Shared regional interests draw Japan and India closer

by and

Special To The Japan Times

Over the past decade, India and Japan have built a relationship of strategic cooperation to promote collaboration on regional and global issues. An examination of the current situation indicates that their relations are a sum greater than its parts.

What is missing is an honest acknowledgement of the relationship’s raison d’etre. Rather than relying on the notion of shared values, they should acknowledge the primacy of shared interests regarding China’s rise.

Until recently, the two countries had very little interaction. During the Cold War, they were not on the “same side” of the global struggle, thereby effectively freezing bilateral relations until the early 1990s. India’s 1998 nuclear tests brought the burgeoning bilateral relations to a sudden halt. Yet today, they enjoy broad cooperation in the economic, diplomatic, and security fields. What explains this cooperation?

Historically, they do not share a territorial dispute or a record of hostilities. Culturally, they are linked by Buddhism and share a recent tradition of non-violence (India) or pacifism (Japan). Geopolitically, neither prefers to intervene in other countries’ sovereign affairs. Additionally, while both support efforts promoting security, they cooperate with multilateral efforts in their own way. India defends its strategic autonomy, choosing to closely support multilateral initiatives but not as a member.

Japan joins multilateral efforts, but due to constitutional restrictions on its military, its participation differs from others. None of these offers an explanation for recent cooperation. Instead, they are possible explanations for why cooperation has been smooth.

The often cited reason has been shared values. As seen in their growing number of joint declarations and joint statements, the two countries strongly promote a shared commitment to the universal values of democracy, open society, human rights, rule of law, and the market economy. Regardless of how it is worded, the underlying argument is that Japan and India pursue deeper cooperation because they share common values.

As important as shared values may be, it is too nebulous a concept to explain the recent surge in bilateral cooperation. If this were true, why then are Japan and India not pursuing security agreements with other like-minded states, such as Norway, Canada, or New Zealand? Conversely, China ranks as the top trading partner for both countries, yet China does not share similar values as India and Japan. Finally, while their values have remained unchanged, why have Japan and India not enjoyed much in the way of cooperation until just a few years ago?

The answer is shared interests. Over the past decade a convergence of interests has emerged. Both countries share an interest in sustained economic growth through new trade and investment opportunities, new or reformed multilateral institutional structures that reflect the realities of today’s distribution of power, and regional stability and protection of sea lanes. Cooperation enables both countries to be stronger, more prosperous and secure, and better equipped to face the challenges of the 21st century. Shared values may help grease the wheels of this relationship, but it is not the reason why they are cooperating.

Acknowledging shared interests involves being honest that their main mutual concern is managing the consequences of the rise of China. It is undeniable that over the past 20 years China has exerted a greater political, economic, and security influence in the region. For countries that have two of the largest regional militaries (particularly navies) and depend on the freedom of the seas for trade and energy and regional stability for continued economic growth, China’s rise brought them together. They share an interest in ensuring China emerges peacefully as a responsible stakeholder in regional matters.

The problem is that there is a significant lack of trust in Beijing. While India and Japan trade with China and interact with it in various forums, the opaqueness of China’s military modernization program and its maritime activities strain relations. India is concerned about a possible “string of pearls” encircling it in South Asia while Japan is anxious about increased Chinese maritime assertiveness in the East and South China Seas. When we factor in continuing territorial disputes and ongoing political and/or historical disagreements both countries have with China, China’s opposition to their entry as permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, and China’s direct/indirect support to their nuclear-armed neighbors (Pakistan and North Korea), it is understandable why trepidation exists.

Expanded bilateral cooperation between Tokyo and New Delhi enhances their individual security. Economic cooperation diversifies their trading portfolios with less reliance on China. Diplomatic cooperation balances Chinese influence through more inclusive multilateral institutions, both regionally and globally. Security cooperation hedges against an unpredictable China by taking preemptive actions to promote freedom of navigation and sea lane security. China is not the prime reason for closer bilateral cooperation between India and Japan, nor should closer cooperation be seen as the containment of China. China is one factor, albeit a major one, that India and Japan consider when developing common economic, diplomatic and security responses to global and regional issues.

While political leaders will promote shared values as the reason for the burgeoning relationship, it is more honest to acknowledge their shared interest in cooperating to ensure the peace, stability and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific region during China’s rise.

Jeffrey W. Hornung is associate professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author.