The Phases of Growth: India-Japan Strategic Partnership in the 21st Century

Abe’s visit is seen as symbolic of the growing ties between New Delhi and Tokyo [Amit Dave/Reuters]

by Dr. Thomas F. Lynch III

The emerging strategic relationship between India and Japan is significant for the future security and stability of the Indo-Asia-Pacific region.   India and Japan share complementary, but not identical, strategic visions.  India and Japan both seek to manage – and minimize – the potential negative impacts from the rise of China in accord with their own strategic perspectives.

Japan provides India with economic, political and diplomatic interactions that New Delhi cannot replicate elsewhere.  Japanese economic assistance is special in that it can undertake projects of enormous scope and scale in the Indian economy – offering a competitive and often preferred alternative to Chinese bids on critical Indian infrastructure projects.  As a technologically advanced industrial nation with an established defense industry, and one now enabled to export weapons platforms and technologies abroad due to a historic political evolution , Japan can help India advance its national military and defense capabilities.

India provides Japan with a security partner of enormous latent potential, and three main short-term advantages.  India’s border dispute with China causes Beijing to spend more on defense along the Indian border, limiting its attention and defense spending against contested island claims astride Japan.  Growing Indian maritime capability will enable New Delhi to assume greater responsibility for Indian Ocean security, allowing Japan and the U.S. to allocate a greater proportion of their own resources to counter Chinese adventurism in the South and East China Seas. Finally, India has the potential to assist Vietnam to develop as a Japanese security partner –in Southeast Asia as both India and Vietnam currently have many of the same Russian military platforms.

There is broad, bipartisan domestic support in Japan and India for enhancing bilateral strategic cooperation now and moving forward.  Japanese Prime Minister Abe’s role has been a critical factor in the rapid growth of the strategic relationship, and the partnership is unlikely to have moved as far or as fast without his leadership.  However, Japan’s important relationship with India has been institutionalized in special ways over the past decade that will make it durable – if not as dynamic – when Abe leaves the political stage in Japan.  The same is largely true in India.   Since mid-2014, Prime Minster Modi’s personal approach and his special relationship with Prime Minister Abe has been a significant accelerant to the India-Japan strategic relationship.  Indian strategic thinking is broadly supportive of continuing to grow strategic bilateral relations with Tokyo.  Thus, Indian public support for the growth of Indo-Japanese partnership is reasonably well assured.  There is a depth of support in both India and Japan that will foster a robust strategic relationship well into the future.

Outside observers may think that this intense India-Japan strategic interplay is strange or unnatural.  It is not.   A review of ancient Indo-Japanese cultural linkages and, most importantly, the recent history between them reveals that this Indo-Japanese partnership has deep roots and has grown at a remarkable pace through three distinct phases since 2000, the dawn of the 21st Century.

The Japan-India relationship dates back centuries, involving both cultural and commercial interaction.   Buddhism came to Japan from India in the 6th and 7th centuries. Travel of Buddhist scholars from India to Japan and of Japanese students to India can be traced back to the 8th century.  The shared Buddhist tradition spiritually and culturally links the Japanese and Indian people and differentiates Japan from Confucian Asia.  The Dutch East India Company established trade routes between Japan and the subcontinent that remained active even during Japan’s seclusion period (1638-1858).  The first direct economic contact can be traced to the beginning of Japan’s Meiji period (1868), when Japan used raw materials from India to enable its early industrialization.

From this shared cultural and commercial ancient past, modern forces have been driving this relationship forward in the 21st century. In particular the relationship has evolved rapidly due to three main factors: the rise of China; the promise of India; and the re-emergence of Japan as an active contributor to international peace and stability.

Advances in the Indo-Japanese strategic relationship shares a clear symmetry – in language and processes – with the historic, post-1945 U.S.-Japan alliance and with the emerging U.S.-India strategic partnership.   In this context, the U.S. has a conspicuous shaping role in the development of the modern relationship between New Delhi and Tokyo.  The American role since 2000 is demonstrated in the following chart highlighting key India-Japan strategic partnership milestones over a 16 year period.  In this chart, the reader will observe that every time the U.S. signaled greater possibilities for U.S.-India partnership in the 21st Century, Tokyo has followed Washington’s lead and moved forward with its own strategic initiatives toward New Delhi.

Chart: India-Japan Key Strategic Partnership Milestones 2000-2016

DATE(S) India-Japan Strategic Documents & Milestones Major U.S. Strategic Document/Interaction with India Comments
March 2000 President Clinton Visits India First US President to visit in 20 years
August 2000 India-Japan Strategic Partnership Agreed to by PM Mori & PM Vajpayee on occasion of PM Mori’s visit to India
January 2004 India-US Strategic Partnership Announced in joint statement by President GW Bush and PM Vajpayee
July 2005 ·         US-India Civil Nuclear Agreement;

·         Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP)

Agreed to by President GW Bush & India PM M Singh agree to framework. Also known as US-India 1-2-3 deal; signed into force in October 2008.
December 2006 India-Japan Strategic and Global Partnership PM Abe & PM M Singh.

Included a basic India-Japan Defense Cooperation Agreement first signed in May 2006. Considered the first major bilateral strategic commitment.

2007 Japan’s first participation in India-US MALABAR naval exercise Joined US, India and other regional naval ships. MALABAR #07-1 near Okinawa &MALABAR #07-2 in the Bay of Bengal.  China lodged diplomatic protest.
2008 India-Japan Strategic Declaration Only other strategic declarations for Japan are with the US and with Australia
January 2014 India-Japan Special Strategic and Global Partnership PM Abe & PM Modi signed during Abe’s landmark visit as first ever Japanese dignitary visit as Chief Guest at India’s annual Republic Day parade
January 2015 US-India Joint Strategic Vision (JSV) for the Indo-Asia-Pacific Region President Obama & PM Modi signed during Obama’s landmark visit as first ever US Chief Guest at India’s annual republic day parade
December 2015 ·         India-Japan Vision 2025;

·         Japan made permanent participant in annual MALABAR exercise

Vision Included key human rights & governance themes in US-India JSV; Japan invitation to MALABAR naval exercise.
June 2016 U.S.-India Enduring Global Partnership Announced by President Obama & PM Modi on occasion of Modi’s 4th visit to U.S. since 2014
November 2016 India-Japan Civil Nuclear Agreement Formal document signed after preliminary agreement in December 2015

The dynamics of the India-Japan relationship demonstrate three major phases of strategic partnership development since the end of World War II.  The first ran from 1945-1999.  The second took place from 2000 to 2005.  The third which began in 2006, continues through 2017.

In the first phase which ran from 1945-1999, Japan and India maintained a harmonious relationship but remained politically distant due to the geopolitical divide between India’s leadership of the Nonaligned movement and Tokyo’s close alignment with the United States-led anti-communist, anti-Soviet Union block.  U.S.-India antipathy – and the distance between Tokyo and New Delhi – grew greater after India’s Treaty of “Friendship and Cooperation” with Moscow signed in 1971.  At the same time, the harmony beneath the distance was demonstrated in several warm episodes between India and Japan during the last 45 years of the 20th Century.

In the immediate post-World War II era, India provided urgent supplies of food and other equipment to Japan.  Indo-Japanese warmth was also evident between India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru and the Japanese Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, who was the first post-World War II Japanese Prime Minister to visit India in 1957.   This first phase came to a rather frosty end after India’s nuclear tests of 1998 and the Japanese decision to join Washington and impose economic sanctions against New Delhi.

The second phase of the relationship began in the first year of the new millennium and continued through the end of 2005.  It followed the historic visit of American President Bill Clinton to India in March 2000 – the first by a U.S. President for more than 20 years.  Taking a cue from the Clinton visit, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori traveled to New Delhi later in August 2000.  Like the U.S., Japan’s most pressing aim with India was economic.  A growing India, divested from the Soviet bloc since 1991 and committed to creating a more capitalist, world-oriented economy was becoming increasingly attractive as a trade and investment partner in Tokyo as in Washington.  Prime Minister Mori established the “Japan-India Global Partnership” during his August 2000 visit.  In 2001, Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee visited Japan. The bilateral relationship has broadened and deepened ever since, enjoying bi-partisan support in Japan and in India.   Since August of 2000, Prime Ministers of both the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) have visited India. Beginning with the visit of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to India in 2005, Japanese and Indian Prime Ministers have held annual summits alternating between New Delhi and Tokyo.  On the security front, the Indian and Japanese Coast Guards began annual joint exercises and leadership exchange visits in 2000.

By late 2006, a third and much broader phase of strategic engagement began between India and Japan.  The phase evolved in parallel with greater engagement by the U.S. Presidential Administration of George W. Bush (Bush 43) with India.  In 2005, the Bush 43 Administration expanded contacts with India under the aegis of its ‘dehypenation policy,’ which had generated the framework for a U.S.-India civil nuclear power agreement with broad ranging global strategic implications.  Likewise, Japan-India relations became increasingly geo-strategic in nature beginning in mid-decade.  From 2006, broad bilateral strategic interactions were launched between India and Japan during the cabinets of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe from September 2006 to September 2007 and then that of Prime Minister Taro Aso cabinet from September 2008 to September 2009.

Beginning with his first cabinet, Japanese Prime Minister Abe, brought a personal commitment and dynamic to the partnership with India.   Abe’s appreciation for India dated back to his close relationship with his maternal grandfather, former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi.   Abe recalled called that his grandfather had been the first Japanese Prime Minister to visit India and that India’s Prime Minister Jawahalal Nehru had introduced him warmly to great outdoor rally there in 1957.  Abe remembered hearing this story often told as a little boy.

In a speech before the Indian parliament in August 2007, Abe laid out a construct called, “Confluence of the Two Seas.” In it, Abe provided his vision of a future where a “broader Asia” would bring together the Pacific and the Indian Oceans in a dynamic interaction featuring freedom and prosperity.  Abe asserted that India and Japan had a unique and special role, and responsibility, to see this vision attained.    During this period of Abe’s first government he and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh signed bilateral agreements that moved the Abe vision toward reality.  In 2006, India and Japan signed their first-ever bilateral Defense Cooperation Agreement.   In December that year, Japan and India signed a document formalizing their relationship as one of “Strategic and Global Partnership.”

Prime Minister Abe’s resignation for health reasons in September 2007 did not derail the positive trajectory of bilateral relations. In the five years between Abe’s 2007 resignation and his return as Japan’s Prime Minister in December 2012, Indo-Japanese relations continued to expand steadily, if not as vigorously as under Abe.

The looming specter of China’s ongoing military modernization posed a simultaneous security challenge for Japan and India that underwrote growing strategic collaboration.  Tokyo and New Delhi agreed that China’s rise required that the two nations collaborate on managing the potential challenge posed by Beijing. Both states have difficult and unresolved territorial issues with China.  At the same time, the rise of China called into question Japanese assumptions of regional leadership and international status based on its long-held standing as the world’s second largest economy, a position eclipsed by China in 2010.  In September 2011, then out-of-office Shinzo Abe addressed the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA) in New Delhi.  There, Abe told his audience that, “…a strong India is in the best interest of Japan and a strong Japan is in the best interest of India.”

Abe’s return as Japanese Prime Minister in December 2012 set the stage for even greater acceleration within the third phase of the Indo-Japanese bilateral relationship.   Despite Indian Prime Minister Mohmand Singh’s waning domestic power and limited international activities, Singh signaled India’s growing deep commitment to Japan as a strategic partner by making Prime Minister Abe the first ever Japanese dignitary to be the Chief Guest at India’s Republic Day in January 2014 – India’s highest diplomatic honor. That spring, Indian elections brought Narendra Modi of the BJP (Indian nationalist) party to power, and the bilateral relationship took an even more dramatic spring forward.

Prime Minister Modi visited Japan in September 2014, making this his first bilateral visit outside of South Asia.  On this trip, India and Japan officially updated the description of their relationship to one of a “Special Strategic and Global Partnership.”  Japan and India moved forward on greater cooperation in long-sensitive space and defense matters.   India also joined Japan in expressing concern about developments in the South China Sea.

With Abe and Modi now working from a strong political base and with vigor, high level diplomacy and strategic interactions accelerated in 2015 and 2016.  Special arrangements and protocols were established for Japan to assure its priority investments in India were not derailed by India’s notorious bureaucracy.  Prime Minister Abe undertook what some described a ‘spectacular’ and ‘historic’ visit to India in late 2015. On this December 2015 visit Abe inked Japan’s commitment to funding and building India’s first-ever high-speed railway and protocols to enable the future transfer of defense equipment and technology.   India and Japan also agreed on joint measures to protect classified military information – a commitment essential to greater technology transfer in the future.  India also announced Japan’s permanent inclusion in the bilateral US-Indian MALABAR annual naval exercises.  2016 bilateral interactions included a long-worked and very significant bilateral civil nuclear deal, signed in early November by Prime Minister Modi on a visit to Japan.  This deal opened the way for Tokyo to supply New Delhi with fuel, equipment and technology for nuclear power for peaceful purposes.   The agreement enables Japan’s highly capable nuclear reactor businesses, like Toshiba, to build nuclear power plants across India and sell nuclear reactor parts and equipment to other contractors across India, a vital element in India’s highly ambitious plans to expand nuclear power production by more than tenfold in the next 15 years.

Today, Indian thought leaders believe that the Japan relationship is built on a number of complementary dynamics that matter to India’s official “Look East – Act East” policy.  Japan is an aging society, while India is a young one.  Japan needs to invest its capital offshore successfully to gain and grow, and India offers an attractive, relatively untapped infrastructure and manufacturing base upon which to grow value.  Japan needs access to educated workers for offshore ventures, and India has such a demographic.  Japan and India share political values anchored in democracy and diversity of opinion and expression.  Japan and India share a common history of religious ideals, namely Buddhism.  Indeed, unlike many of Japan’s relations across Asia, Tokyo’s engagements with India feature tremendous goodwill, and few discordant notes.

At the same time, India’s political leadership of India views the bilateral strategic relationship with Japan as a complement to – not a substitute for – India’s growing bilateral strategic relationships around the world, especially its relationship with the United States.  Japan is clearly now among the top five strategic relationships for India, and many in India’s ruling class believe that within ten years strategic relations with Japan will be among India’s top three in importance, eclipsed only by the U.S. and perhaps the European Union (EU).

The India-Japan strategic relationship is good for American security interests in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region.  This partnership should be nurtured and supported in Washington and the rest of the western world.   Although the India-Japan strategic partnership will not supplant Washington’s vital role in Asia-Pacific security for the foreseeable future, it can become a vital complement to U.S. security commitments

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