summit saw the signing of several crucial agreements, including those to with a joint high-speed rail project, increased naval cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region, a currency swap of US $75 billion, ‘2+2’ dialogue at the ministerial level, and the commencement of negotiations to finalise Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreements. This will allow both Japan and India reciprocal access to each other’s bases and facilities for logistics and resupply.
Abe and Modi further announced that the two sides would hold joint exercises between their army, navy, and air forces, when previously only their navies had been jointly participating in the Malabar Exercise.
Soon after the summit, the Indian Army and Japan’s Ground Self-Defense Force concluded their first land-based joint military exercise, Dharma Guardian, in November 2018. This was followed by their first joint air exercise in December.
To observers, it might seem as though the partnership has deepened in response to a common threat – a rising China. Indeed, an increasingly assertive China and an uncertain regional environment have encouraged the two countries to deepen their bilateral and multilateral security partnership.
In terms of multilateral partnerships, Japan and India are both proponents of the evolving Indo-Pacific concept and the resurrected Quadrilateral Security Dialogue – also known as the ‘Quad’. Moreover, Tokyo and New Delhi are involved in collaborative projects in the Indo-Pacific region, including in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Bangladesh, as well as in Africa.
At the same time, there is much more that aligns their interests beyond preparing against China’s rising.
Firstly, Japan and India are natural partners. They are both large democracies with no historical baggage, cultural, or territorial grudges against each other. They are also geographically distant, meaning that they are a lot less likely to encroach on the other’s strategic sphere.
Secondly, closer ties can benefit both their economies. This is nothing new – in 1958, Japan disbursed its first loan to India in the form of Official Development Assistance (ODA). The two partners have since established the Japan-India Act East Forum which has helped development cooperation in India’s north-eastern states bordering China, Bangladesh, and Myanmar.
Today, Japan is one of the biggest sources of investment flows into India, accounting for US $28 billion in foreign direct investment between April 2000 and June 2018. Tokyo is also involved in large-scale infrastructure projects such as the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor, the Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train, and the establishment of some 12 industrial parks across different states.
Even in the current digital age, Japan and India remain compatible and share mutual economic interests. In fact, Abenomics and Modinomics can be complementary and symbiotic. Japan can continue investing and sharing its cutting-edge technological know-how with a developing India; India’s youthful and job-seeking population can provide the IT engineers and professionals that an ageing Japan needs.
Moreover, with an unpredictable White House and the Trump administration’s ‘America First’ policy, India and Japan are stepping up to ensure security in the Indo-Pacific region. Although China has taken the brunt of Trump’s protectionist policies so far, Japan and other countries have been accused by the US of unfair trade practices too. While the US remains Japan’s most important ally, Tokyo has been pursuing other suitable partners like India.
Nevertheless, despite strong incentives for a closer partnership, Japan-India relations continue to face challenges. The relationship is also unlikely to develop into a formal alliance.
New Delhi’s evolving foreign policy remains conflicted between its traditional nonalignment strategies and its burgeoning desire to play a major role on the global stage. Similarly, despite Abe’s repeated attempts to reinterpret and revise Japan’s pacifist constitution, his administration continues to face strong opposition and public protests against such moves.
At this stage, it remains difficult for both India and Japan to readily defend the other in case of an escalation in a border or military conflict – their mutual support in policies notwithstanding.
It is also important for Japan and India to stay mindful of regional dynamics and balance. For the Indo-Pacific concept to appear convincing enough to other ASEAN countries, ASEAN centrality must continue to be the stabilising force in the region’s security architecture.
For the rest of the world, an ever-expanding Japan-India partnership also has implications. On top of providing proactive leadership in the region, stronger bilateral ties suggest that the Indo-Pacific concept can continue to evolve in its relevance and credibility. The two countries might also be able to keep the US engaged and anchored in the region.
Whatever happens next in their relationship, New Delhi and Tokyo have every potential to strengthen unity among the littoral states in the Indian Ocean region. What the two really need is a coherent and comprehensive Indo-Pacific strategy.