Japan, India: natural allies

by Brahma Chellaney

NEW DELHI — Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, weakened by a mortifying defeat in Upper House elections, will address the Indian Parliament later this month. This is an honor that U.S. President George W. Bush and Chinese President Hu Jintao did not get during their state visits to India last year. India and Japan are Asia’s largest and most-developed democracies, and the honor for Abe flows from the Indian recognition that a strategic partnership between the two is critical to the region’s power equilibrium.

Indeed, Japan has never had a head of government so interested in forging close ties with India as Abe. Even before he became prime minister last September, Abe had identified India as a pivotal partner for Japan in a book he published two months earlier. In “Toward a Beautiful Country,” Abe devotes three pages to describing how Japan could advance its “national interests by strengthening our ties with India.” He says: “It will not be a surprise if in another decade, Japan-India relations overtake Japan-U.S. and Japan-China ties.”

It is Abe who helped expand the Australia-Japan-U.S. Trilateral Security Dialogue to include India in a separate Quadrilateral Initiative, founded on the concept of democratic peace. Abe’s predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, for his part, was instrumental in frustrating Chinese opposition and getting India, Australia and New Zealand into the East Asia Summit initiative, which is to fashion the proposed East Asian Community.

Abe’s domestic failings, however, have led to his party’s record losses in the recent elections, undermining his leadership and putting a question mark on his political survival. Abe’s ascension as prime minister had symbolized not only the generational change in Japanese politics, but also the rise of an assertive new Japan ready to flex its foreign-policy muscle.

The Upper House losses could encumber the leitmotifs of Abe’s nationalist agenda, including the proposed revision of the unique “peace constitution” that the U.S. imposed on a defeated Japan to tame a historically warrior nation. Unlike India’s frequently amended constitution, Japan has not amended its constitution even once. Yet Japanese voters have signaled that they care more about the economy than about Abe’s idea to create a “beautiful Japan” on the resurrected traditions of the Taika Reform (A.D. 645) and the Meiji Restoration (1868).

Abe’s host, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, has also been weakened by his party’s losses in state elections this year. The leftist parties on whose support his wobbly coalition government depends have now raised a banner of revolt against the U.S.-India nuclear deal, issuing a diktat “not to proceed further” with the agreement. India’s opposition parties have also attacked the deal, putting Singh on the defensive.

Singh, the latest in a series of septuagenarians and octogenarians who have led India since 1989, epitomizes India’s leadership deficit. A technocrat who served as finance minister in the first half of the 1990s, Singh became prime minister in 2004 by accident when Congress Party leader Sonia Gandhi declined to assume that office and nominated him instead.

As democracies, India and Japan are going to be buffeted by domestic politics. But their democratic traditions, along with a striking convergence of strategic interests in Asia and beyond, help make them natural allies. Both seek United Nations Security Council reforms and both wish to avert a unipolar Asia. In fact, few countries face such implacably hostile neighbors as India and Japan do.

In an Asia characterized by a qualitative reordering of power, the direction of the India-Japan relationship is clearly set toward closer engagement. There is neither any negative historical legacy nor a single outstanding political issue between them. Public perceptions in each country about the other state are very positive.

Many Japanese are still grateful for Justice Radha Binod Pal’s role in delivering a dissenting judgment at the 1946 Tokyo Trial for war crimes, and a commemorative plaque in his honor has been erected at the entrance to the newly renovated Yushukan Museum in the compound of the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo.

On the 62nd anniversary of the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan appeared poised for strategic doctrinal change. It remains the world’s largest economic powerhouse after the United States, with an economy still much larger than China’s but with only a tenth of the population. As Asia’s first economic success story, Japan has always inspired other Asian states. Now, with the emergence of new economic tigers and the ascent of China and India, Asia collectively is bouncing back from a 150-year decline. Asian security will be greatly shaped by relations among the region’s three main powers — China, India and Japan — and their ties to the U.S.

Booming trade alone won’t guarantee security. China is Japan’s largest trade partner, but that has not prevented Beijing from aggressively playing the history card against Tokyo. China is India’s fastest-growing trade partner, but that has not stopped it from publicly hardening its stance on the territorial disputes.

To maintain the peaceful environment that promotes security and economic growth, Japan and China, and India and China, must build stable political relations. A strong Japan, a strong China and a strong India need to find ways to reconcile their interests in Asia so that they can peacefully coexist and prosper. Never before in history have all three been strong at the same time.

In this distinct strategic triangle, if China were A, and India and Japan were B and C, the sum of B plus C will always be greater than A. That is why India and Japan are bound to become close strategic buddies, even as they attempt to ensure that their relations with Beijing do not sour.

Concerned over China’s lengthening shadow, Japan and India are bracing for a strategic challenge in the Asian heartland, not to gain preeminence but to thwart preeminence. But while Japan seeks more space on the world stage, only to be hemmed in by its security dependency on Washington, India fancies closer ties with the U.S. as a way to play a bigger global role.

For India, a strategic and economic partnership with Japan dovetails with its vision of a dynamic, multipolar Asia. That is why the August 2000 agreement during Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori’s visit to develop a “Global Partnership of the 21st Century” has been expanded to include the term, “strategic.” This new “Strategic and Global Partnership,” as Singh and Abe agreed last December, is to be centered on “closer political and diplomatic coordination on bilateral, regional, multilateral and global issues, comprehensive economic engagement, stronger defense relations, greater technological cooperation” and “a quantum increase” in other contacts.

The decision to add real security content is intended, as the two prime ministers admitted, “to reinforce the strategic orientation of the partnership.” Defense ties are now developing with ease. All the three Japanese service chiefs visited India last year in a two-month period. With Japan dispatching more naval ships to the Indian Ocean in support of the U.S.-led “Operation Enduring Freedom,” India and Japan are in a position to conduct naval exercises together at short notice.

After last year’s India-Japan exercises, Indian naval ships visited Japan’s Yokosuka base four months ago, holding trilateral maneuvers with Japanese and U.S. forces off Tokyo Bay.

Asia’s sharpening energy geopolitics also buttresses the partnership between India and Japan, both heavily dependent on oil imports by sea from the Persian Gulf region. Strategic collaboration between these two major non-Western democracies is being necessitated by mercantilist efforts to assert control over energy supplies and transport routes, as well as by strategic plans to assemble a “string of pearls” in the form of listening posts and special naval-access arrangements along vital sea lanes.

If India is to ensure that an adversarial power does not exercise undue influence over regional waterways, it needs not only to guard the “gates” to the Indian Ocean, but also to join hands with the much-larger Japanese navy.

When Abe arrives on Aug. 21, he would like to market his “Cool Earth” initiative, as part of his endeavor to fashion a collective international response to the climate crisis that has arisen due to the relentless buildup of planet-warming greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Singh, for his part, is expected to seek Japan’s support in the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group for his pet initiative — the nuclear deal with the U.S. whose future is still far from certain. But the Abe-Singh discussions are likely to transcend personal hobbyhorses and focus on long-term strategic issues.

Given that the balance of power in Asia will be determined by events as much in the Indian Ocean rim as in East Asia, India and Japan have to work together to promote peace and stability, protect critical sea lanes and stem the incipient Asian power disequilibrium.

Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the privately funded Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, is the author of “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan”(HarperCollins).