Earlier this month Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid a state visit to Japan and became the first Indian leader to be invited to stay in Imperial State Guest House in Kyoto. The symbolic invitation by Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe demonstrates the importance Tokyo attaches to its well-established and rapidly enhancing ties with Delhi.
This courtship has been mutual. When Abe visited India in January, he was the first Japanese prime minister to attend the Indian Republic Day ceremony. Japan has invested heavily in developing India’s infrastructure, sent more than $100 million in overseas development assistance and committed nearly $1.5 billion to help build Delhi’s new mass rapid transit system. Both states are working toward completing their long-standing discussions on enhancing civil nuclear cooperation.
Delhi and Tokyo’s budding friendship is raising eyebrows in Beijing, especially because of the strengthening of Indo-Japanese security ties. During Modi’s visit to Japan, he affirmed his support for Tokyo — while not directly referring to China — in its maritime dispute with Beijing in the East China Sea. Modi also critiqued China’s increasing hawkishness, stating, “There are 18th-century-style ways and thinking that involve expanding [geographically] by taking away land of another nation and going into seas.”
“Indo-Pacific” is a term that is being increasingly used by academics and journalists as a replacement for “Asia-Pacific” because of the increasing interdependence of states lining the Indian and Pacific oceans. Each year nearly 70,000 container vessels traverse the Strait of Malacca on their way to and from East Asian markets, including Japan. India and Japan, as well as China and others in the region, rely on the fast and uninterrupted flow of maritime trade through the Indo-Pacific.
The concept of the Indo-Pacific — in both economic and security terms — is gaining support in Japan, as evidenced by Tokyo’s push to step up engagement with Delhi. Abe’s outreach is a key component of his administration’s strategy to gain allies that share his wariness of China’s rise. Last year Abe focused on strengthening ties with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and visited all 10 of its member countries, including traditional allies of China such as Laos, Cambodia and Burma. He also recently returned from trips to Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.
‘I envisage a strategy whereby Australia, India, Japan and the U.S. state of Hawaii form a diamond to safeguard the maritime commons stretching from the Indian Ocean region to the western Pacific.’
prime minister of Japan
Abe has long been intrigued by the prospect of a broader Indo-Japanese strategic partnership that would complement Asia’s biggest democracy with one of its most mature ones. Such a partnership with New Delhi, from Abe’s point of view, can serve as a natural hedge against Beijing and an antidote to the narrow security alliances dominated by Washington. This budding relationship has been bolstered by the long personal relationship between Abe and Modi, which began in 2007 during Abe’s trip to India in his first term, when Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat state.
Abe has been building on plans to partner with India, the U.S., Australia and other Pacific countries to counter China’s assertiveness. During his first administration, then–Foreign Minister Taro Aso called for an “arc of freedom and prosperity” that transcends the Pacific Ocean and connects Japan to India and South Asia. And just before Abe became prime minister again in December 2012, he penned an opinion piece that read:
I envisage a strategy whereby Australia, India, Japan and the U.S. state of Hawaii form a diamond to safeguard the maritime commons stretching from the Indian Ocean region to the western Pacific. I am prepared to invest, to the greatest possible extent, Japan’s capabilities in this security diamond.
Abe sees India as a key player in this security plan.
Beijing is watching. It sees Abe’s push in India, along with his broader regional strategy in South and Southeast Asia, as a larger encirclement ploy. And China is counteracting Abe’s outreach in South Asia through a blend of economic assistance and joint development projects. Beijing has been constructing ports in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. India remains cautious about alliance building in Indo-Pacific and continues to be wary of any perception of containing China through security pacts. Modi’s recent summit with Chinese leader Xi Jinping sought to strengthen economic ties and examine ways to manage India’s border dispute with China. During the meeting, held in New Delhi, China and India agreed to resolve that dispute at an early date and demarcate the current Line of Actual Control into a firm border. Xi announced that China would invest $20 billion in India over the next five years.
During Abe’s visit to India earlier this year, New Delhi finally relented to Tokyo’s pressure to allow Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to participate in the annual Malabar naval exercises that the Indian and U.S. navies undertake in the Indian Ocean. Moreover, Japan has indicated a desire to enhance defense industrial cooperation with India, through potential sales of high-tech defense equipment.
Although security against China’s growing hawkishness is a concern, Japan has a broad and historical partnership with India that transcends security issues. The Abe administration needs to leverage its economic reputation and footprint in India as the real driver for their relationship.