Facing an uncertain geopolitical climate, Japan and India will benefit from working closely to play a greater leadership role in the region as they share converging strategic and security interests. Given the possibility that the United States may disengage from the Asia-Pacific, both Tokyo and New Delhi are concerned about Beijing’s increasing assertiveness and will seek to increase their collective capabilities to counterbalance China’s otherwise unhindered dominance. Competitive behavior vis-a-vis China is likely to continue in arenas such as the South China Sea, Official Development Assistance (ODA), and infrastructure projects.
Although neither Japan nor India is party to territorial disputes in the South China Sea, they are both committed to upholding freedom of navigation and a rules-based regime, and have vital commercial and strategic stakes that keep their interest alive in the troubled waters. Japan has been increasing its strategic engagement in the contested region by providing capacity building assistance to ASEAN member states, notably Vietnam and the Philippines. Japan is also planning to send its largest warship, the Izumo helicopter carrier, on a three-month tour through the South China Sea, before it joins the Malabar joint naval exercises with India and the United States in the Indian Ocean in July. This signals that Tokyo has the political will and capacity to play a larger maritime role.
Meanwhile, the success of India’s “Act East” policy hinges on connectivity and trade with ASEAN and the far-eastern Pacific. As such, India is seeking to expand its role to ensure a stable regional maritime order. India has become increasingly engaged with states like Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines, asserting the Permanent Court of Arbitration judgment in support of Manila’s claims. Former Philippine Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. said Manila was “grateful” for India’s support. Indian naval ships have increased their presence in the South China Sea, cooperating with Vietnam on hydrocarbon exploration despite Beijing’s warnings and training Vietnamese submariners in India. Talks are also underway for New Delhi to impart submarine training to Indonesia.
Economic Means to a Strategic End
However, to arouse less suspicion and backlash from China, Japan and India can choose to focus on socio-economic engagement of the region, and take a lead on non-traditional security issues.
Japan has given the region development aid since the 1950s. In 2015, the Japanese government replaced its ODA Charter with the Development Cooperation Charter, which clearly links Japan’s aid with its strategic goals. Rather than just providing assistance, Japan seeks to use its aid to promote development partnerships, such as with India. Japan and India have been and will continue to use infrastructure and connectivity projects to promote their shared interests. Japan is actively engaged in funding connectivity projects in the strategic Northeastern region of India, which links India to Southeast Asia. Japan has pledged Rs. 67.1 billion ($1 billion) to improve roads in India’s Northeast, targeting National Highways 40 and 55, which provide links to Bangladesh and Myanmar.
Additionally, Japan and India can leverage their technological prowess. They can provide research and capacity-building leadership to drive sectors such as clean technology, renewable energy, cybersecurity, and space technology, to support the region’s societal and commercial development.
Space technology applications can reap socio-economic benefits for the region, including disaster warning and management, environmental monitoring, and communications and navigation. Japan and India can explore joint development of their space programs, play a bigger role in regional space activities, and engage other nations interested in space development. In November 2017, India will host the 24th Asia-Pacific Regional Space Agency Forum. This is an opportunity for India and Japan to present a strong bilateral cooperative framework, which may lead the way for increased regional cooperation.
The Domestic Variable
Japan and India’s ability to pursue wider regional engagement for the long term is dependent on the stability and longevity of the ruling administrations. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has scored a major victory in the recent state elections. This has improved his chances at winning a second term in the 2019 general election.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s second term since December 2012 has lasted longer than the previous six administrations (including his first one-year term) and he has enjoyed relatively high approval ratings. However, in recent weeks, Abe’s popularity has dropped as he faces scandals on two fronts: over his and his wife’s alleged connections to a controversial land sale to a right-wing school, on top of the Defense Ministry’s suspected cover-up of the Japanese peacekeeping troops’ activities in South Sudan.
Nevertheless, Abe’s public approval ratings, hovering around 50 percent, are still strong. His Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has also revised a party rule that would allow him to serve up to three consecutive terms instead of two. If LDP continues to win elections, Abe may become Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, staying on until 2021. While the expansion of Japan’s security role has been pursued by Abe, the Japanese public is still wary of a more active security policy. In these circumstances, it will be pragmatic for him to focus on non-security tools to achieve Japan’s strategic goals.
ASEAN will welcome greater engagement by Japan and India in the region since both countries have always acknowledged the notion of ASEAN centrality and have stakes in reaffirming the status quo — that is, the ASEAN role in the U.S.-led regional order. As long as Japan and India continue to articulate their support for ASEAN and recognize that it is crucial for peace and stability in the region, ASEAN member states stand to benefit from increased engagement by a stronger Japan-India partnership. More importantly, ASEAN member states do not wish to be embroiled in a big power rivalry, or be forced to choose sides.
Overall, Japan and India must adopt a discrete counterbalance to avoid alarming China and destabilizing the region. If they focus on economic diplomacy and cooperation on non-traditional security issues, there might be possibilities to extend an opportunity to China for more cooperation and engagement, which will ultimately enable ASEAN to maintain its erstwhile role in the regional security architecture. This will help to assure China and the region that it is not a zero-sum game.
Tan Ming Hui is an Associate Research Fellow and Nazia Hussain is a Research Analyst in the Office of the Executive Deputy Chairman at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.