Most observers of the geopolitical transformation of the Indo-Pacific in the 21st century so far have dwelled on the ascendance of Chinese power, regionally and globally. At the same time, Asia’s two largest democracies—and second and third largest economies respectively—Japan and India have strategically converged. This behavior is consistent with the expectations of every major theory of international relations. For the proponents of political realism, the behavior is a natural effort by each state to expand relative power and navigate a security dilemma with China. For the neoliberals, India’s vast economic potential in the early-2000s promised gains for Japanese firms and interests. For those who would emphasize identities in the explanation of state behavior, India and Japan share common liberal-democratic values, and India remains one of the few powerful states in the Indo-Pacific arc without historical grievances against the Japanese.
Regardless of why it occurred, this alignment will have important consequences in the region, and certainly in any power transition involving the United States and China.
Indeed, the two countries have undergone a major strategic rapprochement since 2000. In 1998, Japan was quick to condemn India for the Pokhran-II nuclear tests. By 2008, however, the two referred to each other as “Strategic Global Partners” as per their 2006 Strategic Global Partnership, and have concluded a Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation. Bilateral trade volumes were negligible in the 20th century whereas today the two states enjoy a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement that liberalizes bilateral economic activity, and eases Japanese activities in a country often perceived by OECD countries as highly regulated and hostile to foreign investment. Since 2006, India and Japan have held annual Prime Ministerial level talks—a privilege afforded by each to no other state (in Japan’s case, even the United States).
This alignment between Asia’s largest democracy and its most prosperous one also forms a formidable geostrategic bulwark that ought to give pause to Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean. In particular, China and Japan continue to wrangle with the consequences of their turbulent history, and although the economic linkages between the two are vast, territorial disputes remain an important inhibitor to true diplomatic normalization. Similarly, India’s border disputes with China in Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai Chin, in addition to Delhi’s hosting of the Dalai Lama, create friction in its relationship with China.
Also exacerbating Chinese perceptions of encirclement, Japan shares important security linkages with Australia and, most importantly, the United States. Indeed, former Japanese PM Shinzo Abe once proposed a “Quadrilateral Initiative” consisting of Japan, the United States, Australia, and India as a force for structural stability and peace in Asia. The ensuing opposition from the Chinese ensured that such an initiative was never formalized de jure. Nonetheless, these four democratic states conduct joint military exercises and security consultations leading to a de facto bloc poised against China.
As net-importers of fossil fuels, India and Japan have a vital interest in the protection of sea-lanes along the Hormuz-Malacca-Sea of Japan axis. In fact, PM Abe delivered a landmark speech during his visit to India in 2007 emphasizing the common interests between New Delhi and Tokyo in these critical sea-lanes.
The five-nation Malabar 2007 naval exercises were an important first step to this end. They allowed for direct contact between the Indian Navy and JMSDF in an operational capacity. The exercises included 25 vessels from the United States, India, Japan, Australia, and Singapore, and focused on non-conventional maritime operations including anti-piracy operations, search and rescue, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, and counterterrorism. Incidentally, the exercises also included anti-submarine operations, maritime interdiction, and aerial combat exercises as well (not the usual domains for even the wiliest of pirates in the Gulf of Aden or South-East Asia). A month prior to Malabar 2007, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization conducted a six-nation war game—its largest to date. The timing of these two exercises may be a happy coincidence, but the geopolitical undertones were apparent.
The security aspects of the India-Japan relationship have not been at the expense of each state’s economic relationship with China. Despite the growing economic ties between India and Japan, China is the most important economic partner for each state, and will remain so for the foreseeable future. The consequences of security cooperation between Japan and India may carry economic consequences between these two nations and China. Going forward, overt security collaboration between India and Japan will irritate Chinese observers, and strengthen the power-balancing narrative in Beijing. In June, India and Japan conducted their first bilateral exercise off the coast of Tokyo in a move that will certainly add concerned undertones to future interactions with China. Nonetheless, in an acknowledgement of overreliance on China, Japanese firms have moved manufacturing—notably, that of rare-earth metals—to India in a move indicating a hedging strategy. India has reciprocated by attracting Japanese investment on critical infrastructure projects such as the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor.
More so than their relationships with Beijing, the manner in which India and Japan maneuver their relationship with Washington will be crucial in stabilizing the Indo-Pacific. Washington’s calculus in this region involves much more than a single-minded focus on sea-lanes. Issues such as Taiwan, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and global financial stability come into play. The most positive effect of trilateral cooperation between the U.S., India, and Japan will be the bolstering of regional multilateralism through institutions such as the ASEAN Regional Forumn, the East Asia Summit, and the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy. At the same time, it will be important for Washington to avoid the perception of a ”Concert of Democracies” aligned against China. Summits such as the late-2011 trilateral strategic dialogue between the three states in Washington may drive such perceptions. The Indian media and defense establishment particularly emphasized its participation in this dialogue as, at least partially, symptomatic of its place in determining Asia’s broader security architecture.
There are several independent factors that will affect the Indo-Japanese relationship and its impact on peace and stability in the region. Washington’s relationship with Beijing is the most obvious. Continued Chinese militarization and agitation in the South China Sea will aggravate security-dilemma perceptions, and reinforce the United States’ commitment to Taiwan and Japan, potentially leading to destabilizing skirmishes. Should the United States decide to mute its naval presence in the region, Indian and Japanese forces will fill the vacuum. Additionally, the domestic situation in China, particularly concerning democratization, will have profound consequences on the extent of India and Japan’s bilateral ties. Additionally, positive developments in the U.S.-ASEAN and U.S.-RoK relationships will be of further concern to China.
Other factors that are bound to become increasingly important include Japan’s remilitarization debate. No longer are calls for a normalized and assertive Japanese “self-defense force” found solely among the nationalist right. Junichiro Koizumi began a trend towards military normalization with the non-combat deployment of the JSMDF and JGSDF to Iraq. Although Article 9 of the Japanese constitution may be here to stay, Japan’s operational capacity continues to increase every year. Additionally, should Japan’s high turnover rate on Prime Ministers ever abate, another Koizumi-esque leader may successfully maneuver the kantei to expand the JSDF’s role as a mainstay in Japan’s hard-power inventory. The DPJ’s accession to power after more than fifty years of LDP leadership has certainly ushered a new kind of Japanese diplomacy—including calls for an “equal U.S.-Japan alliance.”
India, on the other hand, is unlikely to behave predictably in its relationship with Japan. Its foreign policy will continue to be dominated by a focus on economic growth (which is coming under question after a decade of high annual GDP growth rates), border disputes with Pakistan and China, and national security. The "Manmohan Doctrine” and the Congress Party chose to prioritize economic growth at the cost of crafting a grand strategy that was anything but ad hoc and reactive to global and regional developments. Should India return to a BJP head of state after several years of Congress leadership, it may focus on a doctrinal approach to its international affairs that emphasizes long-term power gains over short-term reactive foreign policy. Under such circumstances, India may drive its partnership with Japan to new heights.
In the context of a world where the continuation of U.S. hegemony has come under widespread doubt, and perceptions of an ambitious and assertive China are on the rise, observers of Asian affairs should turn to India and Japan as potential sources of stability in the region. Ultimately, a strategic partnership between Asia’s largest and richest democracies aimed at peace and stability creates a formidable defense against destabilizing forces, simultaneously preserving and propagating liberal-democratic values across the region. India and Japan stand for common values, share common interests, and are both closer to Washington than they are to Beijing. While they continue to engage Beijing, particularly on economic matters, they certainly fear its hegemony. Nevertheless, this bilateral relationship is one to watch in the coming years, and will certainly be a key determinant of international structural stability in the 21st century.
Ankit Panda is a researcher at the Liechtenstein Institute on Self-Determination at Princeton University.