Saturday, February 8, 2014

The Limitations of an India-Japan Partnership

India invited Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to be the Chief Guest at India's Republic Day celebrations, signalling a new closeness in their ties.  Most of the commentary in India and around the world noted the strategic significance of the invitation, and the Indian commentariat was uniformly positive.  I am somewhat skeptical but not because I don't see the strategic value in the relationship, especially in balancing China.  It has to do more with my sense that both governments -- like democracies in general -- tend to look for short-term buck-passing solutions rather than real balancing, which requires a certain clarity, consistency and commitment.  A short essay that I wrote on this was posted a couple of days back on the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) website, and is reproduced in full below.   

The Limitations of India-Japan Partnership

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's short visit was high on symbolism but both countries need to carefully assess the utility as well as the limits of their partnership. While trade between the two countries have grown dramatically, the primary driver in the relationship has been strategic necessity, their shared concern about an increasingly strong but aggressive China. 

This short visit was not expected to lead to any dramatic breakthrough and it did not disappoint. There had been some early hopes that the two countries would sign a couple of significant deals, one on nuclear commerce and another on Japan selling India an amphibious reconnaissance aircraft. They would have been important for their political rather than commercial significance. They appear to have been nixed by the bureaucracy on both sides despite the keenness of their political masters.

Still, there have been a couple of strategically significant agreements, including getting the hyper-cautious A.K. Antony-led MoD to invite Japan to the 'Malabar' naval exercise. This shows how much Indian grand strategy has been left to blow in the wind for the last several years: Japan had participated in earlier exercises but been 'un-invited' because of opposition from China. We are now reduced to counting as progress the undoing of strategic stupidity and returning to the status quo ante.

For India, developing a strategic relationship with other Asia-Pacific powers such as Japan might appear to be a no-brainer. China's phenomenal growth and power impacts on all its neighbours. While many countries including Japan and India benefited economically from China's rise and hoped that closer economic integration would reduce political conflicts and make China a responsible stake-holder in Asian stability, such hopes have taken a beating over the last few years.

China has behaved exactly as Realist strategists predicted: as it grew stronger, it has also become much more willing to demonstrate its strength in its relations with others. China's 'peaceful rise' slogan was shown to be what it was: a stratagem that oiled the wheels of its rise rather than a prescription of its behaviour after it had risen.

But if the strategic imperative for closer cooperation between India and Japan is clear, its utility is less so. For Tokyo and especially for New Delhi, part of the attraction in such a partnership is that it reduces domestic political friction about balancing China because much of that friction is about partnering with Washington to counter China. There is significant domestic support in India for balancing China as long as it is not done with the US - by building up India's indigenous defence capability, for instance, or by building partnerships with countries other than the US.

The problem is that while these efforts are necessary, these are not either-or propositions: New Delhi needs to do all of it. India should build up its domestic capability and build partnerships with Tokyo and with other Asian countries that feel put upon by China but these are unlikely to be sufficient.

Neither India nor Japan, even together as strategic partners, is strong enough to manage China. At the diplomatic level, neither pulls the kind of power that can counter Beijing and this is not just because they are not UN Security Council members, unlike China. At the military level, the two countries are too far apart to be meaningful partners in any confrontation between one of them and China. Even if their partnership is limited to strengthening each other, neither have the kind of indigenous defence industry that can support their military forces alone. Though Japan obviously has a very advanced high-technology industrial sector, its military industry is insignificant. The less said about DRDO and the Indian defence industry the better.

Maintaining a stable Asian balance requires a partnership between India, Japan and other Asian powers that worry about China's power and aggressiveness but a partnership that includes also the US. While it might be politically palatable to consider a purely Asia-Pacific strategic partnership to maintain stability in the region, this will be strategically short-sighted because no such partnership will have the military muscle or diplomatic heft to achieve its objectives. We have tried such strategic short-cuts before and come to grief. We should not again let domestic political expediency rule strategic necessity.  


  1. I have enjoyed reading this excellent article. The phrase “There is significant domestic support in India…” is really insightful. The honed thrust of your argument is simply irresistible. But the crux of the matter is the US is gradually withdrawing from Asia as represented by Chirstopher Layne’s proposition of offshore balancing. How should we cope with the quite assertive China?
    Prof. Takenori Horimoto in Japan

  2. I agree with you about US withdrawal but I think this is (as of now at least) less about capability than about willingness. I see the Obama administration uninterested in playing a larger role, but it is possible that this might change. Of course, if the US becomes less capable of playing a role, I agree with you that India and Japan will have to consider anew the question of how to cope with China.