Commentary / Japan

The enduring basis of strong India-Japan relations

by Ramesh Thakur

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s mid-September visit to India was a triumphant success. The abiding memory for me will be the fetching photo of the prime minister and his wife looking resplendent in elegant Indian dress. In addition to a ¥190 billion low-interest loan for the Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train and other infrastructure projects, they welcomed the civilian nuclear cooperation agreement that came into force in July and agreed to promote bilateral cooperation in defense equipment and technology.

They also affirmed the importance of India-Japan ties to the regional order. India was pleased Japan agreed to name two Pakistan-based terror groups in their joint statement, and Tokyo was satisfied with India’s condemnation of North Korea’s nuclearization. They also “stressed the importance of holding accountable all parties that have supported North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs,” code for suspected Chinese and Pakistani complicity.

More important than the specific achievements of any one leader-level visit are the structural forces undergirding the relationship.

The first is the personal attributes and chemistry of the two prime ministers. Both Abe and Narendra Modi are strong nationalists with a stable majority in parliament and unbounded faith in their own leadership. On the downside, both can mistake impetuousness for boldness and impulsiveness for decisiveness, and both Abe and Modi have tried to intimidate the media into line.

The reason this matters is, second, that the free interplay of ideas and policy contestability are integral to liberal democracy. Shared values of political liberalism and market economies, alongside the structures of parliamentary democracy with political parties fighting elections, is the bedrock underpinning of strong and stable relations between India and Japan. Relations with non-democracies can never rise beyond the transactional, based on an expedient but temporary conjunction of value-free interests.

Third, the levels of development, income and demographic profiles mean there is great complementarity in the India-Japan economic relationship. India is a low-income country that needs over 7 percent annual growth, sustained for three to five decades, to lift the masses from poverty into the middle class. It requires continuous injections of large volumes of foreign investment alongside domestic savings to absorb the annually swelling labor force and provide the financial resources to create jobs and promote growth. It also needs massive investment in infrastructure to create a modern economy. By the same token, success in this enterprise will create the biggest growth cohort of the middle class in the world, which translates into a swelling consumer class with growing disposable incomes.

Japan is a capital-surplus, high-income country with an aging and declining population. Its dwindling labor force cannot indefinitely support the increasing share of retirees and elderly people, and its shrinking domestic market will not be able to sustain existing standards of living. India’s vast population offers literally unlimited market potential for Japanese goods if average incomes rise, while the underdeveloped state of India’s economy offers great scope for Japanese investment, managerial expertise and technical assistance. There is no better example than joint ventures in creating a network of high-speed, reliable and safe bullet trains to connect the length and breadth of India for rapid movement of people and freight.

Fourth, a “negative” underpinning of India-Japan relations, rare across Asia, is the absence of any historical baggage. The importance of this can be readily appreciated by considering the difficulties besetting Japan’s relations with fellow U.S. ally South Korea as well as China. Bitter historical memories can be triggered with remarkable speed and unexpectedness, and each episode then requires weeks of delicate handling by all governments concerned. Three recurring issues are visits by prominent Japanese politicians to Yasukuni Shrine, history textbooks and “comfort women.” There is absolutely nothing in India-Japan history to cause discomfort to either side that could potentially derail increasingly close economic, political and even military relations between Asia’s two big democracies.

Fifth, during the Cold War one major irritant was their divergent foreign policy postures. India was a founding giant of the Nonaligned Movement that often betrayed pro-Soviet leanings in statements, policies and U.N. voting. Moscow was its most important defense supplier. By contrast Japan was a solid U.S. ally. Since the end of the Cold War, India has moved steadily to improve and strengthen relations with the U.S. and, somewhat surprisingly considering the long visa ban, Modi has accelerated the trend to deepened relations. The independent bilateral relations of India and Japan with the U.S. thus now work to cement the Tokyo-Delhi axis where previously they undercut it. In effect India has forged strategic partnerships with Japan and the U.S. that fall short of an alliance.

Finally, this is all the more relevant because of the second “negative” thrust to strong relations between India and Japan. This is the dramatically altering Asian and global geopolitical orders where a rapidly rising China has become increasingly assertive in its bilateral and regional relations, opening multiple fronts of competition and challenge as it seeks to intimidate and exhaust any resistance into passive acquiescence if not outright submission. Japan has felt this in its territorial disputes in East Asia; India has a very long disputed border with China and the two countries’ armies engaged in a 10-week tense standoff at the tri-junction with Bhutan recently, in which Japan’s ambassador to India supported India’s stance to earn Beijing’s rebuke; China has cultivated Pakistan as a useful partner to confine India to the subcontinent; and both India and Japan have seen their U.N. Security Council aspirations actively thwarted by China. Of all the Asian countries, India and Japan are the best placed to withstand China’s pressures and provide cover for other Asian countries to also resist.

They have also teamed up to pool comparative and locational advantages to launch their own “Asia-Africa growth corridor” connectivity and infrastructure projects for Southeast Asia and Africa as a counter to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Japan will contribute $30 billion and India $10 billion. In the September summit’s joint statement Abe became the first Japanese leader to embrace the Indo-Pacific as the new geopolitical frame. Following that, on Sept. 18, meeting on the sidelines of the U.N. in New York, India’s and Japan’s foreign ministers and the U.S. secretary of state agreed to collaborate to develop strategically important ports and other infrastructure in the Indo-Pacific region based on their shared values of the rule of law, and freedom of navigation and overflights. The China reference was thus unmistakable.

Ramesh Thakur is a professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy at Australian National University.

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