india-japan strategic partnership and the multipower order

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The Indian Prime Minister (PM), Narendra Modi successfully concluded his two-day visit to Japan on November 29. Japanese PM Shinzo Abe and PM Modi may interact with each other in various international forums in the coming months. But this may probably be the last annual bilateral summit between the two leaders before the commencement of general elections in India in a few months. Both premiers have invested heavily in the bilateral relationship and made sustained efforts to push their respective bureaucracies to catch up with their vision.

In the recent past, there been a remarkable transformation in the bilateral relationship and the two countries have emerged as genuine strategic partners in the Indo-Pacific. Sometimes, the concept ‘strategic partnership’ is casually deployed to define any and every relationship. However, a relationship in international politics becomes ‘strategic’ when it has an impact on the overall balance-of-power in a region. This balance-of-power is often impacted by the changes in the capabilities of nation-states. The India-Japan strategic partnership is playing out in conceptual, strategic and in economic realms.

Both countries were successful in pushing the spatial constructs such as the ‘Indo-Pacific’ into the discourses on international politics. There may be quibbles on the boundaries of the Indo-Pacific, but it appears that geographic construct is here to stay. Tokyo and Delhi also share similar strategic objectives, which include the creation of a robust multipower Asian order and thriving open sea lanes of communication in the region. Consequently, the maritime cooperation between the two countries is gaining momentum. During the recent bilateral summit, both countries agreed to scale up cooperation on Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA), decided to develop the smart islands, initiated a 2+2 dialogue involving foreign/defence ministers and commenced negotiations on Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA).

In the economic realm, Japan is the third largest investor in India, with Mauritius and Singapore taking the top two positions. SinceMauritius is a mere platform through which investment gets funnelled, Japan can be considered as one of the top two investors in India. Strategic considerations also drive Japanese assistance to India on connectivity projects. Japanese assistance on Aizawl-Tuipang (NH-54) road in Mizoram will strengthen the Kaladan Multi-Modal project that traverses through Myanmar. Similarly, the India-Japan collaboration on strengthening Tura-Dalu (NH-51) and Shillong-Dawki (NH-40) in Meghalaya has the potential to improve connectivity with Bangladesh. Further, Japanese assistance is also expected for the construction of Dhubri/Phulbari bridge project, which once completed will be the longest bridge in India.

Collaboration between the two countries is increasingly acquiring a third country dimension. The recent Vision Statement issued after the summit meeting refers to the growing synergistic collaboration between the two countries in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Africa. This expanding India-Japan strategic partnership will have to navigate complex challenges carefully viz., China and under par defence industry cooperation.

An important challenge for India-Japan strategic partnership is less than satisfactory cooperation in defence equipment and technology segment. Japan historically followed a very restrictive defenceexport policy. However, it was only in 2014 that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe eased restrictions on defence exports. As a consequence, the institutional/procedural frameworks and culture of aggressively promoting defence exports are still evolving. Nonetheless, a true strategic partnership mandates closer defence equipment and technological cooperation.

Indian premier’s visit to Tokyo was preceded by PM Shinzo Abe’s historic visit to Beijing for a summit meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Even prior to the visit, the Japanese leadership has stated that they are looking forward to participating in the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The evolving Japanese accommodative stance towards BRI seems to be a consequence of four factors. First, PM Shinzo Abe’s need to maintain intra-party unity by co-opting factions that call for increased economic engagement of China. Second, the participation of some Japanese companies in BRI projects albeit on a low-key and their desire for enhanced participation in Chinese initiatives. Third, the need to insulate Japan from a negative fallout of US-China trade war. Fourth, growing perception of unpredictability in the US foreign policy under President Trump, and his preference for quick bilateral negotiations instead of multilateral conversations.

While the Japanese compulsions to participate in the BRI could be many, there is a concern in the Indian strategic community that precisely at a time when BRI projects are witnessing a pushback in many Asian countries, Japan’s willingness to participate in the BRI would accord the initiative with an unwarranted legitimacy and renewed momentum. Nonetheless, there is also recognition in New Delhi that it would be unwise to indulge in hasty pronouncements till there is clarity as to whether the statements on BRI by Japanese leaders constitute a mere short-term tactical shift or if they amount to a long-term strategic shift. From the perspective of some Japanese scholars, India is also working to improve the relationship with China as was evident during the Wuhan Summit earlier this year. Hence, there is no need to see the Japan-China and India-Japan bilateral relationships in zero-sum frameworks.

These developments point to the fact that the international politics is not witnessing the return of a new Cold War, with China and other democratic countries locked in a gladiatorial conflict. We are in a multipower order and countries are constantly exploring the economic benefits in their interactions with each other. However, as Kenneth Waltz noted in 1964 “in a multipower world…the dangersare diffused, responsibilities unclear, and definition of vital interests easily obscured,” which makes such an order inherently unstable. Therefore, in the interest of maintaining the stability of the multipower order, India and Japan should clearly define as well as communicate their interests and responsibilities with each other.

- By Sanjay Pulipaka

(The author works as Senior Fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML), New Delhi. The views expressed here are personal.)

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