Japan is going to be the fulcrum of India’s Indo-Pacific engagements in coming years. While India seeks an open, free and inclusive Indo-Pacific region and tries to devise a new structured approach towards this region, the most crucial pillar of India’s policy will be it’s relationship with Japan.
While India’s relations with the United States, Australia, South Korea, China, ASEAN, and the GCC countries will remain important, India’s ties with Japan need careful nurturing for a variety of reasons.
First of all, Japan is the most matured economy of this region. China’s spectacular economic growth has caught the world’s attention and the unprecedented scale of its economy is undoubtedly outstanding. India is on its way to become the next inspiring growth story and it is already the fastest growing economy among the trillion dollars economies. But in terms of maturity, sophistication and experience in international economic engagements, Japan excels every other country of the Indo-Pacific region, excluding the United States. What needs underscoring is the fact that Japan does not sell its achievements well, unlike China and the United States. Otherwise, its technological marvels, business strategies and management skills are second to none. Japan rarely hits the international headlines and it is actually Japan’s feebleness in the world of political advertisements.
Secondly, Japan sooner than later will be a leading player in the political economy as well as security fields of the Indo-Pacific region. For long, Japan played a low-key role with a somewhat downcast international profile. Tokyo does very well in promoting bilateral relations, but remains a discreet participant in multilateral forums. But international events and domestic developments in recent years have left no option for Japan but to sit around the high table and vigorously contribute towards multilateral decision-making on crucial issues.
The domestic developments that will drive Japan towards becoming a rule-setting actor rather than just a law abiding nation are its growing dependence on other countries for strategic resources for sustaining its high-geared economy. And this is happening at a time when new actors on the world stage have emerged as tough competitors for scarce resources in the international market place. Japan’s resource diplomacy has to change tracks from its traditional ones. Its aging population is a major concern and Japan does not have the luxury of time to delay decisions on the methods of resolving this issue. While increasing domestic birth rate will always be important, Japan has to devise a new immigration policy.
The international events that have driven Japan to think about an alternative international role are quite a few. At the outset, the United States under the Trump Administration has clearly signalled to all its allies in the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans that its traditional commitments to their security would not longer be the same. He has significantly raised the cost of the alliance not just in monetary terms but also in political and security considerations. All American allies are in the process of re-thinking their priorities and the time has come where Japan has to take key independent decisions outside the framework of the US-Japan alliance. Japan has also to search for reliable allies beyond the bilateral alliance it has so far adhered to.
Additionally, China’s shrill foreign policy initiatives in East China Sea and South China Sea and establishment of new Chinese naval facilities across the sea routes carrying Japanese trade items have been taken due note in Tokyo. Despite American defiance to China’s diktats in South China Sea, Beijing has not budged and has been going ahead with militarization of the seas. Japan has to devise workable policies to protect its trade interests. After all, trade is one of the vital lifelines of Japan.
In addition, North Korea’s nuclear and missile arsenals and the inability of the United States to rein in Pyongyang’s strategic ambitions give migraines to policymakers in Tokyo. The constitutional constraints at home and changing alliance structures in the external environment pose a serious test to traditional foreign policy approach of Japan. Pyongyang has not hidden its perception of Japan as an adversary and Japan’s new foreign policy has to address this issue in innovative ways. All these developments will make Japan look at India in new perspectives.
The third reason why Japan will matter most to India is the fact that Japan has never been an adversary of India and the current global as well as regional distribution of power and strategic scenario necessitate a deeper and expansive Indo-Japan strategic teamwork. The Cold War logic and nature of the Indian economic policies are both things of the past. The nuclear policy of India that annoyed Japan for long has now been better understood in Tokyo. Japan is already willing to come in a big way to India to invest and to trade. Japan has also shown interest in promoting alternative trade and growth corridors in collaboration with India and there is a new initiative to set up an Asian-African growth corridor.
In fact, geographical locations, geopolitical realities, economic compatibilities, mutual popular perceptions, cultural affinities and even companionable political systems provide enough evidence and rationale for making of an Indo-Japanese comprehensive alliance in the near future.