Japan–India strategic ties: still stuck in ‘feel good’ mode

Author: Sourabh Gupta, Samuels International

During the last week of May, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh paid a return visit to Tokyo, in keeping with a tradition inaugurated by him and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2007, to exchange summit-level visits on an annual basis.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh delivers a speech during a banquet held by his Japanese couterpart, Shinzo Abe at the prime minister's official residence in Tokyo on 29 May 2013. (Photo: AAP)

Modest progress was reached on resuming negotiations towards a bilateral civil nuclear cooperation accord.

Although a study in personal and political contrasts, Prime Ministers Abe and Singh share a deep affection for each other’s country and their roles in their respective worldviews. The goodwill between the two is mirrored in the state of bilateral ties — at least on paper. Since its elevation to a Partnership in a New Asian Era in 2005 (Koizumi–Singh) and thereafter to a Strategic and Global Partnership (Abe–Singh 2006), India–Japan ties have witnessed the unveiling of a Roadmap to realise the strategic partnership (Abe–Singh 2007), a Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation (Aso–Singh 2008), an Action Plan to implement the Joint Declaration (Hatoyama–Singh 2009), a Vision Statement for the next decade (Kan–Singh 2010) and an Enhancement to the Vision Statement (Noda–Singh 2011).

The reality of Indo–Japanese strategic cooperation on the ground has been rather less impressive. Aside from participation within the Tsunami Core Group relief effort in 2004, joint involvement in a flashy five-power exercise in the Bay of Bengal alongside the US, Australia and Singapore in 2007, and an on-going anti-piracy convoy coordination mission in collaboration with the PLA Navy, instances of Japan–India maritime and strategic cooperation have been few. Moreover, both countries have placed a shallow operational ceiling to their scope for strategic cooperation in Asia and beyond.

At about the same time as the Japan–India Joint Declaration was signed (October 2008), a similar Japan–Australia Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation was also signed (March 2007) by Prime Ministers Abe and Howard. Action Plans to realise their respective Declarations were issued in 2009 by both sets of countries. The Japan–India Declaration and accompanying Action Plan, unlike its Japan–Australia counterpart, omits a reference point to trilateral cooperation with the United States as well as fails to include a provision for bilateral logistics cooperation and classified information sharing. Both such agreements, by contrast, were stitched up by Canberra and Tokyo in May 2010 and May 2012. A Japan–India defence relationship that is not premised on functionally joined common actions is likely to bump up quickly against its natural limits.

Bilateral defence frameworks aside, both Japan and India appear to operate within a set of self-imposed limitations that confine the practical scope of such cooperation.

In its Indian Ocean zone of core interest, New Delhi, as a matter of principle is disinclined to be appended to American and allied ‘coalition of the willing’ missions — be it with regard to non-proliferation (Proliferation Security Initiative), anti-terrorism (Indian Ocean refuelling operations) or non-traditional security (anti-piracy). To avoid any hint of alignment with selective ‘minilateral’ groupings, joint exercises across a broad range of maritime security activities, including search-and-rescue, tactical manoeuvres and passage exercises, are likely to remain strictly bilateral. Overall, security collaboration in the Indian Ocean region will stay geared to cooperating with most, aligning with none, keeping the seas open to free passage and closed to great power contestation. Extra-regional defence obligations will be kept to a minimum.

Tokyo, on the other hand, remains hemmed-in by a slew of constitutional and administrative restraints, the most notable of which is its inability to lend support — let alone be joined in the use of force — to a fellow state actor in a combat zone even in its own backyard. That Tokyo can credibly signal itself to be a significant defence partner west of Malacca would appear to be implausible. While the Abe government can be expected to appropriately reinterpret/revise some of these restraints to expand the perimeter of defence cooperation with foreign partners, their scope is unlikely to benefit non-allied security partners like India. Rather, such reinterpretations/exemptions will be overwhelmingly geared to enhancing defence industrial base integration and operational joint-ness with western alliance partners.

Japan and India are not likely to be military partners in a conventional security contingency featuring China, now or in the foreseeable future. That they can be political partners though in navigating the management of China’s rise will require that the security elements of their strategic cooperation be seen to be credible and meaningful. For this to be the case, both countries must find a way to engage in scenario-relevant practical cooperation on the ground and at sea such that coordinated actions during contingencies can adequately be planned for.

As a first step, Japan and India need to initial a basic military information exchange accord on the lines of the General Security of Military Information Agreement that New Delhi and Washington signed in 2002. Down the line, cooperation in the area of search-and-rescue, anti-submarine surveillance and minesweeping can be conceived.

Second, Japan and India must agree to share equipment and supplies during UN blue-helmeted operations. Gradually, such logistics and equipment sharing can be extended to cover a range of other non-traditional security missions. Down the line, New Delhi will be well-served to strike up logistics cooperation arrangements with all Indian Ocean sea lines of communications users and so restore, in time, the Ocean to its historic role as a thoroughfare for all and a threatened barrier to none.

Third, at this time both countries need to keep their defence cooperation strictly bilateral. The vocabulary of a ‘broader Asia’, ‘Indo-Pacific’ and ‘Indo-Asia-Pacific’ has outpaced interests on the ground. Japan is not New Delhi’s security partner in South Asia nor India Tokyo’s in East Asia, and both maintain a studied neutrality on each other’s territorial disputes. Tightly-knit bilateral security arrangements need to be framed horizontally instead within the emerging practice of Asian security multilateralism.

Fundamentally, however, both India and Japan will need to re-visit their cherished precepts of foreign policy. Modern-day Japan has rarely been able to successfully postulate an order independent of a western-led diplomatic and alliance framework. Post-independence India’s foreign policy, by contrast, has never sought to articulate an identity within the framework of an alliance system — western or other. To forge an enduring strategic partnership in Asia, both countries will have to learn to compromise. The thrust of their individual approaches are instead moving in the opposite direction at this time.

Sourabh Gupta is a Senior Research Associate at Samuels International Associates, Inc., Washington DC. An expanded version of this post, originally appearing in the Pacific Forum CSIS PacNet newsletter, can be found here.