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Beyond Shared Values: the Outlook for Japan-India Relations
Jan Cartwright and Shoshanah Tischler | 23 Jan 2008
World Politics Review Exclusive
This past summer, prior to his sudden departure from office, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh announced a partnership agreement that surpassed the previously established levels of economic and security cooperation between the two countries. The timing of this August roadmap could not have been more perfect, given that 2007 is Japan-India Friendship Year. The new momentum in relations between the world's largest democracy and its second-largest economy deserves attention, in part because these relations have historically lacked both depth and breadth. Nevertheless, while recent efforts reflect a positive trend toward deeper engagement between Japan and India, several political and economic stumbling blocks remain in the path toward a more developed relationship.
A Growing Relationship
Since 2000, there has been a flurry of high-level diplomatic activity between Japan and India. Three Japanese prime ministers paid visits to New Delhi since 2000, culminating with the visit of Prime Minister Abe in August 2007. Abe was widely seen as a driving force in pushing strong relations between the two countries. He and Foreign Minister Taro Aso brought a bold strategic perspective on Japan-India relations, with talk of shared values, strategic interests, and an "arc of freedom and prosperity" stretching from East Asia to South Asia. The so-called quadrilateral partnership between Japan, India, Australia, and the United States -- which was born through practical cooperation as part of a regional core group after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami -- was nurtured and expanded under Abe's leadership.
A host of obvious and not-so-obvious motives underpin the growing relationship between India and Japan. The first such motive is the two countries' shared desire for security of vital sea lanes in the region, primarily in the Malacca Strait. Japan and India have navies that are among the largest in Asia, and both have shown an avid interest in maritime cooperation. Japan recognizes the importance of the Indian navy in ensuring the security of critical resource shipments in this region: A full 80 percent of Japan's oil passes through the Strait of Malacca and 20 percent of ships in the strait are Japanese owned. The region is important to India as well, with over 50 percent of its trade passing through the strait. In a telling signal of practical cooperation, Japan, India and the United States held joint naval exercises off the Japanese coast in April 2007. Five months later, the Japanese, Indian, American, Australian, and Singaporean navies conducted a massive, six-day joint exercise off the coast of India's Andaman Islands. Until the recent announcement of its suspension of refueling efforts in the Indian Ocean, Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Forces was also playing a major role in post-9/11 antiterrorism efforts in the region, a fact that was appreciated by India and that paved the way for greater security cooperation.
Trade potential is another important motive for the Japan-India relationship. Bilateral trade levels remain quite low at $6.6 billion -- equivalent to just 4 percent of Japan's trade with China. Yet the two economies seem to be appealingly complementary: Japan is strong in the areas of capital and technology, while India possesses an enormous, young, and inexpensive labor force. India also boasts rapidly expanding middle and upper classes that are eager to purchase high-tech and luxury products from the developed world. At the same time, Japan is the third largest investor in India, with valuable expertise in areas such as manufacturing and infrastructure that India aims to improve in coming years. Both countries, seeing economic opportunities, hope to take advantage of the many layers of complementarity to reap the billions that seem to be missing in the current trade figures.
While these common security and economic agendas portend a long-lasting relationship for India and Japan, potential obstacles do exist. Currently, the position of the ruling parties in both countries appears tenuous; therefore, political exigencies may determine domestic agendas for the short term. In the Indian parliament in October, left-wing allies of the Congress Party-led coalition threatened to withdraw their support for the ruling coalition if the U.S.-India nuclear deal went forward. The cracks in the Congress Party's ruling coalition became even more apparent in December, when the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won a bellwether election in Gujarat state. With a general election due in the next 18 months, Prime Minister Singh and his party are likely to tread lightly in the foreign policy arena.
Japan is experiencing similar political wrangling. The leading Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) suffered devastating losses in elections in July, prompting Shinzo Abe's sudden departure from the prime minister's office in September. His replacement, Yasuo Fukuda, spent the first few months of his time in office managing the contentious debate in the Diet over extending the anti-terror legislation authorizing Japan's refueling efforts in the Indian Ocean. On the foreign policy front, Fukuda is focused on greater ties with Japan's neighbors China and South Korea, as shown by his recent lengthy trip to China and his congratulatory message to the new South Korean president. Thus far, neither India itself nor the four-nation coalition of India, Japan, the United States, and Australia has received as much attention from Japan as under Abe. The combination of domestic political turmoil and a desire to mend ties with Japan's immediate neighbors could mean the strengthening of Japan-India ties is put on the back-burner of Japan's foreign policy agenda.
A further obstacle to deeper Indo-Japanese alignment is the two countries' differing views on China. Although Japan and India both may have cause to view China warily, the two countries have taken somewhat different approaches in their relations with China. Overall, India has been more sensitive to Chinese concerns about exclusion. Whereas the quadrilateral partnership between India, Japan, the United States, and Australia has been proclaimed an axis of democracies, thereby excluding China, India has gone out of its way to assure Chinese leaders that the four-way partnership is not directed at Beijing and has no security component. It has backed up its statements with actions: Immediately after the important trilateral naval exercises by Japan, India, and the United States in April, Indian ships sailed off to meet Chinese vessels for joint exercises off the coast of China. Although Tokyo continues to work towards improvements in Japan-China relations, it has been less direct about its intentions for the quadrilateral pact.
Nuclear issues remain a source of unspoken tension between Japan and India. Japan, the only country in the world to have suffered the effects of nuclear weapons, has maintained an ardently anti-proliferation stance and harshly condemned India's 1998 nuclear tests. Since then, Japan's position on India's nuclear weapons has softened somewhat, and Japanese companies see potentially lucrative opportunities for nuclear trade, should the U.S.-India nuclear deal go through. Nevertheless, a residue of distrust lingers between the two countries on this issue, which remains an emotional one for many Japanese citizens.
Trade barriers remain perhaps the most intractable stumbling block to a true blossoming of relations between India and Japan. Japanese companies complain that India remains a difficult place to do business, due to burdensome bureaucracy and corruption. Regulatory differences between Indian states prove frustrating to foreign investors. India, on the other hand, lambastes Japan for its own trade restrictions, including high tariffs on some food products and barriers to entry for medicine and chemicals. While change is slowly coming, such trade issues can be difficult to overcome.
Overall, the motives for a stronger Indo-Japanese relationship remain powerful and are likely to bring a continuation of warm relations in coming years. However, given the obstacles discussed above, it is likely that the language used to describe this relationship will change as a result of sensitivities related to domestic political factors, relations with China, nuclear issues, and trade barriers.
Jan Cartwright and Shoshanah Tischler are employed at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the U.S. Department of Defense, respectively. The information and views presented in this article were prepared by the authors prior to their employment and are solely theirs. They do not necessarily represent the views or the positions of the U.S. Department of Defense, USAID, or the U.S. Government.
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