Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has just concluded a three-day official visit to New Delhi, where he was made Chief Guest at India’s Republic Day Parade. As the first time this honour has been given to a Japanese leader, Abe’s most recent visit to New Delhi marks the growing significance of Indo-Japanese ties.
Given the current tension in relations between China and Japan, the symbolism of hosting Abe sends a clear signal to Beijing. India’s Look East policy, initiated in 1991, is beginning to play an important balancing role against China’s growing presence in the Indian Ocean and assertiveness along their disputed land border. India is investing substantial diplomatic energy in increasing the strategic value of Look East and is working to integrate security cooperation into its relations with its East Asian partners. In the past year, India has deliberately stepped up engagement with Vietnam, Indonesia and South Korea, particularly evident in light of South Korean President Park Geun-Hye’s visit to India earlier this month. But it is India’s relationship with Japan that will be the lynchpin of Look East.
Indo-Japan ties have gathered substantial momentum in recent years, particularly so under the leadership of Shinzo Abe who has long been a champion of closer relations. In his last term as Prime Minister from 2006 to 2007, Abe articulated his vision of a ‘broader Asia’ spanning the Pacific and Indian Oceans, and called for an Indo-Japan “strategic global partnership” in recognition of the two nations’ shared democratic values and strategic interests.
The accelerating pace of high-level interactions between India and Japan demonstrates the increased importance both countries accord the relationship. Abe’s most recent trip followed the official visit of Japanese Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko to New Delhi in December last year, as well as Prime Minister Singh’s visit to Tokyo earlier in May.
Since India and Japan entered into a strategic and global partnership in 2006, their strategic interests have steadily converged in the face an increasingly assertive China. Chinese provocations over territorial disputes with Japan in the East China Sea and along the contested Sino-Indian land border have served only to reinforce the necessity of an enhanced Indo-Japanese partnership.
Bilateral trade between India and Japan has increased by 80% in the last 5 years to reach $18 billion, with a target of $25 billion set for this year. Japan is already India’s largest source of both foreign direct investment and aid, and the two are looking to strengthen their economic relations further. Japanese official development assistance has been crucial in the development of the Delhi Metro, and has prompted the undertaking of similar projects in Bangalore and Chennai. Japan has pledged an additional $92 billion investment in infrastructure centring on the Delhi-Mumbai industrial corridor, and India is in the process of approving an increase in bilateral currency swaps between the Reserve Bank of India and the Bank of Japan from $15 billion to $50 billion.
Japan and India have also sought to give teeth to their strategic partnership. During the visit of Japanese Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera to India earlier this month, India and Japan pledged to enhance their defence cooperation through joint combat exercises, military exchanges, and cooperation on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. Their shared interest in maintaining sea lines of communication and freedom of navigation has led to greater interest in augmenting cooperation in the maritime security sphere, including in anti-piracy cooperation, joint coast guard exercises and bilateral naval exercises. Japan has also offered to sell India its ShinMaywa US-2 amphibious aircraft, and the two nations are due to hold their third “2+2” Dialogue and fourth Defence Policy Dialogue later this year.
These developments have not gone unnoticed by China. Following Prime Minister Singh’s visit to Tokyo last May, Chinese state-run media published pieces accusing India of exploiting ‘the deep hostility between China and Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands’ and warning that ‘the conflict between China and Japan should not be regarded as a “strategic” game’. More recently, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hong Lei stated that China hoped that India and Japan’s relationship would ‘be conducive to regional peace, stability and development’. In addition, China’s Ambassador to India penned two pieces in The Indian Express accusing Japan ‘trying to turn back the wheel of history’ by failing to acknowledge Japan’s militaristic past, and reminding readers that ‘Indian and Chinese soldiers together fought against Japanese aggression in India’.
Strengthening relations with Japan will be one of the Singh government’s most important foreign policy legacies. Given that Narendra Modi has established ties between Gujarat and Japan, these positive trends are likely to continue should a Modi-led BJP government win elections later this year.
Of course, challenges still exist in the relationship. Japan-India civil nuclear cooperation has stalled, and bilateral trade between the two is still far below the US$70 billion relationship India has with China. And India’s commitment to strategic autonomy is likely to constrain the development of a more formal alliance arrangement, or participation in activities perceived to be overtly targeted at China.
But the natural complementarities inherent in India and Japan’s strategic interests, and potential for growth in trade, investment and science and technology will ensure the longevity of their ties. It is for these reasons that the relationship between India and Japan is likely to be one of the defining partnerships in shaping Indo-Pacific geopolitics in the coming years.