India-Japan Relations: Strong and Getting Stronger


Editor’s Note: A version of this article was originally published by The Interpreter, which is published by the Lowy Institute for International Policy, an independent, nonpartisan think tank based in Sydney. War on the Rocks is proud to be publishing select articles from The Interpreter.

In 1999, India’s then-foreign minister, Jaswant Singh, travelled to Tokyo to smooth ruffled feathers after India’s nuclear tests of that year. “Relations between Japan and India are basically good,” declared Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, damning with faint praise. “But the nuclear issue remains a thorn in the throat. India’s signing of the CTBT would remove that thorn.” India did not sign the CTBT, but the thorn quickly disappeared.

The next year saw the first-ever visit of an Indian defense minister to Tokyo and the declaration of a “global partnership.” A series of reciprocal prime ministerial visits peppered the following years, with a “strategic and global partnership” inaugurated in 2006, a “Quadrilateral Initiative” in 2007, a joint declaration on security cooperation in 2008 (“Japan-India relations are rooted in their similar perceptions of the evolving environment in the region”), and an announcement of their “fundamental identity of values, interests and priorities,” alongside initiation of a “2+2” dialogue of foreign and defense ministers, in 2010. The relationship blossomed further as Shinzo Abe and Narendra Modi took office in 2012 and 2014. Unprecedented Japanese arms sales to India were put on the table in 2013, Tokyo returned to the U.S.-India Malabar naval exercises in 2014 after a long absence, an agreement on joint research and development of defense equipment was reached in 2015, and a landmark civil-nuclear deal was signed last year.

This extraordinary improvement in relations, sustained across three Indian premierships and ten Japanese, has been driven, above all, by what both sides view as China’s aggressive, “expansionist” behavior in Asia over the past decade. It has been lubricated by the dramatic growth of the U.S.-India relationship, Abe’s efforts to take on a larger and more assertive regional role, and, over the past year or so, shared concerns over the sweeping scale and nature of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. In recent months, two additional factors have also been at work: the lingering effects of the recently defused India-China standoff in the India-China-Bhutan tri-junction area at Doklam, and a wider concern over the predictability, reliability, and coherence of U.S. foreign policy in Asia and the world (on which, see Eliot Cohen’s fine essay in The Atlantic).

So it’s no surprise that Abe’s visit to India this week, focused on Modi’s home state of Gujarat, continues this decade-old upward trajectory. The trip produced no fewer than 15 agreements including an “open skies” deal and a new “Act East Forum” promoting Japanese involvement in India’s sensitive northeastern states that border China. While the inauguration of a Japan-funded Mumbai-to-Ahmedabad bullet train project received the lion’s share of attention, the joint statement was a substantial and wide-ranging document. While largely building on previous iterations, it included several areas of progress in foreign, security, and defense policy.

There was the now-routine affirmation of “freedom of navigation and overflight” and the peaceful resolution of differences, language that has served as a well-established way to criticize Chinese behavior in the East and South China Seas, but would also have a particular post-Doklam significance. While the last India-Japan statement, of November 2016, merely “recognized the potential” for synergy between India’s Act East policy and Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy, this iteration promised to “align” the two.

Many of the most important agreements on defense mentioned in the joint statement had been agreed at the Annual Defence Ministerial Dialogue held the previous week. A commitment to “enhance” the Malabar exercises was buttressed by a new, explicit mention of anti-submarine warfare training. There was a promise of cooperation “in such areas as surveillance and unmanned system technologies;” interestingly, the word “surveillance” was not included in the earlier ministerial dialogue, and may be an allusion to reported India-Japan collaboration on underwater hydrophones, or similar projects. There was also the suggestion of joint exercises between the Indian Army and Japan’s Ground Self Defence Force, building on army-to-army talks that began last year.

In light of their shared concerns over China’s Belt and Road Initiative, India and Japan launched an Asia-Africa Growth Corridor in May, with the expectation of $200 billion of Japanese investment. The joint statement didn’t mention the AAGC by name, but it vaguely promised to “further accelerate” connectivity initiatives in Africa. More important was the following paragraph:

The two Prime Ministers also underlined the importance of all countries ensuring the development and use of connectivity infrastructure in an open, transparent and non-exclusive manner based on international standards and responsible debt financing practices, while ensuring respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, the rule of law, and the environment. They also reaffirmed the importance of ‘quality infrastructure’ which, among others ensures alignment with local economic and development strategies, safety, resilience, social and environmental impacts, and job creation as well as capacity building for the local communities.

Not only is most of the phrasing lifted directly from India’s May statement rejecting and attacking Belt and Road, but this paragraph is more than twice as long as the equivalent sentence in the U.S.-India joint statement from June. The message to Beijing could not have been delivered more clearly.

The announcement of an India-Japan Act East Forum is potentially interesting, but it’s not yet clear what purpose it serves. Japanese investments into India’s border states have been in the pipeline for a while. Japanese involvement in Arunachal Pradesh (claimed in its entirety by China as “South Tibet”) and other northeastern states was first proposed in 2014, including 2000km of “strategic road,” with the further improvement of national highways into Bangladesh and Myanmar raised last year. These projects are at the stage of “preparatory research,” though loan agreements with the Japan International Cooperation Agreement were signed in March. The Doklam dispute, which took place just above the Siliguri Corridor connecting the bulk of India to its northeastern states, is likely to bring a new Indian focus to civilian and military border development. Interestingly, there was no mention of Japan’s role on South Andaman Island, part of India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands close to the Malacca Strait, despite the islands’ growing importance to New Delhi’s presence in the Indian Ocean.

The joint statement included a strong condemnation of North Korea’s behavior. Unlike the November 2016 statement, there was a line on “the importance of holding accountable all parties that have supported North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes,” a category that includes both Pakistan and China, and therefore serves India’s aim of publicly highlighting both countries’ nonproliferation mala fides. India will also be pleased that the section on terrorism once more mentioned Pakistan by name, contributing to what India feels is growing diplomatic support for its efforts to put pressure on Islamabad on the issue.

There is plenty on the agenda for the future. There was no apparent progress in the sale of Japanese US-2 aircraft, with the issue kicked down the road again, probably on grounds of expense. There was no mention of submarine procurement, despite India’s interest in the Japanese Soryu-class. While the joint statement called for “renewed momentum” in ties with the United States and Australia, this was done strictly in the context of trilateral groupings, rather than quadrilateral or – Abe’s once-favored term – a “diamond.” Even so, there is an unmistakable momentum to security cooperation. Naval cooperation is going from strength to strength, new areas of military cooperation are opening up for the first time, and Tokyo and New Delhi are becoming more confident in addressing their partners’ respective concerns over North Korea and Pakistan.

While the security architecture of Asia is in some flux, the future of the India-Japan relationship is looking very healthy indeed.


Shashank Joshi is a Senior Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

Image: generalising (via Flickr)