India-Japan Relations: Watch This Space
For all the world’s focus on China’s ascendancy, the developing strategic and economic entente between Japan and India may be just as important in shaping Asia’s future as the rise of their giant neighbor. “India and Japan have a shared vision of a rising Asia,” said Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in a speech earlier this year. No region has seen a similar “rise in freedom, opportunity, and prosperity over the last half century.” But nowhere else are threats to these values more at risk, given the instabilities posed by China’s emergence, and the potential for conflict among distrustful Asian powers.
In many respects, India and Japan could not be more different. One has more poor people than any other nation on earth. The other was the first non-Western society to fully modernize. The order and discipline of Japanese society contrast vividly with the hustle and bustle of India’s cities. India is the world’s youngest big country, while Japan is aging more rapidly than any other developed society. India’s traditional foreign policy of non-alignment and opposition to Western hegemony in world affairs contrasts with Japan’s status as a model U.S. ally for over 60 years. Japan remains shackled by its postwar pacifist constitution and normative constraints on the use of military force; India is a state with nuclear weapons that is engaged in one of the world’s largest conventional military buildups.
Yet the complementarities between the two powers on opposite ends of the Asian landmass are equally striking. Japan is a capital-rich, technology superpower; India has teeming supplies of human capital and the world’s largest labor pool. Japan has the world’s most advanced infrastructure, while India’s own requirements exceed in scale those of any other country. Unlike many other Asian societies who suffered the effects of Japanese militarism before 1945, Indians comfortably acknowledge that they do not have “history issues” with Japan of the kind that color Tokyo’s relations with nations across East and Southeast Asia. In many respects, a strategic and economic partnership with India could catalyze Japan’s renewal as a 21st century great power — one no longer as dependent on the United States, and one better diversified to compete with emerging economies. For India’s modernizing leaders, few countries afford a better prospect for a development partnership than the nation at the forefront of the industrial and technological revolutions that have transformed the face of Asia. Perhaps most fundamentally, as rival civilization-states to China and victims of territorial conflict with it, Japan and India have the most to lose from potential Chinese hegemony in Asia — and the most to gain from working together, and with the West, to ensure that the future Asian order remains pluralistic rather than Sinocentric. Like Japan, India has a strong interest in sustaining and strengthening the liberal international economic order that will allow it to deepen flows of trade and investment abroad in order to catalyze development at home. As Singh said in Tokyo last May, “India needs Japanese technology and investment.
In turn, India offers increasing opportunities for the growth and globalization of Japanese companies for the overall prosperity and growth of Japan…. There are strong synergies between our economies, which need an open, rule-based international trading system to prosper.” In 2007, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gave a speech to the Indian parliament in which he emphasized “the confluence of the two seas” — the Indian and Pacific Oceans — tying Japan and India together in this era of globalization. He stressed that both countries “share fundamental values such as freedom, democracy, and respect for human rights as well as strategic interests.” And he highlighted how a grand “Arc of Freedom and Prosperity” connected Japan in the east to India in the south to Europe in the west. Such a network of powerful democracies acting in concert could decisively shape the 21st century. Discarding India’s traditional non-alignment, Singh recently stressed “shared values and shared interests” in explaining that Indians “see Japan as a natural and indispensable partner in our quest for stability and peace in the vast region in Asia that is washed by the Pacific and Indian Oceans.” The Obama administration joined with both countries in 2011 to launch a trilateral strategic dialogue. As uncontested U.S. primacy in Asia gives way to intensified geopolitical competition with China, the United States and Europe have a strategic interest in stronger relations with and among like-minded Indo-Pacific powers capable of sustaining a liberal regional order. Beyond common interests, India and Japan happen to share common values with the West. Indeed, more people live under democracy in Asia than anywhere else. In this sense, Japan and India look more like Asia’s future; China’s authoritarian political order and state-directed development look more like its past.
Daniel Twining is a senior fellow for Asia with the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.