Assessing Japan-India Relations: A Chinese Perspective

11 Feb, 2014    ·   4304

Bo Zhen reflects on the bilateral ties in the wake of Abe’s visit

On 27 January 2014, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe ended his three-day visit to India. The visit was important particularly in light of the strenuous ties between Asia’s two top economies over a dispute over islands in the East China Sea. Prime Minister Abe’s visit brought India and Japan closer as they covered significant grounds for bilateral cooperation. The two countries signed a series of agreements covering national security, economic development, weapons importation, joint military exercises, cultural exchanges and other aspects of cooperation mentioned in the Joint Statement.

Abe’s visit showed Japan’s desire to strengthen the strategic bilateral relationship with India at the time of rising tensions in the region. However, the two sides did not discuss China who has territorial disputes with both. The main focus was on practical cooperation and neither initiated talks about China because the symbolic meaning of Abe’s visit was already very strong - increasing Chinese economic and military capability has pushed India and Japan to stand closer. The first joint naval exercise between India and Japan was held in Japanese waters in 2012. Economic ties between both have been strengthened further, with the bilateral trade amount increasing by 80 per cent in the last five years, almost reaching USD 18 billion.

Japan’s Containment Strategy: In India’s Interest?
Japan’s effort is obvious and it is true that India and Japan have many mutual interests, especially in the aspects of trade and economic cooperation, infrastructural investment, hi-tech industry, maintenance of regional security etc. However, it is still too early to say that Japan’s wish to contain China is an advisable choice not only for itself but also for India. Before Abe’s high-profile visit, many political preparations were done, including the visits by the Japanese Emperor and Japan’s defense minister. Despite Japan’s recent efforts to strengthen ties with India, it would still be very difficult for Japan to get India involved in its containment strategy.

Firstly, it is not likely that India would follow Japan’s plan blindly. For a long time now, India has implemented an independent foreign policy which is based on the non-alignment strategy. History, domestic conditions and complicated cultural and religious nuances have determined that India would not simply comply with orders by other countries.

Secondly, it is very natural and meaningful for Japan and India to enhance economic cooperation, but to convert this cooperation into motivation to contain a third party is another story. Moreover, Indo-Japanese economic cooperation could avoid political motivations. In a globalised world, Japan is one amongst many of India’s economic partners. In 2011, bilateral trade between China and India was USD 73.6 billion, which was more than five times the trade amount of India and Japan (around 14 billion USD) in 2011, and it is speculated that this will increase to USD 100 billion in 2015. Since the BRICS has become an important economic cooperation organisation and is posited to plays a key role in the world arena, mutual economic relations among the members will definitely be enhanced in the future.

Thirdly, it has become clear that India has become a crucial player not only in the South Asian region but in globally as well, and this is attributed to its unique geopolitical position. India is the continental bridge connecting West Asia and Southeast Asia, and it therefore acts as a link to East and West Asia. The strategic importance of India would not allow the US or Japan to enjoy their strategic advantages freely. It could be postulated that in the 21st century, geopolitics continues to dominate the foundation of India’s foreign policy.

India-China: Smooth Development of Bilateral Relations?
The India-China bilateral relationship will not be affected much by India-Japan relations. For the first time in five decades, Indian and Chinese leaders visited each other’s capital in the same year. The mutual visits have shown that India-China relations have grown over time and current issues among India, China and Japan are not likely to stop this trend.

First, issues continue to bedevil China-Japan and China-India relations, but problems between the latter are still controllable with huge potential for cooperation. Therefore, it is in India’s interest to seek engagement with China and not to distance itself – otherwise, the cost will not only mean a huge loss of bilateral trade but also a hostile China. More importantly, India may not get the support it requires from Japan when facing China. Second, civil nuclear cooperation may seem like a very attractive deal for Japan, but it is not so for two reasons:  Japan is not the only source for India’s acquisition of civil nuclear technology, and even if Japan were to build a nuclear weapon, it would not need technological assistance from India.

Third, Indo-Japanese cooperation for infrastructural development in Northeastern India can hardly be seen as an economic scheme – it is much more political. How much development does India really want in this region? How many practical difficulties exist here? How much progress can actually be achieved?

All in all, as the world's second largest and Asia's largest economy as well as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, China will continue to strengthen Sino-Indian relations. As PM Manmohan Singh said, “There is enough space in the world for the development of both India and China and indeed, enough areas for India and China to cooperate.” This is also true for China, India and Japan.