Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe walk through a garden before lunch in Yamanakako village, Yamanashi prefecture, on October 28, 2018. Photo: The Yomiuri Shimbun

A conventional narrative has often suggested that the China factor is what primarily unites India and Japan at present. Notwithstanding the significance of such an assertion, it is Asia’s geopolitical narrative, geographical closeness and natural political synergy that brings India and Japan together, with China being only one of many factors. The furthering of such holistic ties can be greatly credited to Japan’s outgoing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. 

In his historic speech titled “Confluence of the Two Seas” at the Indian Parliament in 2007, Abe marked the onset of Japan’s Indo-Pacific focus by stating that the “Pacific and Indian Oceans [were] now bringing about a dynamic coupling as seas of freedom and of prosperity,” in line with an evolving “Broader Asia” that was breaking away from geographical restraints.

Furthermore, he highlighted that in Japan’s vision for creating an “Arc of Freedom and Prosperity” along the rim of Eurasia, India’s and Japan’s “Strategic Global Partnership” was absolutely vital.

To Indian audiences, Abe gradually emerged as a distinct international personality. As Sanjay Baru, the media adviser to former Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh, rightly predicted in his piece “The Importance of Shinzo Abe” in December 2012, “Shinzo Abe is not just another prime minister in a country where prime ministers come by the dozen.”

To this end, Abe frequently cited his own personal links and deep connection with India and vowed to remain a “friend of India for life.”

Moreover, he and Prime Minister Narendra Modi have built strong personal camaraderie and friendship

This camaraderie was evident, as Sujan R Chinoy, India’s former ambassador to Japan once wrote, “PM Modi was the first foreign dignitary to be invited by PM Abe to his private family retreat nestled amidst sylvan woodlands at the foot of Mount Fuji.”

Growing ties under Abe’s tenure 

Under Abe, India-Japan ties have grown progressively stronger: from engaging in military exercises (such as the Malabar and Japan-India Maritime Exercises) to establishing top-level security dialogues multilaterally (such as the Quad 2.0 grouping, which is largely attributed to Abe’s determination) and bilaterally (in the form of 2+2 Foreign and Defense Ministerial meetings).

The Japan-America-India (JAI) and Australia-Japan-India (AJI) trilaterals have only added to their bilateral relationship while reinforcing the Quad 2.0 narrative. 

In keeping with their Indo-Pacific focus, Abe and Modi have promoted shared goals of creating a rules-based, free and open maritime domain that is anchored to ASEAN’s centrality. Japan’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) strategy has thus found synergy with India’s vision of an “inclusive” Indo-Pacific order – opening up multiple avenues for deeper engagement.

In the defense sector, this cooperation has been actualized through extensive exchanges between the Indian military (Army, Navy and Air Force) and the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (Ground, Maritime and Air).

Furthermore, collaborations under India’s Act East Policy (AEP) and Japan’s “Expanded Partnership for Quality Infrastructure” (EPQI) have led to constructive infrastructural cooperation in Northeast India and connectivity ambitions vis-à-vis Africa.

India-Japan ties have flourished in the economic sectors as well. The importance that Abe attaches to Tokyo’s India ties is well evidenced by the fact that Japan has emerged as India’s third-largest investor with a total FDI (foreign direct investment) inflow of US$30.75 billion from 2000-19. Over the past few years, Japanese investments have grown (from $1.6 billion in fiscal 2017-18 to almost $3 billion in 2018-19) and become increasingly diverse

Nonetheless, despite such advances, the India-Japan partnership is yet to be fully realized and achieve its true “global” potential. In light of Abe’s resignation as prime minister, this raises a key question for the future of India-Japan ties: Will their bilateral relationship continue to prosper under his successor and if so, in which areas can the two states pursue enhanced engagement? 

Need for Eurasian synergy

First, India-Japan ties lack critical synergy over their Eurasia ambitions; the global nature of their relations can only be achieved if the focus on Eurasia progresses in parallel to the Indo-Pacific.

At the 23rd International Conference on the Future of Asia, Abe claimed that achieving “Asia’s dream” was possible via “linking the Pacific and Eurasia” driven by “Asian dynamism.” Nonetheless, economic cooperation in Eurasia focused on India’s and Japan’s shared interests has been missing. Such synergy could prove to be vital in balancing China’s Eurasia arc known as the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB).

Closer cooperation with Russia, which is looking for new partners for its Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), in light of Moscow’s growing apprehension over the political clout the SREB will give China in Russia’s sphere of dominance, is a prospect New Delhi and Tokyo must incentivize. 

Abe was unable to rekindle and revamp the “Eurasian diplomacy” introduced by former Japanese prime minister Ryutaro Hashimoto that was fairly successful in improving Japan-Russia ties despite territorial disputes. Consequently, Abe’s successor must focus on balancing China’s Eurasia presence by reviving Japan’s own “Silk Road Diplomacy” and Hashimoto’s “Eurasia Diplomacy” under Tokyo’s “Central Asia plus Japan” framework.

This will draw synergy with India’s “Connect Central Asia” policy and allow for major third-country cooperation between India-Japan in Central Asia and Europe, expanding their “strategic” partnership beyond the Indo-Pacific into a more “global” domain.

The creation of an India-Japan-European Union framework can also be considered, since they already share common platforms in such organizations as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Concretizing a continental profile

Second, Japan’s and India’s bid for permanent membership in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) along with Brazil and Germany under Group of Four (G-4) has been consistently undermined by the strong opposition from the “Coffee Club.” This so-called club is a group of 40-odd middle-power states resisting UNSC bids by regional powers.

In this respect, New Delhi and Tokyo have failed to revise their UNSC bids to take on a more bilateral momentum that forms an asymmetric alignment, presenting fresh Asia-driven perspectives for the UNSC (more so recommended post-Covid). 

Furthermore, India-Japan’s ambitions in Africa have added importance vis-à-vis their UNSC goals, highlighting dangers of China’s growing political clout in that continent, as African nations historically constitute a major voting bloc in the UN.

Both states already have a joint “low profile” venture in this area: the “Platform for Japan-India Business Cooperation in Asia-Africa Region,” which grew from the modified Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC) that was co-envisaged under their “Joint Statement on India and Japan Vision 2025.” To what extent the post-Abe leadership in Tokyo will look at this aspect remains to be seen. 

Standing guard regionally 

Third, notwithstanding the “special” connotation acquired in their partnership, Modi and Abe have been largely lukewarm in creating a truly united front in the South and East China Seas. A revisit by India of its SCS policy (and larger China policy) is being discussed, especially if Beijing’s aggressive pressure continues.

Although both countries have individually begun investing in enhanced ASEAN ties with a focus on SCS claimant nations such as Vietnam and the Philippines, their bilateral cooperation as to their commercial and geopolitical interests in the maritime region remain largely unexplored

Deeper engagement in this regard is critically dependent on a “global” growth in India and Japan’s maritime, defense and economic synergy – which must take precedence for Abe’s successor.

This could be achieved by aiding Japan’s search for first-strike capability to prepare for a stronger defense force; proceeding with militarization of foreign policy ambits as envisioned by Abe; supporting the Quad 2.0 mechanism, “Quad Plus” structure and Australian inclusion in Malabar; and leading defense pacts and alliances (such as “Five Eyes”) with Indo-Pacific allies and ASEAN.

The US-Japan-Australia led Blue Dot Network (BDN) and India’s potential inclusion in the same could also further economic and connectivity collaboration on maritime disputes. 

Besides, post-Abe Japan and India under Modi need to figure out how to shape the Quad process further. Japan under Abe invested a lot to help the process gain a serious shape. Periodic meetings among the Quad officials have brought some momentum to the process. Abe’s departure from Tokyo’s top office will certainly come as a political setback to the entire process since it was he who actually convinced India and Australia of the merits of the Quad. 

Given China’s military posturing in the Indian border region, New Delhi’s “multi-aligned” foreign policy seems to be turning gradually to a “pointed-alignment” strategy, with India investing in serious security partnerships with the US, Japan and Australia. Abe’s departure will certainly create doubts in India on various security issues. New Delhi will be searching for a similar level of confidence in Japan’s new leadership that it gained during Abe’s tenure. 

Taking economic multilateralism forward

Fourth, despite Abe’s efforts to promote economic multilateralism against the backdrop of a revisionist China, the full potential of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) remains untapped with New Delhi’s consistent refusal to join.

In this regard, much like the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) that Tokyo led after the United States’ withdrawal from the original TPP and hopes India will one day consider joining (a distant dream for New Delhi, though), Abe’s successor must develop stronger India-Japan economic multilateralism links.

A part of this will be to negotiate an RCEP agreement that benefits India equally with the other partners and addresses India’s concerns over trade imbalances and protecting vulnerable sectors.

India’s potential inclusion is critical for the agreement’s success: Both Japan and ASEAN states see it as a crucial participant. India’s continued interest in the Southeast Asian region is indicative that it might be persuaded to come back to the table. While ASEAN is already planning on this, a post-Abe Japan must lead such efforts to further its global economic interests.

With Australia, India and Japan engaging in talks to build a new supply-chain network post-Covid to limit Chinese dominance, post-Abe India-Japan ties must focus on broader economic areas of synergy. Japan must realize India’s potential as an emerging global power, rather than only an Indo-Pacific power, and work toward exploring new avenues for collaboration to this end. 

Shaping defense ties

Last, Abe has revitalized the debate on Japan’s need for a new security outlook, moving away from “passive” toward “active” pacifism, wherein India is a key partner. Nonetheless, their defense partnership has not grown at par with broader India-Japan maturation of ties and must be acutely focused upon.

Japan’s 2020 Defense White Paper has espoused “advancing bilateral security cooperation” with India. For this, Abe’s successor must proceed urgently in finalizing the India-Japan Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA) to boost military interoperability.

India and Japan can also find synergy and accentuate their defense manufacturing ties as New Delhi accelerates its “Make in India” movement and Tokyo moves away from the “Three Principles Exports Ban” to enter the global arms market and optimize defense procurement. 

Conclusively, with such shortcomings existing during Abe’s tenure, the gap will likely to only expand after his resignation. Political elites in both Japan and India have time and again pursued a “China appeasement” policy, overtly or covertly. Neither Japan nor India has yet openly taken an anti-China position on conflicted subjects, building a bilateral synergy. In this regard, both sides have maintained a lukewarm posture to counter a rising Chinese challenge to their land or maritime domains. 

India found in Abe’s Japan a major economic and strategic ally. Abe championed India-Japan bilateral and multilateral synergy while nurturing a great friendship between the two like-minded nations.

However, whether this synergy can survive will depend on his successor’s outlook: Will India continue to occupy a position next to the US in Japanese foreign policy? Will the incumbent leadership see India as a global partner instead of an Indo-Pacific one? And will post-Abe Japan strengthen its shared commitment to FOIP over and above its ties with China? 

If Japan’s priorities are centered on amassing international rapport, domestic confidence and economic balance, India-Japan ties will likely continue along the existing trajectory and be left institutionalized. However, this may only limit a realization of their dormant promise of a “global” connect.

To ensure a dynamic relationship with a post-Abe Japan, India too must instigate active outreach and build on their deep friendship. The forthcoming India-Japan leadership summit must have a holistic overview on the future of their partnership. 

This is the final article of a three-part series on Japan after Shinzo Abe. The first part of the series examined the likely fate of Japan’s Indo-Pacific activism, and the second part analyzed what Japan’s China policy will be post-Abe.

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Jagannath Panda

Jagannath Panda is a research fellow and center coordinator for East Asia at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. He is the series editor for Routledge Studies on Think Asia.