India-Japan relations popped up at the top of China’s radar this past week after Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko of Japan completed a historic and rare visit in India. On Monday, China said that it hoped that India’s relations with Japan would be “conducive” to regional peace and stability, according to The Hindu. One can only imagine that China dreads a united India-Japan front against its interests in the Asia-Pacific.
In return, a senior Japanese diplomat, Sakutaro Tanino, who accompanied the Emperor to New Delhi and served as Japanese Ambassador to both India and China, clarified that the visit served an explicitly bilateral function. He juxtaposed the depth of Japan’s ties with China with its ties with India: “The difference in Japan’s ties with China and its ties with India is staggering. This visit gives us another moment of proximity with India.”
The Imperial visit speaks volumes in its symbolism and solidifies Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s vision for a robust partnership between Asia’s wealthiest democracy and its largest one. Abe, perhaps Japan’s most indophilic prime minister yet, set out grand visions during his first term as PM in 2006-2007 for a strategic quadrangle consisting of Japan, India, Australia and the United States — something China perceived as tantamount to an Asian NATO, out to balance a rising China.
His foreign minister at that time, and future prime minister, Taro Aso, outlined a broader values-based strategy which he pegged the “Arc of Freedom and Prosperity.” The strategy would bolster cooperation between Japan and several states along the Eurasian rimland, culminating with India. Remarkably, Aso’s language in his “Arc of Freedom and Prosperity” speech mirrored Tanino’s quite closely: “Japan’s relations with India certainly pale in comparison to, for example, her relations with China.” All this was, of course, before the current escalation in the East China Sea over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands and a general freeze in diplomatic contact between Japan and China. Today, Japan and China haven’t held formal diplomatic talks in over 14 months and counting.
India and Japan have been mutually cooperating as “global strategic partners” since 2006. Although India is generally allergic to overly close bilateral cooperation with any single country, Japan might make the cut in the coming years. Unlike India’s relations with the United States and Europe, which encounter a not-insignificant amount of domestic political blowback over economic and trade issues, the bilateral relationship with Japan enjoys broad support across party lines — something Japan reciprocates (both the LDP and the DPJ, when it was in charge, continued to build stronger relations with India). The bilateral relationship isn’t entirely free of friction, however; a notable sticking point between the two is nuclear energy and weapons, as I’ve written before.
India may have been the proverbial elephant in the room as China-Japan relations grew strained beginning in 2009. Today, with Shinzo Abe back on top in Tokyo, ties between the two Asian democracies stand to reach new heights. I’d wager that should India decide to step beyond a strategic partnership and into an alliance with any single country, it would be Japan. There are simply too many points of congruence along the lines of national interests and values for the two states to ignore the possibility.
Additionally, despite what diplomats in India or Japan might have you believe, one can cast the strategic convergence between India and Japan as a form of mutually-beneficial external balancing against the rise of an aggressive China. Both India and Japan share intractable border disputes with China. India remains deeply skeptical of Chinese intentions in Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh, and China’s latest Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) may push Japan to the brink in the East China Sea. India and Japan haven’t been too bullish on the possibility of bilateral security cooperation. However, trends are encouraging given conversations between the two on defense commerce relating to amphibious aircraft and continued high-level defense consultations. India and Japan also conducted their first bilateral maritime exercise, JIMEX12, in 2012.
Ultimately, China shouldn’t worry. It’s it’s likely that India-Japan ties will be “conducive” to regional peace and stability — by forming a bulwark against uninhibited Chinese ambition.