Japan-India Security Cooperation: Building a Solid Foundation amid Uncertainty

By Shutaro Sano —

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan meeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India in September 2016. Source: NarendraModi’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

In November 2016, Prime Ministers Shinzo Abe and Narendra Modi pledged to seek deeper bilateral cooperation and synergy between Japan’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy” and India’s “Act East” policy. This reflects their mutual determination to strengthen the “Special Strategic and Global Partnership” in a “new era in Japan-India relations.”

Today, there is growing demand for a strengthened Japan-India partnership. The shift of the global center of gravity to Asia and the need to cope with the increasing security and non-security challenges have created new opportunities for Tokyo and New Delhi to cooperate closely.

With regular summit meetings and vice minister/secretary-level “2 plus 2” dialogues, the two countries are acting to solidify their relationship in a variety of areas, including economics, energy, climate change, global governance, and security. The Japan-India partnership faces both opportunities and challenges that are bilateral, regional, and even global in scope.

Meanwhile, uncertainty about the Trump administration’s “America First” foreign policy has raised concerns about the United States’ reliability, forcing India, Japan, and other U.S. allies and partners to reassess their relationship with Washington and with each other.

With all this in mind, Tokyo needs to reaffirm the fundamentals of its relationships with Washington and New Delhi and implement policies to maximize the effectiveness of the Japan-India partnership. Six initiatives in particular would be wise.

First, Japan needs to ensure the United States maintains its presence in the Asia-Pacific and that a deeper Japan-India partnership complements rather than supplants the U.S.-Japan alliance in Japanese foreign policy. Tokyo should commit to taking on some of the burden that the United States has traditionally shouldered in East Asia. This includes engaging more actively in maritime security in the Indian Ocean, requiring Japan to strengthen its power projection capabilities, and utilizing logistical centers like Diego Garcia.

Second, some argue that Japan and India need to grasp the opportunity of this unique Abe-Modi “bromance” and speed up their efforts to deepen the bilateral relationship. However, China could perceive efforts to quickly bolster Japan-India ties as the beginning of containment. Therefore, Tokyo should have patience and strengthen its partnership with New Delhi steadily over time, rather than expeditiously rushing toward a full alliance.

Third, Japan and India need to take a firm stance against proliferators like North Korea and cooperate through existing global security mechanisms. Specifically, it is imperative that India become a full member of the Proliferation Security Initiative. In addition, Japan should continue its support for India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group.

Fourth, despite China’s assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific, the country remains an important economic partner for both Japan and India. Tokyo and New Delhi therefore need to take dual soft and hard approaches toward Beijing, differentiating economic cooperation from security-related issues. In the realm of security, the two countries need to examine a cost-imposing strategy that would deny and offset gains that China could derive from unilateral changes to the status quo. At the same time, they still need to engage Beijing in security frameworks like the ASEAN Regional Forum so that it feels able to play a responsible role. If Japan and India move toward the establishment of a multilateral security framework that includes the United States and Australia, China’s eventual participation should be on the table.

Fifth, to maximize the effectiveness and efficiency of the Japan-India relationship, the two countries should clarify their division of roles and strengthen military interoperability. Japan can focus on providing defense equipment to select navies and coast guards, while India could concentrate on providing skills related to hydrographic surveys. Their ground forces and air forces also need more opportunities to operate with one another through regular training, exercises, and exchanges of personnel. Tokyo and New Delhi should also pursue an Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement.

Finally, as their cooperation on India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands illustrate, there is a growing need for Tokyo and New Delhi to link up economic development with security issues. Therefore, the two countries should hold minister-level “3 plus 3” dialogues that include economic and trade officials.

At the other end of the spectrum, people-to-people ties need to be strengthened among their general publics. For example, Japan could provide funds for Japanese universities to hold more English-taught courses to draw more students from overseas, including India as well as other Asia-Pacific countries. It also needs to encourage more Japanese students to study in India.

To grasp their opportunities and overcome remaining obstacles, Japan and India need to better share their respective perceptions, policy priorities, and strategies on a number of issues. This demands that Tokyo and New Delhi hold pursue a steady deepening of their bilateral and multilateral cooperation, building a solid foundation amid uncertainty.

Dr. Shutaro Sano is Professor and Deputy Director at the Center for International Exchange, National Defense Academy of Japan. In 2017, he was a Visiting Scholar with the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Dr. Sano’s essay is part of CSIS’s Strategic Japan Working Paper Series featuring Japanese scholars addressing pressing issues in Japanese foreign and economic policy.


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