Assessing Japan-India Relations: An Indian Perspective

07 Mar, 2014    ·   4328

Shamshad A Khan looks at why it would be inaccurate to assume that China is the prime reason for India and Japan’s growing relationship

While it would be difficult to not account for the China factor in Indian strategic thinking especially with regard to the 2006 India-Japan global and strategic partnership, to assume that China is the prime reason for  India and Japan’s growing relationship is likely to lead to the wrong conclusions. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s India visit in January 2014 was part of a prime ministerial level engagement institutionalised in 2006 in which they agreed to meet annually, alternating between New Delhi and Tokyo. It was not triggered by a Sino-Japanese stand-off over the East China Sea or a ‘rising tension’ in the East Asian region as has been interpreted in certain sections of the media and strategic circles.

Delving a little into the recent history of India-Japan engagement and the evolution of their relationship will help in understanding the circumstances that pushed the two to come closer. Newly liberalised India’s developmental priorities, post 1991, compelled Indian strategic planners to forge ‘complementary’ relations with Japan. China was nowhere in the minds of Indian strategic planners. Also Japan’s interest in India was largely economic. It saw opportunities in India’s liberalisation, a system with which its investors were comfortable with.

JN Dixit, a former Indian Foreign Secretary, who closely worked with the then External Affairs Minister Manmohan Singh, notes in his memoirs that Japan’s interest in India, was “primarily economic.” He observed that “in other spheres, India does not form a primary focus of attention yet.”  Dixit’s observations, made in 1996, proved prophetic as till 2006, India-Japan relations were driven by the economic factor alone. The strategic factor appeared when the two countries declared a ‘global and strategic partnership’, combining the politico-economic and security aspects.

However, the agenda of their cooperation has been dominated by economic issues, such as signing a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA), currency swap agreements, trade and investment, infrastructure developments, cooperation in the field of energy etc. Though they have cooperated in matters of maritime security and Sea Lanes of Communications, it has been driven more by Japan’s economic interest than traditional security interests. By enhancing maritime cooperation with India, Japan wants to secure the passage of its inbound and outbound goods, which is lifeline of its economy. Yes, India has participated in naval exercises with Japan but the fact that India and China have established military to military cooperation should not be omitted either. As far as the India-Japan naval exercise of June 2012 is concerned, the fact remains that the same Indian naval fleet left for China for another exercise, though the nature of the exercise was different.

China would have been one of, and not the only reason for better Indo-Japanese ties. The joint statement signed during the Abe-Singh summit meeting in Delhi that year stated the “usefulness of having dialogue among India, Japan and other like-minded countries” on the issues of “mutual interest.” This was interpreted as an attempt to create exclusive security architecture in Asia Pacific without China. Talks of a quadrilateral mechanism with the US, Japan, Australia and India emboldened arguments about the four trying to ‘encircle China’. However, India has maintained that it is not bandwagoning with any power to counter-balance any other power.
India has been very cautious not to develop an image of a ‘countervailing force’.  When Abe proposed a security framework (consisting of US, Japan, Australia and India) to safeguard ‘maritime commons’, New Delhi said that India and Japan need “an open, rule based international trading system to prosper.” Manmohan Singh’s statement during his Tokyo visit in May 2013 suggests that India is not eager to extend the existing bilateral maritime cooperation into a multilateral arrangement. 

An analysis of India-Japan relations should not be delinked from India-China relations. This would help dispel the misperception that India is part of the China containment strategy. If India has identified certain areas in which both India and Japan can complement each other, it has also identified complementarities with China. During his speech at China’s Central Party School in 2013, Manmohan Singh highlighted ‘eight specific areas’ where he saw opportunity of cooperation between India and China including in the field of manufacturing, energy and infrastructure developments. Interestingly, some of these areas of cooperation overlap with that of ongoing cooperation between India and Japan. Also, he outlined ‘seven practical principles of engagement’. Welcoming the emergence of China, he reiterated that “old theories of alliances and containment are no longer relevant.” From the Japanese perspective, Japan continues to place legally binding restrictions (owing to its pacifist Constitution) on its troops on the exercise of ‘Collective Self-Defense' or aiding an ally militarily. Given these restrictions, it is unlikely that Tokyo can actually contain an adversary.

Both India and Japan are perturbed with China’s assertive behaviour and its identification of a number of contested areas as ‘core issues’ of national interest. By coming together, Japan and India are trying to seize opportunities at the regional and international levels to impress upon Beijing the importance of adhering to internationally agreed norms and shedding its expansionist attitude, and they have been partly successful in moderating China’s behaviour.