When India and China confronted each other in the highlands of the Himalayas this April, the reverberations could be heard in Tokyo. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, during his visit to Japan in the last week of May to coincide with 60 years of diplomatic relations between the two countries, relayed the concerns regarding an “assertive” China and the changing power dynamics in the region in no uncertain terms. Indicating India’s growing realism, Singh further asserted that “historical differences persist despite our growing interdependence; prosperity has not fully eliminated disparities with and between nations and there are continuing threats to stability and security in the region”.
Singh could not have been more correct in explaining the relations the two Asian democracies have with their bigger neighbor, China. The 4,200-kilometer Himalayan land border between India and China is Asia’s largest border dispute, over which the two states went to war in 1962. Meanwhile, China’s recent behavior towards Japan’s control of the Senkaku Islands (known as the Diaoyu Islands in China) has been seen as extremely aggressive. Economic interdependence has not helped ease tensions. Despite the enormous trade volumes between Japan and China, standing at about $330 billion in 2012, the aftermath of the 2010 boat collision and China’s aggression over the disputed islands illustrated that interdependence is no cure when it comes to peaceful resolution of territorial conflicts. Worse, Beijing has often used the trade asymmetry with Japan to its own advantage, stopping the supply of commodities such as rare earth metals on which Japan depended.
With its growing military and economic capabilities, the continued rise of China is now politically overshadowing established powers like Japan and rising states like India in equal measure. This disparity of relative power growth has created a perception of a slow but certain shift in the balance of power in Asia towards Chinese hegemony. As these asymmetries grow, smaller states have started hedging against China. In the India-Japan partnership, one can observe similar strategic maneuvers with shades of power politics.
At the recent Japan-India Summit, Singh declared “Japan as a natural and indispensable partner in our quest for stability and peace in the vast region of Asia-Pacific.” Echoing him, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also repeatedly emphasized his 2007 remarks, “Confluence of the Two Seas,” which highlighted the maritime security and cooperation between the two countries.
China was clearly alarmed by this development, evident in the commentary that appeared in the Communist Party organ, Global Times. Calling Japanese “petty burglars” and “international provocateurs,” it warned India of getting close to Japan “at its own peril.” Clearly, Beijing has not missed the emerging balance of power in Asia.
In fact, an Indo-Japanese entente against the growing influence of China in Asia is not a recent phenomenon. Japan and India have been cooperating on defense and security issues since 2001, when the bilateral Comprehensive Security Dialogue was inaugurated. Further institutionalization of bilateral security cooperation continued, with the two countries issuing “the Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation between Japan and India” in October 2008, and commencing the bilateral 2+2 dialogue in 2009.
Still, there seemed to be an implicit strategic consensus not to create antagonism with China. During his first term, Abe sought to enhance strategic relations with India, fundamentally driven by the balance of power in Asia, hedging against China’s uncertain future. More cautious was India, then Asia’s rising star – the world’s most populous democracy with two decades of high economic growth backed by the liberal reforms from the early 1990s. Its foreign policy became more pragmatic, and New Delhi eschewed unnecessary strategic provocations vis-à-vis China. This was well illustrated in 2006, when Abe called for a “concert of democracies” – the U.S., Australia, India and Japan – to join hands in the Asia-Pacific. India (and Australia) were the first to back away from the arrangement lest it provoked China’s ire.
What has changed since then is the perceived strategic environment in Asia-Pacific, driven by both the rise in China’s relative power compared to neighbors such as India and Japan and the relative decline of the United States. Clearly, Beijing’s willingness to wield its growing power has complicated matters for Tokyo and New Delhi when it comes to disputed territories. Even if China’s growing power and its aggressive foreign policy was not enough, the war-weary and financially stretched America – the traditional guarantor of stability in the region – has raised pulses in both Tokyo and New Delhi. Despite strong assertions from Washington and the promise of a “rebalancing” to the Asia-Pacific, emphasized by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel at the recent Shangri La Dialogue, most states in East Asia understand that they can no longer rely entirely on the United States for their security, given U.S. defense spending cuts over the next decade. Another important change lies in Indian attitudes. Whereas Japan’s concerns about China have been consistent, India has always sought to avoid getting boxed in by Asia’s balance of power politics, to maintain strategic flexibility. But this also makes India vulnerable when power asymmetries widen. This sense of vulnerability, thanks to the extremely rapid accretion of Chinese power, has prompted India to look to Japan.
It is in this context that the recent visit of Prime Minister Singh becomes crucial to the current regional flux. Both India and Japan decided to further enhance security cooperation. They agreed to regularize and increase the frequency of maritime defense exercises, while India agreed to purchase the US-2 amphibious aircraft for reconnaissance along its maritime frontier. Moreover, to enhance science and technology cooperation, the two countries agreed to step up cooperation in cyber security. They also inked a number of economic agreements, whereby Japanese capital would be invested in mega infrastructure projects such as the Delhi-Mumbai industrial corridor and the Mumbai metro project. With these announcements, bilateral cooperation has widened and deepened. Given other growing areas of cooperation such as bilateral coast guard and naval exercises and the rapid institutionalization of the US-Japan-India Trilateral Dialogue, Japan-India channels of communication have expanded, bolstering bilateral political and diplomatic confidence. This seems to follow the initiative that Abe set out in his 2012 article to establish the “Asia’s Democratic Security Diamond.”
However, it is still not clear how India and Japan will respond to the “assertive” rise of China in the future. The uncertainty lies in two fundamental differences. One is their threat perception: while India fears China’s potential threats from land, Japan sees threats in the maritime arena. To fill these gaps, the first step would be to conclude the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), to correctly assess the changing strategic landscape in East Asia and deepen understanding of each side’s threat perception. This could enable India and Japan to evaluate the possibilities and limitations of security cooperation. The second difference is their approach towards nuclear weapons. Although Japan and India agreed to step up efforts to conclude a civil nuclear agreement that would allow Japan to export its nuclear plant, Japan is concerned that India has yet to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). In the course of negotiations, the first step would be to promote such a deal, in which India’s CTBT signature, not ratification, becomes the decisive factor in concluding the civil nuclear agreement.
In light of the global and regional security implications, the two countries should take cautious steps to further their bilateral security cooperation. Carefully crafted, India-Japan security cooperation would provide the region with a new strategic tool for maintaining stability in East Asia, a condition that will be crucial if Asian economies are to maintain their impressive growth in the decades to come.
Kei Koga is a research fellow of International Security Studies at the Belfer Center, Harvard Kennedy School and Yogesh Joshi is a research scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.