Features | Politics | Security

Japan and India’s Growing Embrace

With Shinzo Abe’s return in Japan, expect Tokyo and Delhi’s already strong ties to reach new heights.

By Jeffrey W. Hornung for

I recently spoke to a high-ranking Indian diplomat about the future of Indo-Japan relations in light of Shinzo Abe’s return to the premiership. The response was unwavering: India places “great importance” on its relationship with Japan and wants it to go “higher and higher.” With Abe at the helm, the time is ripe for this relationship to advance.

Abe is known to be staunchly pro-Indian. Not only did he describe strengthening bilateral ties as extremely important to Japan’s interests in his 2006 book Utsukushii Kuni E (Towards a Beautiful Country), but one of his major foreign policy initiatives during his previous tenure as PM was establishing a new vision for bilateral ties with India. To that end, he advocated emphasizing India and Japan’s shared values and overlapping security interests. He has also argued that both countries have a responsibility to work together in the Indo-Pacific region, which he refers to as “broader Asia.” In the Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) recent campaign pledge, India was listed as a country with which Japan should enhance cooperation with on issues of national security and energy. With such support, it can be expected that Abe will look to India as a partner for greater Japanese activism in the region.

None of this should be a problem because the two already cooperate on a wide array of issues. Economically, relations have never been better. Over the past five years, bilateral trade has doubled. Things moved forward rapidly after the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) went into effect in August 2011, removing duties on 94% of products over the next ten years and ensuring greater movement of goods, services, capital, and people between the two countries. Japan offers India a wealthy, sophisticated market for Delhi’s textiles, seafood, IT, pharmaceuticals and services. Japan, on the other hand, looks to India as an export market for its auto components, high-end technology, and capital goods. Indeed, within a week of Japan’s tsunami and nuclear disaster in March 2011, India’s auto industry was expressing concern that an anticipated disruption in Japanese manufacturing would significantly hurt its business.

Additionally, Japanese companies have been investing in Indian IT and other technology projects, and the Japanese government has been sending India significant amounts of Official Development Assistance (ODA). In fact, India was the first country Japan ever extended an ODA loan to back in 1958; and since FY 2003-2004 India has been the single largest recipient of Japanese ODA. Japan also exempted India from the cuts it made in ODA following the March 2011 disasters.

Japan and India work together diplomatically to promote common interests. At the UN, they actively champion reforming the Security Council. Additionally, they cooperate in promoting the G-20 and East Asia Summit as the primary venues for international economic cooperation and regional multilateralism, respectively. Within these institutions, Tokyo and Delhi cooperate on a number of issues including nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, counterterrorism, and climate change and energy security.

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Japan and India’s security cooperation over the last six years has been greater than in the previous sixty years combined. This cooperation includes: building naval capacity through port calls, naval and coast guard exchanges, joint naval and coast guard exercises, and greater cooperation in information sharing and technical assistance; the protection of sea lines of communication (SLOCs) and anti-piracy efforts in the Gulf of Aden; and extending patrol boats and capacity building training to the littoral states in the Strait of Malacca. Along with their strategic dialogue, the two sides have launched a bilateral Shipping Policy Forum, a Maritime Security Dialogue, and a Cybersecurity Dialogue.

While this is a strong record of cooperation, there are still many areas for further enhancement. Economically, the CEPA means greater economic connectivity, which is especially beneficial given the complimentary nature of their economies. For instance, continued Japanese growth will require more workers and greater engagement with growing markets. India can therefore play a vital role with its booming economy, lower production costs, and an expanding middle class that is creating greater demand for high-end products. India’s growth, on the other hand, requires investments in 21st century infrastructure and technological expertise, both of which Tokyo can help provide. For example, Delhi intends to spend $1 trillion on infrastructure projects over the next five years, and hopes to finance 40 percent of this with private capital. Similarly, India will require Japan’s technology and investment to help close technological gaps and an infrastructure deficit.  

Diplomatically, both countries want international institutions to reflect today’s multi-polarity. They also advocate nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, and hope to prevent the proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destructions and the means to deliver them. Similarly, Tokyo and Delhi share a strong and growing interest in preserving freedom of navigation in the maritime commons, which both are heavily reliant on for their energy imports and trade. They also share an enduring interest in preventing any country from establishing hegemony over the Indo-Pacific region, with China a growing concern for both countries.

Although there are plenty of reasons for optimism, there are still a number of barriers to advancing Indo-Japanese ties. For example, despite the rapid growth of economic ties in recent years, Japanese investors are not completely sold on India’s business climate. Not only do they find it difficult to work through the labyrinthine Indian bureaucracy, but they are also concerned about India’s poor infrastructure, opaque legal and taxation systems, and official corruption. Similarly, civilian nuclear cooperation remains stalled due to India’s refusal to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as a non-nuclear weapon state. This is where Abe’s victory becomes important. Having a pro-India premier in Japan may convince investors who are wary of doing business in India. Likewise, Abe’s LDP victory came at the expense of the anti-nuclear parties, and Abe can be expected to push for a civilian nuclear agreement with India, much as countries like the U.S., Russia, Canada, and South Korea have done, and others like Australia are now in the process of doing.

Perhaps security will encounter the fewest impediments. Both countries share concerns over China’s maritime behavior and freedom of navigation. While both have powerful navies, neither is strong enough alone to secure the maritime commons and thus has an interest in reliable partners. India’s navy and coast guard cannot monitor all the Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC) traffic that transits the Strait of Malacca through to the Persian Gulf, so it requires interstate cooperation to handle challenges in waters near India as well as SLOCs farther away. While Japan’s navy does not operate in Indian waters (it’s legally able to defend up to 1,000 nautical miles from Japan), under special legislation it participates in limited anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. They benefit from each other’s surveillance, and have begun holding joint naval exercises. Greater cooperation in these efforts do not face any great constraints, which is important given that cooperation will help them hedge against unpredictable futures.

Because of his enthusiasm for stronger relations with Japan in India, Abe’s win provides a unique opportunity for the two great powers to expand their cooperation.  With few obstacles standing in the way, we soon could be witnessing a flourishing of Indo-Japan bilateral ties.

Jeffrey W. Hornung is an Associate Professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu, HI and an Adjunct Fellow with the Office of the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. The views expressed in this article are his alone.