Japan draws India closer amid escalating power politics

Author: Chietigj Bajpaee, King’s College London

The renewed polarization of the international system following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the escalating strategic rivalry between the United States and China are increasing the pressure on other countries to choose sides. But despite this return to a “with us or against us” narrative, Japan and India, as budding global powers, are well placed to bring a much-needed non-Western perspective to discussions of the emerging world order.

In this context, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s visit to India in March 2022 takes on additional significance beyond the bilateral agreements that were reached, which included 5 trillion yen ($42 billion) of Japanese investment in India and in the India-Japan Clean Energy Partnership. The broader strategic significance of Kishida’s visit lies in his reaffirmation of Japan’s role as a shaper of India’s regional engagement and broader global outlook.

This year marks the third decade of India’s “Look East” policy – renamed “Act East” in 2014 – which is rooted in New Delhi’s efforts to reorient and strengthen the country’s post-Cold War eastward engagement. Japan has played a key role as a facilitator of this process by supporting India’s membership in regional forums, such as the East Asia Summit, and by investing in infrastructure linking the India and East Asia, especially in the northeast and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

Tokyo has also taken more indirect steps to facilitate India’s regional engagement. For example, Japan was one of the first countries to expand the strategic geography of Asia, which drew India deeper into the regional architecture. It started in 2007 with former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe “Confluence of the Two Seas” speech, which evoked the prospect of a “wider Asia” anchored in the “dynamic coupling” of the Indian and Pacific oceans and pursued under various Japanese storiesmore recently the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”.

Japan has also sought to induce India to adhere to some extent to its commitment to free trade. Tokyo encourages New Delhi to join the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) trade agreement, from which it withdrew in 2019. While India maintains a aversion to join RCEP, fearing it would accelerate China’s growth penetration of the Indian market, its protectionist sentiment has softened somewhat, as illustrated by its recent conclusion of trade agreements with the United Arab Emirates in February and Australia in April 2022.

Underlying these developments is a mutual aversion to the emergence of a China-centric regional and global order. This has manifested itself in the development of joint Indo-Japanese initiatives, such as the Supply Chain Resilience Initiative, which aims to build the resilience of regional supply chains by diversifying them to avoid overreliance on China. India was also included in the program of the Japanese government. “Out of China” list of countries, under which Japanese manufacturers are eligible for subsidies to move production out of China. If successful, these efforts will strengthen networks between Japan, India and the rest of Asia.

While Indo-Japanese collaboration is rooted in the Indo-Pacific, it increasingly extends beyond Asia. This was reflected in the Joint statement which was concluded between the two countries during Kishida’s visit, which builds on their “Special Strategic and Global Partnership”. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi also Noted that the strengthening of the bilateral partnership “will promote peace, prosperity and stability in the Indo-Pacific region and in the world”.

In this context, the Russian invasion of Ukraine emerges as a key driver of changing global prospects for Japan and India, as both countries have been forced to reassess their relationship with Moscow. Russia suspended efforts to reach a post-World War II peace treaty with Japan to resolve their long-standing issue territorial dispute on the southern Kuril Islands (which Japan claims as the Northern Territories) after Tokyo imposed punishments on Russia and provided military aid to Ukraine. India’s public stocks have been less decisive given its deep relations with Moscow and its dependence on Russian military equipment and oil importsbut questions are raised on the usefulness of close relations with Russia in the context of Moscow’s growing dependence on China.

The situation in Ukraine was a major talking point during Kishida and Modi’s meeting. This comes as India has been labeled a ‘precarious’ member of the Quad after being the the intruder regarding his position on Russia. As such, Japan plays a key role in shaping India’s global outlook – in this case, seeking to ensure that New Delhi remains aligned with other Quad member states on Russia.

Both Japan and India have always maintained self-imposed restrictions in the conduct of their foreign policies fueled by their ideological inclinations – namely, Japan pacifist constitution and India’s longstanding commitment to misalignment and its more recent manifestation of ‘strategic autonomy’. But recent developments have prompted both countries to abandon their timidity and develop more proactive foreign policies.

Skirmishes along the Sino-Indian border in 2020 pushed India to relax its omni-alignment posture, which implied maintaining equidistant relations with all the poles of influence of the international system. Evidenced by New Delhi’s renewed enthusiasm for the Quad and the recent sale of the Brahmos supersonic cruise missile system in the Philippines, which aims to strengthen coastal defense capabilities in the face of Chinese assertion in the South China Sea. Despite being firmly entrenched in the US-led alliance system, Japan is seeking to develop its own voice on regional and global affairs, enabled by a constitutional reinterpretation to facilitate limited forms of ‘collective self-defense‘.

As Japan prepares to host the Quad Summit in May 2022 and India takes a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council and prepares to assume the G20 presidency for the first time, the two countries are uniquely placed to participate in and shape key debates on global governance issues. This takes on new importance in a context of renewed rivalry between the major world powers, a climate of protectionism and the emergence of a less Western-centric form of globalization.

Chietigj Bajpaee is a PhD candidate in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London on a joint King’s-National University of Singapore Fellowship and has previously worked with several public policy think tanks and consultancies in risk management in Europe, the United States and Asia. He is author of China in India’s post-Cold War engagement with Southeast Asia (Routledge, 2022).

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