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Fear of China is pushing India and Japan into each other’s arms

Tonmughal prince In 1659, Dara Shikoh was beheaded after publishing a scandalous book, “Where Two Seas Meet”, in which he discovered a spiritual affinity between Hinduism and Islam. In 2007, then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe borrowed the title of the book to deliver a rousing speech in the Indian Parliament in which he called for the Indian and Pacific Oceans to be considered a strategic space and demanded that Japan and India recognize their common interests. These ideas are the basis for a broad Indo-Pacific view of Asian security that is now widely embraced by Western strategists. “Without Japan-India relations, there is no Indo-Pacific region,” said Kenneth Juster, the US ambassador to India from 2017 to 2021. “This relationship is critical to why we have this concept and to the future of the region.”

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Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida endorsed this during his two-day visit to Delhi on March 20. “India is where the free and open Indo-Pacific comes into being,” he declared. Asia’s largest democracy and wealthiest nation are on opposite sides in the Cold War. But over the past fifteen years, they have vastly improved diplomatic, economic and security ties. Their goal is to create a democratic balance of power in China.As Mr Kishida and Narendra Modi also highlighted in Delhi, their progress will be notable in this year’s international diplomacy, which Japan will host G7 and India G20. The Japanese and Indian leaders have spoken of efforts to improve coordination between the two blocs.

Leaders attend the annual bilateral summit; this is Mr Kishida’s second visit to Delhi in two years (see chart). Japan is a big investor in India’s accelerated infrastructure development. Last year, Mr Kishida pledged to invest an additional 5 trillion yen ($42 billion) in Japan over the next five years. India and Japan, along with the US and Australia, are members of the Quadderlateral Security Dialogue, or “Quad”, a once-off-and-off group that resumed in 2017. The Indian and Japanese armed forces have been exercising together with increasing frequency; they conducted their first joint jet fighter exercise earlier this year.

This close relationship is based more on shared fears than shared values. Both countries have longstanding territorial disputes with an increasingly aggressive China – India along its northern land border and Japan over the uninhabited Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea. Both countries are wary of China’s growing influence in their wider region and what that means for the sea lines of communication that both rely on. Both see the other as central to addressing the security challenges posed by China.

For Japan, which initiated bilateral détente in the early 2000s, early recognition of India’s potential made this conclusion clearer. “We believe that India will become a great power in the future,” said Masafumi Ishii, a former Japanese diplomat. “It’s safe to say that China is the biggest challenge for India, as it is for Japan.”

There are some useful grounds for this partnership. Officials from both countries pointed to their shared Buddhist heritage. In 1948, Indian judge Radhabinod Pal cast the sole dissenting vote in the Tokyo trials, in which the leader of the Japanese empire was convicted of war crimes and became a nationalist hero crime. (In 2007, Abe visited Mr Parr’s descendants after his “Two Seas” speech.) There are some personal ties between the two elites: Jaishankar, India’s influential foreign minister, is married to a Japanese woman, Kyoko.

More importantly, decades of Japanese investment and aid (mainly low-cost loans) have given Indians a positive view of Japan. According to a poll by the Pew Research Center, Indians rate Japan two to one positively — more positively than they view any major country other than the United States. Christopher Johnstone of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington said the U.S. could be polarizing in Indian politics while Japan was not.

As Mr Kishida drives around Delhi this week, he will see streets teeming with Japanese influence.Indian officials tend to favor big Toyota vans and SUVSecond. By far the most common cars on the capital’s roads are handsome Maruti Suzukis, weaving through traffic at an upbeat pace. Suzuki, a Japanese company that entered the Indian market in the 1980s through a joint venture with the country’s government, still accounts for more than 40% of car sales in India.

Japan’s imprint extends underground: Delhi’s subway was built with Japanese help. Japanese firms are also helping to plan a high-speed rail link between Mumbai and Ahmedabad in Modi’s home state of Gujarat, a central project for the Indian prime minister. They also help build infrastructure in India’s long-neglected northeast — in part to counter China’s growing involvement in the region, said Horimoto Takenori, a Japanese scholar on India.

Yet while all countries have overlapping interests, in some respects their relationship is struggling to live up to its potential. India-Japan trade and investment is far from what was once envisioned – despite the seemingly complementary nature of a young, developing, labor-abundant India and an aging, technologically advanced, capital-rich Japan. In 2006, Abe envisioned that Japan’s trade with India could exceed its trade with the US and China within a decade.

But by 2022, China will account for 24% of Japan’s imports and 22% of exports; India will only account for 0.8% of Japan’s imports and 1.7% of exports. In 2014, during Abe’s second term in office, he and Modi vowed to double the number of Japanese companies in India within five years. But in 2019, that number has grown from 1,156 to just 1,454. (There were more than 13,000 Japanese companies in China that year.)

Abe also failed to persuade India to join the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a key Asian trade pact in which China is a member. Even now, as investors seek to diversify away from China, it is shocking how few Japanese companies are involved in key industries in India, such as ports, airports and energy, argues Dhruva Jaishankar of the US-based Observer Research Foundation. The foundation is the US arm of a Delhi-based think tank. (Su Jaishankar is the son of India’s foreign minister.)

much less than abe wants

In terms of defense and security, the relationship between the two countries is not what it seems. Over the past decade, Japan and India have signed several defense equipment transfer agreements. But there is little actual cooperation between their defense branches. Japan’s attempt to attract interest in the new amphibious aircraft has failed as India considers it too expensive. India’s plan to acquire Japanese submarines has failed because Japan hesitated to transfer technology. Although the two militaries have been exercising together more often, their initial exercises have been more about getting to know each other than serious preparations for either side to provide military assistance to the other.

This partly reflects different military priorities. While India and Japan share concerns about China, “the nature of the concern is different,” said Masahiro Kurita of the National Institute for Defense Research in Tokyo. China’s main challenge to Japan is at sea. India shares a 3,440-kilometer (2,100-mile) border with China, much of which is disputed, and is more concerned about a possible land battle.

The poor bilateral performance has been particularly frustrating for Japan. It’s “a bit worn out by the slow pace of strategic change in India”, said Michael Green of the Center for American Studies at the University of Sydney. “India has been replaced by Australia as Japan’s dancing calling card.” Last year, Japan and Australia signed an agreement to improve defense cooperation.The United States has also been reducing its pressure on the Quartet and placing more emphasis on Oaks, An ambitious new alliance between the US, Australia and the UK aims to build a fleet of nuclear submarines capable of countering China in the Pacific.

Even Tokyo’s optimists see engagement with India as a long-term investment with uncertain returns. “We knew they were going to be a very difficult superpower – like a big France,” said Kanehara Nobukatsu, Abe’s former deputy national security adviser. India’s position on the war in Ukraine illustrates this point. Japan stands with the United States and other Western allies against Russian aggression, a stance reiterated by Mr Kishida this week. He traveled from Delhi to Kiev to meet the Ukrainian president. India maintains close ties with Russia, the source of most of its energy and most of its arms imports, and has remained neutral. In September 2022, it joined China in Russia’s Vostok naval exercises, which bypassed a group of Russian-controlled islands that Japan claims northeast of Hokkaido.

India, for its part, has long been frustrated with Japan’s restrictive immigration policies. “The lack of human-to-human communication is a huge gap,” said Ajai Shukla, a security analyst in Delhi. In 2021, the two countries agreed to cooperate on a new Japanese foreign worker program. However, visas are limited to 14 occupations and are mostly limited to five years of stay without family. The resulting lack of a large Indian diaspora in Japan has made it harder for India to develop deep ties with the US, UK and some Gulf states, to which Indians have immigrated for decades.

The relationship also lost an important personal element when its chief architect, Abe, was assassinated last summer. “Modi doesn’t have many friends abroad, but Abe is an exception,” lamented Dr. Horimoto. In Delhi this week, Mr Kishida sought to further the bilateral pathway paved by his predecessor by inviting Mr Modi to a G7 summit in Hiroshima in May.Japan wants its turn to run G7 Promote linkages with developing countries and see India as an important channel. “Without India, we cannot participate in the Global South,” Mr Kanehara said.

It’s a testament to how far this relationship has come, despite its shortcomings in every way. Asia’s democracies are increasingly united across the region’s two oceans. India and Japan lie at their southwestern and northeastern extremities—fears of Chinese assertiveness lie at the intersection.

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