The emerging strategic relationship between India and Japan is significant for the future security and stability of the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. It is also a critical emergent relationship for U.S. security objectives across the Asia-Pacific. India possesses the most latent economic and military potential of any state in the wider Asia-Pacific region. Therefore, India is the state with the greatest potential outside of the United States itself to contribute to the objectives of the “Rebalance to the Pacific” announced by Washington in 2011. This “rebalance” was aimed at fostering a stable, prosperous, and rules-based region where peace, prosperity, and wide respect for human rights are observed and extended. Implicit in the rebalance was a hedge against a China acting to challenge the existing post–World War II rules-based international and regional order.
India and Japan share complementary, but not identical, strategic visions. Both seek to manage—and minimize—the potential negative impacts from the rise of China in accord with their own strategic perspectives. As of early 2017, Japan perceives China’s growing assertive actions to be a great and rising strategic threat. India is concerned about China’s increasingly worrisome behavior but finds itself relatively more dependent upon China for economic growth and less worried about its immediate physical threat than Japan. As a result, India has been, and will continue to be, less vocal in complaints about Chinese behavior, preferring to warn Beijing with subtle signaling and actions.
There is broad bipartisan domestic support in Japan and India for enhancing bilateral strategic cooperation now and moving forward. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s role has been a critical factor in the rapid growth of the strategic relationship, and the partnership is unlikely to have moved as far or as fast without his leadership. However, Japan’s important relationship with India has been institutionalized in special ways over the past decade that will make it durable—if not as dynamic—when Abe leaves the political stage in Japan. The same is largely true in India. Since mid-2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s personal approach and his special relationship with Abe have been a significant accelerant to the India-Japan strategic relationship. Indian strategic thinking is broadly supportive of continuing to grow strategic bilateral relations with Tokyo. Thus, Indian public support for the growth of Indo-Japanese partnership is reasonably well assured. There is a depth of support in both countries that will foster a robust strategic relationship well into the future.
Japan provides India with economic, political, and diplomatic interactions that it cannot replicate elsewhere. Japanese economic assistance is special in that it can undertake projects of enormous scope and scale in the Indian economy—offering a competitive and often preferred alternative to Chinese bids on critical Indian infrastructure projects. As a technologically advanced industrial nation with an established defense industry, and one now enabled to export weapons platforms and technologies abroad due to a historic political evolution, Japan can help India advance its national military and defense capabilities.
India provides Japan with a security partner of enormous latent potential and three main short-term advantages. India’s border dispute with China causes Beijing to spend more on defense along the Indian border, limiting its attention and defense spending against contested island claims astride Japan. Growing Indian maritime capability will enable New Delhi to assume greater responsibility for Indian Ocean security, allowing Japan and the United States to allocate a greater proportion of their own resources to counter Chinese adventurism in the South and East China Seas. Finally, India has the potential to assist Vietnam to develop as a Japanese security partner in Southeast Asia, as both India and Vietnam currently have many of the same Russian military platforms.
The United States has played an important role in signaling Tokyo and New Delhi that accelerated growth in their strategic relationship is desirable. The George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations each played a key role. Both deemed it important to overarching American security interests across the Asia-Pacific region that the largest democracy in the world, India, and the richest democracy in the region, Japan, combine energies and efforts to strengthen bilateral ties and mutual efforts toward safeguarding democratic values, freedom of trade and transit, and human rights across the greater Asia-Pacific region. The Obama administration framed this as a part of its “Rebalance to the Pacific” effort, but the Bush team had taken a similar approach.
Washington must continue this signaling into the future to see the India-Japan strategic partnership reach its full potential. The way Washington deals with the disappointments and challenges in its own relations with New Delhi can encourage Japanese forbearance in its inevitable disappointments with India and set a model for Japan’s engagement toward a long-term strategic partnership.
The United States also must move beyond signaling to actively encouraging key activities to enable the relationship to take off. Washington should work with Tokyo and New Delhi to encourage an expanding web of trilateral strategic engagements and activities: economic, diplomatic, and defense. Perhaps most importantly, the United States should be proactive in finding ways to expand military interoperability between India and Japan—and by extension with itself. A critical component of such an aim will be for Washington to develop the broadest and most generous possible list of military technologies that Japan can be encouraged to transfer to India, including those originally developed or primarily researched in the United States. This list—and the processes necessary to see that items on it are expeditiously approved for transfer—should first focus on the areas of most pressing strategic relevance to the India-Japan bilateral relationship: maritime surveillance and intercept, naval aviation, and anti-submarine technologies.
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