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The India-Japan Partnership: Asia’s New Allies?

Traditionally, India and Japan have always enjoyed strong relations. Today, their positive relationship is underpinned by a common respect for each other’s domestic and foreign grand strategies, while sharing China as a common foe.

Japan and India’s economic partnership appears to be heading towards a prosperous future.

During the 8th Japan-India Foreign Ministers Strategic Dialogue in January 2015, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida named India as the ‘most promising destination’ for foreign investment. As such, Japan aims to double its direct investment into India to about $34 billion USD and to double the number of Japanese companies operating in India within the next five years. 2014 already saw a 15% increase in the number of Japanese companies, which builds on steadily growing figures seen in recent years. Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi makes an attractive pitch to Japanese investors with the ‘democracy, demography, demand’ tagline, alongside the allure of low-cost production capacity.

In September 2014, Modi’s maiden visit to Tokyo secured crucial Japanese support in developing much-needed infrastructure projects in India. Japan has committed to assist in building the Western Dedicated Freight Corridor and the Ahmedabad to Mumbai high-speed rail. These projects will bring major improvements for mobilising India’s financial and construction resources, meaning improved opportunities for all.

Furthermore, in 2015, both countries reaffirmed their commitment to Japan’s investment in overland infrastructure in India’s northeast region, in particular in the Sino-Indian disputed region of Arunachal Pradesh. China has already built infrastructure on its own side of the border to validate its utility for the Chinese people. Japan’s investment in bolstering India’s territorial claim comes as no surprise, as it also shares sensitive territorial disputes with China along with historically quarrelsome relations.

In the strategic domain, Modi’s maiden visit to Tokyo in September 2014 upgraded their bilateral status to the level of Special Strategic Global Partnership’, where the two countries signed a Memorandum of Cooperation and Exchanges in the Field of Defence, stressing a common commitment to maritime security, the regularity of maritime exercises, cooperation on non-traditional security matters including disaster relief and counterterrorism, Japan’s continued participation in the India-US Malabar exercises, and heightened collaboration in developing defence technology and equipment.

India’s Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar’s visit to Tokyo in April 2015 saw the two countries affirm the trading of military technology and equipment as the mainstay of their defence partnership. India’s purchase of US-2 Amphibious Aircrafts from Japan is, no doubt, conducted on geostrategic grounds. India Strategic has reported the aircraft is designed to ‘spearhead any littoral warfare operations in the Indian Ocean Region.’

On the same visit, Parrikar declared India’s readiness to acquire Japan’s Soryu-class diesel nonnuclear submarines in an effort to modernise India’s sorely outdated submarine fleet – half of which currently lack capacity to respond to the growing number of contingencies in the Indian Ocean. Japan’s role as a provider of military equipment is becoming integral to the modernisation of the Indian Army (IA), as India’s strategic ambitions grow to complement its economic prowess.

Japan’s generous outreach to India is contributing to the latter’s rise as a regional power. Modi reciprocates this support by nurturing Japan’s ‘Proactive Contribution to Peace’ policy to enable Tokyo’s active role in regional defence. Simultaneously, India and Japan are keenly enhancing bilateralism with a range of other countries. Modi has kept busy in bolstering defence cooperation with Singapore, the US, Israel, France, and Russia. Meanwhile, Shinzo Abe has recently made strategic strides with Australia, the Philippines, and Indonesia.

While enhanced Indo-Japan cooperation may be one of many expanding relationships, it is more likely that Japan and India perceive one another as ‘the other two’ regional powers deserving of clout beyond the Sino-US fixation. During his 2014 visit to Tokyo, Modi asserted: “The whole world accepts that the 21st century will belong to Asia. But I have a question. How should the 21st century be? We have to give an answer to this. It will depend on how deep and progressive our relationship (between India and Japan) is.”

Consequently, it is no coincidence that even Australia is now pursuing regional influence developing its partnership with these two regional powers. In early June, Australia participated in the inaugural India-Japan-Australia trilateral dialogue in Delhi focusing on expanding economic cooperation and maritime security, where trilateral naval exercises were canvassed as a future possibility.

It is likely that India and Japan will continue to collaborate as regional leaders in the balance against China, with continued support from middle powers in ASEAN and Australia, in an attempt to weaken band wagoning with the US. This forthcoming alliance is the culmination of symmetrical grand strategies based on balancing a common foe and asserting their position in the Asian Century as strategically self-sufficient regional powers.

Sophie Qin is the Indo-Pacific Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.

This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence. Please email for more information.

Image Credit: Narendra Modi: "PM and Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe, at the Restricted Meeting, at Akasaka Palace, Tokyo" (Flickr: Creative Commons)

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