Policy Alert: India-Japan New Strategic Partnership Prompts Reactions from Asian Powers
During Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s five-day trip to Japan last week, the two governments declared “the opening of a new age” in bilateral relations, signing a “Special Strategic and Global Partnership” aimed at strengthening their strategic and economic ties. The agreement delivered some promises, including Japan’s $35 billion investment in India over the next five years, but not others, including civil nuclear energy cooperation and “two-plus-two” security ministerial talks. In this Policy Alert, we examine commentary from India, Japan, and China on the India-Japan partnership.
The Indian government and newspapers emphasized the importance of India-Japan relations.
- Prime Minister Modi stressed that “The 21st century belongs to Asia … but how the 21st century will be depends on how strong and progressive India-Japan ties are.”
- The Business Standard argued that to promote its economic growth, New Delhi “must take advantage of Japanese enthusiasm” for investment in India.
Indian commentators remained at odds with the implications of the India-Japan partnership for India-China relations.
- Modi’s visit showed India’s commitment “to revamp its ‘Look East’ policy…efforts to strengthen strategic and economic ties with Southeast Asian countries in a bid to counter the increasing regional influence of China-strategically, militarily and economically,” explainedThe Economic Times.
- Kanwal Sibal, a former foreign secretary, cautioned against such anti-China rhetoric, saying that “India does not have to choose sides. It can work with Japan in areas of shared concern about China, while working with China in areas that yield mutual benefits and preserving space for ‘strategic’ cooperation.”
- C Raja Mohan, a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi, shared a similar view. India “should strengthen partnerships with Tokyo and Beijing, each on its own merit, and in the process, build up India’s comprehensive national power and make Delhi an indispensable actor in shaping Asia’s future.”
- “India’s trade with China…is four times of that with Japan. So ties with Japan cannot be advanced at the cost of China, especially because Modi’s gestures to Japan are likely to be misread in Beijing as anti-Chinese,” argued Swaran Singh, a professor of International Relations at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
- Pramit Pal Chaudhuri, foreign editor of the Hindustan Times, dismissed concerns over India-China relations, saying that “however close India may get to Japan, it will not matter that much to China,” because Beijing is only worried about a potential strategic threat from U.S.-India relations.
Meanwhile, Indian experts expressed a great deal of disappointment over the failure to reach an agreement on civil nuclear energy cooperation due to Japan’s demand for additional safeguard mechanisms and a “no nuclear weapon testing” pledge.
- Kanwan Sibal called the failure “a notable disappointment.” “A genuine ‘special and global’ strategic India-Japan partnership sits ill with Japanese hesitations to resolve this outstanding strategic issue, which gives advantage to China.”
- Pramit Pal Chaudhuri claimed that the lack of a nuclear deal demonstrates that the India-Japan partnership is still “a work in progress and there is no guarantee of success.”
The Japanese government and newspapers stressed the significance of the new strategic partnership for Japan’s national security.
- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe emphasized the importance of Japan-India relations, saying that “They have the greatest potential in the world. Bilateral ties will be improved dramatically in all sectors.”
- The Yomiuri Shimbun argued that deepened security cooperation between Japan and India is “vital” for curbing Chinese maritime assertiveness in the East and South China Seas and the Indian Ocean and securing the sea lanes that go through those waters.
- The Sankei Shimbun called the Japan-India partnership a de facto “quasi-alliance” designed to support Prime Minister Abe’s “Asia’s Democratic Security Diamond,” a concept in which Japan, the Unites States, Australia, and India “form a diamond to safeguard the maritime commons stretching from the Indian Ocean region to the western Pacific.”
- “The recent approval of the exercise of the right to collective self-defense means that it could become possible, depending on the situation, for the MSDF and the Indian Navy to jointly patrol the sea lanes,” a high-ranking Defense Ministry official said. “In exchange for such cooperation, Japan will export the US-2 (short takeoff and landing, search-and-rescue amphibian aircraft).”
Given such expectations for bilateral security cooperation, no progress on a “two-plus-two” ministerial dialogue was a disappointment to Japanese officials and commentators.
- “There was no exchange of views on such things as the timing (of creating the dialogue) at the summit talks,” commented a Japanese government official.
- Japan’s Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroshige Seko downplayed the significance of the failure to set up ministerial security talks. “There’s no special reason for it. It’s how things turned out during talks between the leaders of the two countries.”
- “India may have worried that if it had already set up a minister-level two-plus-two framework with Japan, it would provoke China,” said a Japanese government insider source.
- The Asahi Shimbun agreed. “In the background to putting off a decision [on the “two-plus-two” talks] was India’s desire to not unnecessarily antagonize China.”
Chinese media raised concerns of an India-Japan containment strategy against China following Modi’s visit to Japan.
- The Chinese Foreign Ministry responded coolly to media reports in Japan that Tokyo and New Delhi plan to align with each other closely with the aim of containing China. Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told a news conference, “I want to emphasize that both China and India are major countries that advocate for and follow the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, and both nations pursue independent foreign affairs policies.”
- “Abe woos Modi in a bid to contain China,” read a China Daily headline. Cai Hong, China Daily‘s Tokyo bureau chief observed, “Modi and Abe are both assertive nationalists who came to power on platforms pledging economic revival and bolstering their countries’ defenses and strategic partnerships with like-minded states.”
- The Global Times dismissed claims of an India-Japan alignment against China. It acknowledged that while mutual trust between Beijing and New Delhi is “difficult to build,” “India has proved it is a rational country, displaying an independent foreign policy and loathing being an appendix of any particular power. Plus, India cherishes peace.”