India and Japan: A new alliance in Asia

After decades of mutual neglect, New Delhi and Tokyo are set to build a new alliance that may well change the strategic configuration of Asia in the coming decades.

During his recent state visit to Japan, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has proclaimed Indo-Japanese relations a “natural and indispensable alliance” and stressed that “India and Japan have a shared vision of a rising Asia. The India-Japan partnership has never been more important to our two countries than it is today.” In Tokyo, Singh and his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe signed a number of major infrastructure and defense-technology agreements, and agreed to speed up dialogue on Indo-Japanese nuclear cooperation and more joint naval exercises.

Viewing from New Delhi, as Prime Minister Singh put it, “the time has come for India and Japan to build a strong contemporary relationship, one involving global and strategic partnership that will have a great significance for Asia and the world as a whole.”

Viewing from Tokyo, as Prime Minister Abe described, “India from the west, Japan from the east, the confluence of the two deep-rooted democracies is already one important part of the international common goods for the 21st century. I am of a belief that it is the important task that Japan and India should shoulder to ensure that Asia remain in peace and prosperity.”

All the formalities aside, it is a rising China’s assertiveness that has brought the two Asian democracies closer. The Singh-Abe Summit, report Rama Lakshmi and Chico Harlan of Washington Post, “send a not-so-subtle message to Beijing in the wake of a border row between India and China as well as the dispute between Japan and China in the East China Sea. The goal, analysts say, is to isolate China with a view to limiting its territorial ambitions in the region.”

“It is quite clear that all this is happening with China as the backdrop, because both Japan and India look upon China as a threat,” says Lalit Mansingh, former Indian Ambassador to the United States, “the Japanese prime minister wants to redefine the Indian Ocean and the Pacific region as a community of maritime democracies. That automatically excludes China. This is an important and clever move by India, too.”

China’s rapid rise is perhaps the most significant variable in the Asian geostrategic landscape today. China’s assertive diplomatic and military stance and Beijing’s willingness to test the diplomatic and military courage of its neighbors has coincided with a “new rising sun” in the Asia-Pacific: Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the first Post-War Japanese leader who is determined to bring Japan back to its past glory.

Since assuming the office of Prime Minister in December 2012, Abe has vowed to “bring back a strong Japan, strong enough to do even more good for the betterment of the world” and declared that “Japan is not, and will never be, a second-tier country.” Most recently, Prime Minster Abe has openly criticized China as attempting to “change the status quo by force” in terms of its relations with Japan and other Asian nations and strongly urged Beijing to respect the “rule of law” and stop from “doing wrong.”

Of all Post-War Japanese leaders, Shinzo Abe has been the most enthusiastic about the future of a strong India-Japan alliance. In Prime Minster Abe’s words, “a strong India is in the best interest of Japan, and a strong Japan is in the best interest of India.” Abe also has a great deal of admiration for Indian leaders and has referred Manmohan Singh as a “mentor-like leader.”

Encouraged by Shinzo Abe, New Delhi finally decides it is time to move forward on its ties with Tokyo. As a recent India Time editorial pointed out, “For far too long India has been hesitant in engaging Japan for fear of upsetting China. New Delhi is at last shedding this ambivalence, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan has been one of the strongest votaries of a tighter Delhi-Tokyo embrace.”

“All the elements of an emerging alliance between the two Asian powers are on view, including shared democratic values, economic and technological complementarities, common concerns about the rise of China and a joint commitment for a stable balance of power in Asia,” says C Raja Mohan, one of India’s leading strategic analysts, “as Japan and India move from an indifferent relationship of the last many decades to an all encompassing strategic partnership, Asia’s geopolitics is bound to alter irrevocably.”

Dr. Xiaoxiong Yi is the director of Marietta College’s China Program.