When Rabindranath Tagore visited Japan in 1916, he concluded that “the welcome which flowed towards me, with such outburst of sincerity, was owing to the fact that Japan felt the nearness of India to herself.” Almost a 100 years later, Narendra Modi echoed this sentiment during his first official visit as Prime Minister to Tokyo in September 2014: “I am …touched by the warmth and enthusiasm that I have experienced in meeting a wide cross-section of people here,” he said. “I am excited about the boundless possibilities for our cooperation.”
As two of the world’s largest economies and democracies with common and complementary interests and no historical disputes, the possibilities for cooperation between India and Japan are indeed boundless. Yet, despite lofty rhetoric and past commitments in this vein, bilateral relations have remained underdeveloped. Given the growing political momentum in the relationship, thanks in part to the personal friendship between Prime Ministers Modi and Shinzo Abe, the time is ripe for converting words into action and charting a substantive agenda for progress on a variety of fronts including economics, security, energy and climate change, and global governance.
The opportunities are clear, but bear repeating. On the economic front, Japan boasts a capital-rich economy with an ageing population that is likely to prolong an already decades-long economic malaise. Meanwhile, India’s economy remains in need of foreign investment while its population is likely to have a glut of working-age youth in the coming years. Although Japan has pledged to invest $35 billion in India over the next five years, and is the largest provider of official development assistance to India, there is still space to >expand the economic relationship .
Security front On the security front, both countries face the challenge of maintaining (or in the case of Japan, re-establishing) positive relations with China while also having to hedge against its growing assertiveness, particularly on territorial matters. To this end, Japan and India have held naval exercises in the Indian Ocean to enhance their maritime interoperability, and both countries maintain a strategic dialogue on existing and emerging challenges in the Asia Pacific. Even though the India-Japan strategic relationship was first called a Global Partnership in 2000 before it was upgraded to a Strategic and Global Partnership in 2006 and finally a Special Strategic and Global Partnership in 2014, the relationship has remained more symbolic than substantive.
Energy security is another area of common interest. Japan’s reliance on energy imports has increased sharply since the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi incident — domestically generated nuclear power has gone from providing 26 per cent of Japan’s energy needs to zero as all nuclear plants remain closed. Japan also has much to share with India in terms of clean energy technologies and globally recognised benchmarks on energy efficiency standards. On issues of global governance, Japan and India both desire the reform of international institutions, particularly the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), which is currently dominated by its permanent members. In the area of international development, as India transitions from being a net recipient of foreign aid to a net provider, there are significant opportunities to learn from Japan’s decades-long experience of delivering economic assistance in Asia and Africa.
Compared to the opportunities inherent in contemporary India-Japan relations, the challenges to deeper bilateral cooperation are less talked about. It is worth examining why, for example, despite strong economic complementarities, trade between the two countries has remained underwhelming (India’s share of Japan’s trade lags far behind much of Asia), or why security cooperation has not extended beyond naval exercises despite growing concerns about China’s assertiveness. Similarly, despite intensive lobbying by both countries separately and as part of the G-4 group in the United Nations, UNSC reform remains as elusive as it has ever been.
Overcoming obstacles The India-Japan relationship does not suffer from a want of imagination. Rather, the obstacles on both sides can be grouped into three relatively mundane categories: bureaucratic, cultural, and strategic. Bureaucratic complexity is the most commonly cited problem, not just by Tokyo but also by Delhi. Despite strong political will on both sides, the slow-moving machineries of the two states have yet to become intimately acquainted. For example, Japanese economic officials, who are keen to begin a programme of transferring clean technologies to India in exchange for carbon credits, remain unsure of which Indian agency — between the ministries of external affairs, environment, coal, and renewable energy — might have the most authority on this file.
“ The obstacles between India and Japan can be grouped into three relatively mundane categories: bureaucratic, cultural and strategic ”
Cultural factors coupled with poor communication have also been a major impediment. India’s efforts at securing the supply of Japan’s world class US-2 amphibious aircraft and at concluding a civilian nuclear deal, similar to those with the United States and Russia, have yielded limited results due to Japan’s unique legal and normative approaches to militarism and the use of force since World War II. Similarly, Japanese companies struggle to decipher and navigate India’s business culture and regulatory environment, a skill that their Korean counterparts have mastered over the last two decades. Finally, more commonplace reasons of strategy also keep India and Japan from deeper cooperation. Both countries have an interest in countering China’s rise without provoking conflict or any form of escalation. Consequently, neither is willing to commit to the types of security cooperation that one might find in other strategic relationships like the U.S.-Japan alliance. For its part, Beijing keeps a close eye on evolving India-Japan ties and aims in the long term to prevent an excessively warm embrace between two of its rivals.
Taking all of these factors into consideration, in order to convert their statements and declarations into action, India and Japan need to reorient and streamline their bureaucratic engagements (the new Japan cell in the Indian Prime Minister’s office is a welcome step), develop creative second-best strategies that account for cultural differences and blind spots, and devise ways in which they might grow the relationship while maintaining steady engagement with Beijing. Numerous initiatives to move the bilateral relationship forward are on the docket, but their implementation will require real effort and will depend on more than the goodwill between the two Prime Ministers.
(Rohan Mukherjee is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Politics at Princeton University and Anthony Yazaki is a Research Fellow at the United Nations University in Tokyo.)