Why a de facto Japan-India alliance can be a game changer

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, left, meets with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in Tokyo on Sept. 27, 2022. © Reuters

The India-Japan relationship is central to Indo-Pacific region’s power equilibrium and stability

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asia

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s trip this coming weekend to New Delhi, close on the heels of Australian counterpart Anthony Albanese’s own India tour, is indicative of growing strategic cooperation among the Indo-Pacific region’s major democracies.

Just as Germany’s rapid rise prior to World War I led to the Triple Entente among France, Britain and Russia, China’s aggressive expansionism has given the key Indo-Pacific democracies strong impetus to work together as a countervailing coalition.

The Quad, though without the form of a formal alliance, represents an emerging entente among the Indo-Pacific region’s four leading democracies: Australia, India, Japan and the U.S.

More fundamentally, the Indo-Pacific power balance will be determined, first and foremost, by events in East Asia and the Indian Ocean. This in turn makes the Japan-India relationship central to the region’s power equilibrium and stability.

Unlike the U.S. and Australia, India and Japan, which share frontiers with China, have seen their security come under direct pressure from Chinese President Xi Jinping’s muscular revisionism.

Kishida has pledged to double defense spending over the next five years following his government’s release of a new National Security Strategy which concluded that the country faces “the most severe and complex security environment since the end of World War II.”

This would potentially give Japan the world’s third-largest military budget, after the U.S. and China.

India, now No. 3 in defense spending, has been locked in a tense, 34-month military standoff with China along their disputed Himalayan border after being taken unawares by stealth incursions into Ladakh, its northernmost territory. India-China relations are at their lowest level in decades as clashes continue to erupt intermittently.

By locking horns with Beijing despite the risk of full-scale war, India may have openly challenged Chinese capability and power in a way no other power has done yet in this century.

Yet there is growing recognition in New Delhi and Tokyo — this year’s Group of 20 and Group of Seven presidents, respectively — that no single democratic power can impose sufficient costs on Xi’s regime for its maritime and territorial revisionism, much less compel Beijing to change course.

In this light, Japan and India, which are China’s main peer rivals in Asia and are strategically located on its opposite flanks, aim to frustrate Beijing’s ambition to achieve hegemony in Asia by forging deepening strategic and economic bonds.

By working together to constrain Chinese behavior without provoking escalation or open conflict, Japan and India can also help stabilize Asian power dynamics.

To be sure, Japanese and Indian defense priorities are not the same.

As an island nation, Japan has traditionally focused on maritime defense, a posture reinforced by the growing frequency of China’s forays into the territorial waters and airspace around the Senkaku Islands, which Beijing calls the Diaoyu.

China’s “gray zone” tactics just below the threshold of armed conflict have been so successful in the South China Sea that it is seeking to replicate them against Japan in the East China Sea.

India, faced with the strengthening China-Pakistan strategic nexus, maintains a land-based defense posture. It is the only Quad member to have gone to war with China in the post-World War II period.

There are important parallels between the way Xi’s regime is pursuing its territorial revisionism against Japan and India, including following a strategy of attrition, friction and containment to weigh them down and strengthen its own claims of sovereignty over disputed areas.

Against this backdrop, Japan and India share common strategic objectives in the Indo-Pacific region. An economically ascendant India and a politically rising Japan are both seeking to uphold the present Asian order. After all, the alternative would be a Sinocentric Asia inimical to their interests.

Unlike China, India and Japan are not seen as hungry for the land and resources of others. Indeed, Japan has not fired a shot in anger since its defeat in World War II, while India’s rise has not been accompanied by greater assertiveness toward its neighbors.

In fact, Japan-India cooperation is driven by complementary interests, the absence of historical baggage or disputes, and a shared vision for a rules-based order free from unilateralism or coercion.

To underpin a liberal and values-based order, the two countries in 2017 created the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor, but it remains much smaller than China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative. In India’s politically sensitive northeast region, sandwiched between Chinese-ruled Tibet, Myanmar and Bangladesh, Japan is the only foreign government that New Delhi has allowed to participate in infrastructure projects.

Impediments to speedier development of India-Japan collaboration are essentially bureaucratic and cultural: Ethnically and linguistically diverse India contrasts starkly with comparatively homogenous Japan, some of whose companies struggle to navigate New Delhi’s bureaucracy and regulatory environment.

The stakes could not be higher for India and Japan. Without building a de facto alliance that puts discreet checks on the exercise of Chinese power, the two are likely to bear the brunt of Beijing’s revisionist policies.

Japan and India need to quietly move from emphasizing shared values to jointly advancing shared interests, including thwarting China’s effort to establish itself as the hegemon of an illiberal regional order. Their close strategic collaboration can help lay the foundation for what late Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called a “democratic security diamond” in the Indo-Pacific region.

Brahma Chellaney is professor of strategic studies at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi and a former adviser to India’s National Security Council. He is the author of nine books, including “Water: Asia’s New Battleground.”