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Indo-Japanese Relations; Bedrock of Asian Multiplicity; By Dr. Sudhir Singh

Picture Courtesy: Tehelka

Article No. 0085/2017

Japanese PM Shinzo Abe has concluded his Ahmedabad visit in September 2017. He met PM Modi and had a summit level talk with him. PM Abe and PM Modi signed off on a multitude of infrastructure projects including a few in the Northeast. China has cautioned India against commencing construction of any new structures on the disputed border in Arunachal Pradesh. He also participated in the foundation ceremony of the Mumbai-Ahmedabad high speed rail project, widely known as the Bullet train, which will begin operating in 2022. The foundation stone for the Mumbai-Ahmedabad High Speed Railway Project ( MAHSR), laid on September 14 by the two prime ministers, is a huge stride in integrating India and Japan and cultivating a sustainable economic relationship. This project will cost a whooping Rs. 1.1 lakh crore for which Japan will dole out Rs. 88,000 crore as soft loans, generating headlines in both the Indian and Chinese media. Prior to this, Japan had already supported Delhi Metro, which has been a successful experience.

China was also a contender to set up an HSR project and was embittered by the deal with Japan. Besides that the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) has upgraded its office in New Delhi. JICA is today the largest bilateral donor agency in India, having disbursed over Rs. 1.5 lakh crore of soft loans to India since 2007-8. Out of the 150 countries that JICA operates in, India is its biggest recipient. The recent visit was the 10th meeting with PM Modi and his Japanese counterpart PM Abe since 2014, when Modi arrived in power. JICA has surpassed World Bank and ADB in seamlessly executing large infrastructure projects in India. Expanding cooperation with Japan has bipartisan support in India. HSR feasibility studies were completed by the UPA government (2004-2014). HSR is just one project but JICA ‘s penetration is deep and wide. Over 10 Japanese industrial townships are to be built in four states, including Gujarat, Maharastra, Tamilnadu & Rajasthan.

According to Japan Times “For Japan, which is locked in a strategic rivalry with China for commercial contracts abroad, the Indian project marks a hard-fought victory as companies including Siemens AG, Bombardier Inc., Alstom and, lately, CRRC compete in a global market projected by BCC Research to be worth about $133 billion by 2019.”[1] But India is also set to gain. It will not only enhance the business environment but also showcase India as a global power. It will also provide employment and facilitate business and mark significant changes in India’s perception as an industrial hub of the emerging world.

Both PM’s have decided to expand their cooperation. They are working together in Iran and parts of Afghanistan and now intend to work in Africa. India and Japan are all set to work together in Africa , the ASEAN region and India’s Northeast as a part of the $ 40 billion Asia-Africa Growth Corridor ( AAGC ) program, widely perceived as a countermeasure to China’s One Road One Belt (OBOR). The Chinese media has expressed its apprehension about this project in the aftermath of PM Abe September visit.

However Indo-Japanese relations are millennia old. Exchange between Japan and India is said to have begun in the 6th century when Buddhism was introduced to Japan. Indian culture, embedded in Buddhism, has had a great impact on Japanese culture, and this is the source of the Japanese people’s sense of amity with India. Post the cold war, the prevailing security architecture in Asia has urged India and Japan to come closer. The Post Cold War scenario has witnessed a tectonic shift in international politics, with the Asian continent having emerged as the theater of global politics.

Certainly, two Asian economic and military giants –Japan and India – are seen to play a crucial role in shaping the world order in the 21st century. In fact, since the beginning of the current century, India and Japan have taken a plethora of initiatives to transform their bilateral ties. Consequently, bilateral trade between the two countries was $ 18.51 billion in 2012-13. Bilateral trade has however declined to $ 13.48 billion in 2016-17. For perspective, India-Japan bilateral trade constitutes just around 1% of Japan’s total trade and it is little over 2% of India’s total trade. Sino-Indian trade was $ 61.3 billion in 2016-17 with India’s export to China at $ 10.2 billion. But Japanese FDI has grown phenomenally since last few years. From ground $ 512 million in 2006, it today hovers around $ 4.7 billion. It more than doubled between 2013 and 2014 it stood at $ 1.7 billion.

The arrival of Prime Minister Narendra Modi led NDA Government in New Delhi in May 2014 has further expanded bonhomie with Japan. Prime Minister Modi and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have an excellent chemistry, which is evident from the fact that in last three years there have been intense engagements at the highest political level. Needless to add, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has pledged to invest $ 35 billion in India by 2019.

The end of the Cold War has witnessed the emergence of many powerful countries, kicking off the debate if the world is on the verge of being transformed from being the unipolar, USA lead world to a multi-polar world led by many power blocks/ countries. While all the Asian powers share the view that efforts must be made to facilitate the emergence of a multi-polar global order, China, unlike Japan, India and other Asian countries, wishes to establish its hegemony in Asia by forcing others to accept its dominance. This is one of reasons for India and Japan to work together to prevent China from realizing its evil designs. The Chinese attitude on South China Sea issue, despite the rejection of its claim by the international tribunal in 2016, is prophetic of foreseeable Chinese irresponsibility. This is also observed in the context of the East China Sea, where it has serious conflict with Japan.

In recent years, China has suggested that it could use force to take Islands that have been under Japanese rule for decades. In many parts of China including Hong Kong protests against Japan had been organized, demanding the capture of Japan ruled Islands in the East China Sea. Countries like United States and India had also insisted on an amicable resolution of disputes and adherence to international law by all concerned parties. Because of border disputes, India is also apprehensive about Chinese steps therefore it has strengthened its bilateral relationship with Japan in a massive manner. These events vindicate the balance of power theory, in that it is working well in the Asian theater and all parties are inclined to sustain the process due to Chinese intransigence in accommodating the genuine aspirations of other countries.

Many political pundits including Keshore Mahbubni have argued that Asia is emerging. But, a billion dollar question is why Asian powers are not cooperating. China, India, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, Iran and Vietnam are some of the important Asian powers. The changing power configuration in Asia has changed Nehru’s hypothesis of cooperation among southern countries. Asia seems to follow European model of conflict.

However, in the post Second World War Era, Europe emerged as an exercise in cooperation and must be emulated by other regional groupings. Major Asian countries are not cooperating on post second world war template because there is a divergence of interests among them. China wants its unipolar dominance over Asia but wants multi-polarity at the global level. India, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, Iran and Vietnam wanted both Asia and the globe to be multi-polar. Kautilaya, one of the earliest global strategic thinkers, writing long ago, had stated that convergences of interests are the basic determinants of foreign policy. There are convergences of interests between India and Japan. This bilateral relationship could be one of the most deepening relationships of 21st century Asia. It is also no secret that the two nations had a less amicable relationship during the Cold War.

Even after Cold War during 1998 Pokhran bomb blast, it took the world by surprise. Many countries including Japan reacted sharply. It suspended all political exchanges and even economic assistance was frozen for nearly three years. However, a turnaround in the damaged ties was achieved in August 2000, when the then Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori paid a five-day visit to India. Mori and the then Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee called for a “global partnership.” From then on, the relations have persisted in a sustainable manner. During the visit of the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Tokyo in 2006, the two Prime Ministers decided to go for a “strategic partnership.”

China-Japan divergences have been exacerbating for last many years. In July 2012, Japan recalled its envoy from Beijing over the disputed territory in the East China Sea.[2] It is another coincidence that in July 2012, China refused to issue a Visa to an athlete belonging to Arunachal Pradesh, which China perceives to be its own territory.[3] Despite 20 rounds of high voltage bilateral dialogue till date there is not an iota of progress over the thorny boundary dispute. China has blocked Indian moves to declare Jaish-E-Mohhmad chief, Maulana Massod Azhar as global terrorist in the United Nations in the backdrop of Pathankot attack in January 2016. China is being equally troublesome on the NSG issue.

Other divergences are also there. Japan and India’s dreams are also converging in the post Cold War scenario. They have realized that together they will not only safeguard their interests, but be able to ensure multiplicity within Asia. Interestingly, other important countries excluding China are also thinking along the same line. These prevailing convergences have brought India and Japan closer. Chinese officials are worried that the growing relationship between India and Japan, is meant to contain and counter Beijing. According to two leading foreign policy experts from China Institute of International Studies “ India’s border disputes with China have yet to be resolved , therefore it views a stronger relationship with Japan as a way to counter balance China’s growing influence in the Asia-Pacific region.”[4]

As China’s dispute with Japan escalates over Islands in East China Sea, China seems worried that India will throw its weight in favor of Tokyo. Chinese experts believe that India and Japan share strategic interests in opposition to China. For the first time in recent history, Chinese experts have accepted that India is aiming to reciprocate the Chinese policy of encircling India within South Asia and therefore deepening its relationships with all China’s estranged neighbors of China.[5] In fact, India is working on the advice of seminal Chinese strategic thinker, Shun Zu. He advised that a king must win the war without waging the war.

India is well placed at the northern edge of the Indian Ocean. Over 55% Chinese trade commutes through IOR and the Indian navy is capable of stalling Chinese goods movements whenever the situation arises. Since 2007, the Malabar exercise is being undertaken. The navies of U.S, Japan and India are regular participants in these exercises. It has happened not only in IOR but the disputed South and East China Sea also. The Ahmedabad joint declaration reaffirms the commitment of both India and Japan to sustain and enhance this cooperation for the safety of sea lanes of communication.

During the Doklam crisis, Japan has extended its open support to India. The Chinese army was forced to withdraw and it is a marvelous diplomatic victory for the Modi government.

The looming crisis of North Korea and its firing of two missiles over Japan has to be viewed in the background of the regime’s tacit support from China. Japan understood this reality and is therefore changing its policies to cope with any situation. Its alliance with India will further strengthen the Japanese position in north East Asia.

Concluding Remarks

Japan was the first country outside India’s immediate neighbourhood that Narendra Modi visited after taking over as prime minister. The personal bonhomie between Modi and his Japanese counterpart Shinzō Abe strategically assists with their overlapping Asian as well as global view. But there was also the big geopolitical factor: the rise of China and its hegemonic mindset. This factor is bound to prevail in coming decades and therefore Indo-Japan relations are all set to ensure multiplicity in Asia.


[1] ANURAG KOTOKY AND KIYOTAKA MATSUDA, Japan’s bullet train tech to give 164-year-old Indian railway a jolt, September 15, 2017, Tokyo.

[2] Japan Recalls China envoy over territory dispute, The Hindu, New Delhi, July 16, 2012.

[3] Dasgupta, Saibal, MEA fumes as sports min team ignores China sunb, The Times of India, New Delhi, 15 July 2012.

[4] Dasgupta, Saibal, China sees growing India-Japan ties as move to counter it, Times of India, New Delhi, September 20, 2012.

[5] Ibid.

(Dr. Singh teaches in Dyal Singh College, University of Delhi, New Delhi, India. Email:

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