Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was the chief guest at India’s annual Republic Day parade in New Delhi, which took place on Saturday. Abe, the first Japanese Prime Minister to be invited to the Republic Day parade, met with his counterpart Prime Minister Manmohan Singh the same day and the two resolved to deepen the strategic and global partnership between India and Japan. Abe’s visit to India comes a little over a month after Japan’s Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko made an historic trip to India and speaks to even warmer ties between Asia’s second and third largest economies.
The two Prime Ministers issued a joint statement – standard procedure for high-level meetings between Indian and Japanese leaders – in which they emphasized India and Japan’s common identities as Asian democracies and expressed a desire to “contribute jointly to the peace, stability and prosperity of the region and the world, taking into account changes in the strategic environment.” Additionally, Abe emphasized his desire to make Japan a “proactive” contributor to peace and stability in the region.
Much has been said about Abe’s pro-India posture; even during his first term as Japan’s prime minister from 2006 to 2007, Abe demonstrated that he appreciated India not only out of strategic sensibility but also out of a sense of historical respect. Abe’s views on Japan’s place in the world are appreciated in India, and his presence at the Republic Day parade in New Delhi highlights a burgeoning sense that India and Japan are headed in the direction of profound security cooperation – somewhat of a nightmare scenario for China. The Republic Day parade in New Delhi is generally a show of military hardware, although not exclusively a military event.
Although the two did not conclude any major defense agreements over the weekend, they followed up on the pending sale of the US-2 amphibious aircraft from Japan to India – a topic which has been under discussion since 2011 and demonstrates Japan’s proximity to India given that it eschewed a long-held self-imposed ban on defense commerce. According to the joint statement, the two countries will follow up on the sale via a joint working group in March 2014. Indian Defense Minister A.K. Antony will visit Japan at some point this year as well which could bring new openings in defense cooperation between India and Japan.
A couple developments over the weekend are sure to cause some concern in Beijing; not only did India praise Japan’s new defense picture and set up regular consultations between Japan’s newly formed National Security Council and its own National Security Advisor, the two resolved to conduct a joint bilateral exercise in the Pacific Ocean some time in 2014. India additionally extended an invitation to the JMSDF to the next iteration of the “Malabar” series of multilateral exercises. The Indian and Japanese navies have jointly participated in several multilateral exercises and once in a bilateral setting – the JIMEX12 exercise. The exercise this year will be the first time India and Japan jointly conduct exercises in the Pacific Ocean since that exercise. This development is likely to be provocative to observers in the PRC.
Interestingly, Abe’s status as an ardent pro-India prime minister did not sideline the major rift in the India-Japan bilateral relationship, which is the nuclear issue. As I’ve written before, India and Japan approach the issue of nuclear weapons from vastly different vantage points and these perspectives, in addition to other concerns, have forestalled a a civil nuclear cooperation deal between the two partners. In the joint statement, Abe emphasized, as many Japanese prime ministers have done before him, the urgency of India’s accession to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in response to which Manmohan Singh emphasized India’s self-imposed moratorium on nuclear testing.
Economic cooperation was once again a major topic of discussion between the two countries; India welcomed Japan’s resurgent economy under “Abenomics” as Japan pledged to continue its official development assistance to India. Abe brought with him to India a major delegation of Japanese businessmen who consulted with Indian businesses on opportunities for investment. The prime ministers reaffirmed their commitment to cooperation in the rare earths sector – an area where Japan views India as a hedge to its risky reliance on China for rare earth metals. Additionally, the prime ministers agreed to increase technological cooperation. Japan currently has major investments in critical Indian infrastructure projects such as the Western Dedicated Freight Corridor and Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor. Furthermore, in a political statement against China, India has invited Japan to invest in infrastructure in Arunachal Pradesh, an Indian state that is claimed almost in its entirety by China.
Abe’s presence at the Republic Day parade and the ensuing joint statement on the strategic and global partnership demonstrate that the India-Japan bilateral relationship will continue to grow and become an important determinant in economic and security outcomes in the Asia-Pacific. For the moment, India continues to remain silent on the issue of Japan’s territorial dispute with China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands – this could change in the future. Japan, for its part, could come to accept India’s nuclear posture and back India’s territorial claims against China in the future. Despite what diplomats and leaders might say, the development of the relationship as a counter to a rising China grows more transparent with every such visit. India and Japan may alone find the prospect of a rising China worrisome, but together they form a formidable bulwark.