The Japan-India partnership made progress last weekend when the two governments held their first “two plus two meeting,” a security discussion among their foreign and defense ministers. This dialogue is part of strengthened defense cooperation and a deepening convergence of views among the two countries. Geopolitics and economics are drawing Japan and India closer. This is a welcome development, but it is also important to recognize the limits to this process.
Tokyo and New Delhi have been courting each other for some time, but ties took a noticeable step forward in 2014 at a meeting between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi. Then, they declared bilateral ties constituted a “special strategic and global partnership.” Annual prime ministerial summits followed. When the two men met again at the Group of 20 summit that Abe hosted last summer in Osaka, they agreed to push security ties to the next level.
After last weekend’s meeting, the two governments released a joint statement that declared the “further strengthening of bilateral cooperation was in mutual interest of both countries and would also help in furthering the cause of the peace, security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region.” After the “two plus two,” Modi met Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and Defense Minister Taro Kono, and emphasized that India’s relationship with Japan is “a key component of our vision for Indo-Pacific for peace, stability and prosperity of the region, as well as a cornerstone of India’s Act East Policy.”
Japan considers India to be “a quasi-ally,” a status shared only by Australia and the United Kingdom. In its latest white paper, the Defense Ministry identified India as its third-most important partner in security cooperation, only behind the United States and Australia.
In practical terms, the two governments aim to sign an acquisition and cross-serving agreement (ACSA) between their militaries as well as hold joint fighter jet air drills and to promote joint research on a new unmanned ground vehicle.
This burgeoning partnership rests on a personal relationship between Abe and Modi, who see themselves as strategists and are determined to elevate their nations’ role in regional and global affairs. The partnership is built, in turn, on two pillars: a shared geostrategic vision that is deeply suspicious of Chinese intentions and the complementarity of the two countries’ economies.
That worldview is reflected in the joint statement, which noted the two governments’ commitment to a “free, open, encompassing, and rules-based” Indo-Pacific region. Adding the word “encompassing” is a nod to New Delhi’s preference for a regional vision that is open to all participants, a way of deflecting Chinese claims that proponents of a free and open Indo-Pacific are designing a structure to contain China or draw a line through the region. Japan and India have been cooperating to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific by jointly developing a port in Sri Lanka, a potential model for other projects elsewhere in the region and a challenge to China’s “Belt and Road” initiative. This complements their work with the U.S. and Australia in “the Quad,” a four-party mechanism for security cooperation.
The other pillar of the partnership is economic cooperation. India is eager to develop its infrastructure and Japan wants to exploit those opportunities. Topping the list of priorities is a high-speed rail project in India. Costing some $15 billion, it is Japan’s largest single-country Official Development Assistance yen loan project. Another fruitful area of cooperation is green technology.
Despite the seeming convergence of views, there are reasons to be cautious about the prospects for cooperation. First, there is India’s bureaucracy, which has slowed the implementation of the rail project. Second, hopes for increased trade have been frustrated. Two-way trade was just $15.7 billion in 2017, about one-fifth of India’s trade with China. New Delhi’s decision to withdraw from the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership is another indication of the obstacles to market reforms that limit economic relations.
That decision also reflects a third factor: India’s much-vaunted commitment to independence. All Indian leaders will zealously safeguard the country’s status as nonaligned and will remain reluctant to make any decision that might be seen as ceding sovereignty.
Finally, while New Delhi has a contentious relationship with Beijing, every Indian government must maintain a working relationship with China. Like Abe, Modi must seek common ground with Beijing whenever he can. This is a critical bound to any partnership between Japan and India. It must focus on genuine accomplishments and securing prosperity and stability for both its peoples. It cannot rest on an assertion of shared interests created by common enmity toward a third country.