Asia’s balance of power will be determined principally by events in East Asia and the Indian Ocean. In this light, the emerging Indo-Japanese entente is likely to help shape Asia’s strategic future as much as China’s ascent or America’s Asian “pivot.” Japan and India, as Asia’s natural-born allies, have a pivotal role to play in preserving stability and helping to safeguard vital sea-lanes in the wider Indo-Pacific region — a region defined not only by the confluence of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, but also by its significance as the global trade and energy-supply hub.
The India visit of Japan’s Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko from November 30 promises to be a landmark event in the already fast-developing partnership between Asia’s two leading democracies, which are strategically located on opposite flanks of the continent. In the more than 2,600-year history of the Japanese monarchy — the world’s oldest continuous hereditary royalty — no emperor has been to India, although India has traditionally been referred to in Japan as Tenjiku , or the heavenly country.
Customarily, the Japanese Emperor’s visit to any country is highly significant because it symbolises a watershed in relations with that nation. It was in recognition of the momentous nature of the royal trip that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appointed Ashwini Kumar as his special envoy with Cabinet rank in August to “prepare for the upcoming visit” of the imperial couple, and for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit early next year. Indeed, the India tour could be the last overseas visit of Emperor Akihito, who has undergone coronary and prostate cancer surgeries in the past decade and will turn 80 a couple of weeks after he returns home from Chennai.
India has been specially chosen for an imperial visit to signal Japan’s commitment to forge closer ties. Japan is already doing more for India than any other economic partner of this country: it is the largest source of aid, and is playing a key role in helping India to improve its poor infrastructure, as illustrated by the Japanese-financed Western Freight Corridor, the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor, and the Bangalore Metro Rail Project. Tokyo is also keen to add concrete strategic content to the bilateral ties.
The relationship, remarkably free of any strategic dissonance or bilateral dispute, traces its roots to the introduction of Buddhism in Japan in the 6th century CE. The Todaiji Temple in the ancient capital city of Nara is home to Japan’s most famous and biggest statue — a great gilt bronze image of Lord Buddha. The statue’s allegorical eyes-opening ceremony in 752 CE was conducted by a priest from India in the presence of Emperor Shômu, who declared himself a servant of the “Three Treasures” — the Buddha, the Buddhist law, and the monastic order. Japan’s cultural heritage from India via China extends to Sanskrit influence on the Japanese language.
Japanese still bless a newly married couple by reciting an ancient proverb that they are the best bride and bridegroom across the three kingdoms of Kara (China), Tenjiku (India) and Hinomoto (Japan). In fact, Akihito, as the crown prince, came with his wife to India in 1960 on a honeymoon trip. During that visit, he laid the foundation stone of New Delhi’s India International Centre and planted a sapling at the Japanese Embassy that has grown into a huge tree.
Today, the contrast between the disciplined Japanese society and tumultuous India could not be more striking. India has the world’s largest youthful population, while Japan is ageing more rapidly than any other developed country. And whereas India has always valued strategic autonomy, Japan remains a model U.S. ally that hosts not only a large U.S. troop presence but also pays generously for the upkeep of the American forces on its soil.
Yet, the dissimilarities between the two countries increase the potential for close collaboration. Japan’s heavy-manufacturing base and India’s services-led growth — as well as their contrasting age structures — make their economies complementary, opening the path to generating strong synergies. India’s human capital and Japan’s financial and technological power can be a good match to help drive India’s infrastructure development and great-power aspirations, and catalyse Japan’s revival as a world power.
‘Natural and indispensable’
For India, Japan is a critical source of capital and commercial technology. Indeed, there cannot be a better partner for India’s development than the country that was the first non-western society to modernise and emerge as a world power, spearheading Asia’s industrial and technology advances since the 19th century. Dr. Singh has underscored the importance of also building security collaboration with it, saying Indians “see Japan as a natural and indispensable partner in our quest for stability and peace in the vast” Indo-Pacific region.
For a politically rising Japan that is beginning to shed its pacifist blinkers, India is central to both its economic-revival and security-building strategies. After prolonged economic stagnation, Japan faces difficult challenges, including a shrinking population, a spiralling public debt, a fundamentally deflationary environment, and a security dilemma compounded by constraints arsing from the U.S.-imposed, post-war Constitution. However, Mr. Abe’s dynamic leadership and control of both houses of parliament is aiding his moves to place Japan on the right track.
Japan and India, as energy-poor countries heavily reliant on oil imports from the unstable Persian Gulf region, are seriously concerned over mercantilist efforts to assert control over energy supplies and the transport routes for them. So the maintenance of a peaceful and lawful maritime domain, including unimpeded freedom of navigation, is critical to their security and economic well-being. That is why they have moved from emphasising shared values to seeking to protect shared interests, including by holding joint naval exercises.
These facts explain why India and Japan boast the fastest-growing bilateral relationship in Asia today. Since they unveiled a “strategic and global partnership” in 2006, their political and economic engagement has deepened at a remarkable pace. Their free-trade pact, formally known as the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA), came into force in 2011. They have even established an alliance to jointly develop rare-earth minerals so as to reduce their dependence on China.
The level and frequency of India-Japan official engagement have become extraordinary. In addition to holding an annual Prime Minister-level summit, the two also conduct several yearly ministerial dialogues: A strategic dialogue between their Foreign Ministers; a security dialogue between their Defence Ministers; a policy dialogue between India’s Commerce Minister and Japan’s Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry; and separate ministerial-level energy and economic dialogues. And, to top it off, they also hold a trilateral strategic dialogue with the United States.
According to Dr. Singh, “India and Japan have a shared vision of a rising Asia.” Translating that vision into practice demands strengthening their still-fledgling strategic cooperation and working together to ensure a pluralistic, stable Asian order.
Japan, in keeping with its pacifist Constitution, does not possess offensive systems, such as nuclear submarines, large aircraft carriers, and long-range missiles. But with the world’s sixth largest defence budget, it has a formidable defensive capability, an impressive armament-production base, and Asia’s largest naval fleet, including top-of-the-line conventional subs, large helicopter-carrying destroyers, and Aegis-equipped cruisers capable of shooting down ballistic missiles.
India — the world’s largest arms importer that desperately needs to develop an indigenous arms-production capability — must forge closer defence ties with Japan, including co-developing weapon systems and working together on missile defence. The most stable economic partnerships in the world, such as the Atlantic community and the Japan-U.S. partnership, have been built on the bedrock of security collaboration. Economic ties that lack the underpinning of strategic partnerships tend to be less stable and even volatile, as is apparent from China’s economic relationships with India, Japan and the U.S. Through close strategic collaboration, Japan and India must lead the effort to build freedom, prosperity and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.
Against this background, the Emperor’s visit promises to live up to Mr. Abe’s hope of being a “historic event.” It is likely to herald an enduring Indo-Japanese strategic partnership.
(Brahma Chellaney, a geostrategist, is the author, most recently, of Water, Peace, and War )