Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times
Whereas India-China and Japan-China ties are unlikely to become non-adversarial in the near future, the forthcoming summit between prime ministers Shinzo Abe and Narendra Modi will cement the Japan-India relationship as Asia’s fastest growing relationship, and open the path to a military logistics pact to allow access to each other’s bases. Indeed, the deepening relationship between Asia’s richest democracy and the world’s largest democracy serves the goal of forestalling the emergence of a Sino-centric Asia.
Recently, the Indian and Japanese foreign and defence ministers held their first joint meeting in a so-called “two plus two” format. India has set up such a “two plus two” dialogue with all the other Quad members. The Quad offers a promising platform for strategic maritime cooperation and coordination. But there is no guarantee that it will fulfil that promise.
The India-Japan entente is a central pillar of the U.S.-led strategy for a “free and open Indo-Pacific” — a concept authored by Abe. Today, Japan and India serve as the linchpins for establishing a rules-based Indo-Pacific order. However, US President Donald Trump’s “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy, like his predecessor’s pivot to Asia, hasn’t been translated into a clear policy approach with any real strategic heft. It is thus important for Japan and India to contribute their bit.
The evolving paradigm shift in Washington’s China policy, however, has put pressure on Chinese President Xi Jinping to improve his country’s relations with India and Japan. Xi is expected to visit Japan in the spring. Xi’s informal summit with Modi in October yielded few tangible results. But India’s commitment at Mamallapuram to enter into bilateral talks over its lopsided trade relationship with China represented a diplomatic win for Beijing. It allows China to initiate what it is good at — endless negotiations, as its 38-year-long border talks with India illustrate.
In fact, Xi, seeking to shield his country’s burgeoning trade surplus with India, sought at Mamallapuram to rope India into the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). India already has free trade agreements (FTAs) with 12 of the other 15 RCEP member-states, and is negotiating an FTA with Australia. In this light, India’s entry into the RCEP would have effectively established a China-India FTA via the backdoor.
India’s recent withdrawal from the RCEP, like the earlier US pullout from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), has created a dilemma for Japan. While Japan took the lead to establish the TPP without the US, Tokyo does not want the RCEP negotiations to conclude without India, because it would build a China-led trading bloc. This suggests Japan may not join the RCEP without India reversing its withdrawal.
Taking advantage of its considerable assets — the world’s third-largest economy, substantial high-tech skills, and a military freed of some legal and constitutional constraints — Japan is boosting its geopolitical clout. Japan’s world-class navy has already begun operating far beyond the country’s waters in order to establish its position in the region. Abe has explained why Japan and India are natural allies, “A strong India benefits Japan, and a strong Japan benefits India.”
Against this background, the Modi-Abe summit will witness the Indian and Japanese militaries clinching a logistics sharing agreement, formally known as the Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSA). A logistics sharing accord has become imperative for the two militaries, given the number of joint manoeuvres they hold, including three-way exercises involving the US navy in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific.
The plain fact is that Japan and India, in the absence of any historical baggage or major strategic disagreement, share largely complementary strategic interests. In fact, Japan has the distinction of being the only foreign power that has been allowed to undertake infrastructure and other projects in India’s sensitive northeast (bordering Myanmar, Tibet, Bhutan and Bangladesh), as well as in the Andaman and Nicobar islands.
If Japan and India continue to add concrete security content to their relationship, their strategic partnership could potentially be a game changer in Asia. The emphasis on boosting trade and investment must be balanced with greater strategic collaboration. Their first joint fighter aircraft exercise will be held in the new year in Japan.
The Abe-Modi summit offers an opportunity to discuss how the Tokyo-New Delhi duet can contribute to the larger effort to build strategic equilibrium, power stability and maritime security in the Indo-Pacific. Besides deepening defence and maritime security cooperation, Japan and India must collaborate on infrastructure and other projects in third countries, including Myanmar, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, and in Africa, to help enhance strategic connectivity in the Indo-Pacific.
India and Japan have forged a special relationship, which is set to strengthen and deepen in the coming years. At a time of global geopolitical flux, the two are among the important countries that have taken up the baton to champion freedom, international norms and rules, inclusivity, and free and fair trade.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.