Recently, Japan has been increasingly emphasizing its ties with India, efforts which have been highlighted by Indian Prime Minister Modi's choice of Japan for his first major foreign visit since assuming office, and he was lauded for his efforts by Cabinet upon his return. This renewed engagement with India is in large part due to Tokyo's efforts to engage with Asian countries to at least implicitly, if not overtly hedge against China.
Modi reaffirmed the importance of cooperation with Tokyo, by stating that "the 21st century belongs to Asia...but how the 21st century will be depends on how strong India-Japan ties are." Currently both sides appear to be cementing said ties, with Japan agreeing to $35 billion in investment in India over the next five years.
India represents a great economic opportunity for Japanese business, but it is India's potential as a bulwark against China that most entices Japan. China represents a serious concern for the Japanese government, as tensions have remained high due to unsettled disputes over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. The clashes over these islands have bolstered Shinzo Abe's conservative government and its efforts to increase defence spending and reinterpret the country's pacifist constitution.
Despite the measure of security afforded by the U.S.-Japan Mutual Defence Treaty, the United States has a complicated relationship with Beijing, with increasing Sino-American economic ties stoking Japanese abandonment fears. Japan's ties to the United States in turn stokes Chinese paranoia concerning American hegemony in Asia, as well as accusations of foreign meddling. Japan needs to diversify its foreign relations portfolio, and a promising candidate for regional cooperation is India.
Few good choices
In some ways India is the default partner for Japan in Asia, as it constitutes one of the few approachable large powers. Japan and Russia have yet to sign a peace treaty from WWII due to a territorial dispute over the Kurile Islands, and in any case Japan's treaty with America dissuades Moscow from seeing Tokyo as a strategic ally. Japan has strong ties with Taiwan, yet Taipei does not have the geopolitical latitude to meaningfully confront China.
South Korea is an economic power and a democracy, yet Seoul and Tokyo are fighting over exclusive economic zones and ownership over Dokdo/Takeshima island. South Korea also needs to keep China in a good mood in return for Beijing's cooperation in dealing with North Korea. Indonesia has the demographic but not (yet) the economic or political clout to be an effective ally, and while the rest of ASEAN worries about China's ambitions in the South China Sea, it lacks cohesion and cannot risk openly defying Beijing to any serious degree.
India's democratic government, in a region which normally abounds with authoritarian regimes, makes it a palatable partner for the Japanese public. India has the demographic power to rival China, and the economic and military potential to be a superpower. Indian natural resources pair well with Japanese foreign direct investment and technological prowess. Moreover, India also has territorial disputes with China, and even fought a war in the 1960s over the borders of Tibet.
By supporting India's growing military might, Japan benefits from Beijing's divided attention and resources. Similarly, cooperation with Japan allows India to counter Chinese support for Pakistan and Myanmar, which can be seen as part of Chinese efforts at Indian containment.
SLOCs and why they are important
Perhaps most importantly is the strategic location of India and specifically its navy which is perfectly positioned to protect the trade routes and Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOC) upon which Japan relies. The vast majority of Japan's oil and gas crosses the Indian Ocean and is funnelled through the Straits of Malacca and past the Chinese coast.
The naval arms race in between Japan and China is in part to develop the blue water capabilities to patrol and potentially shut down these vital SLOCs. During Modi's trip “the two prime ministers...affirmed their shared commitment to maritime security, freedom of navigation and overflight, civil aviation safety, unimpeded lawful commerce, and the peaceful settlement of disputes in accordance with international law."
References to unimpeded commerce and navigation are clear indicators of Japan's concern over SLOCs. Moreover, the inclusion of freedom of overflight is important as this represents an obvious rebuke to China. Specifically, this statement implicitly chastises China's unilateral efforts to impose air defence identification zones over contested areas in the East and South China Seas.
Similarly, the call to abide by international dispute resolution norms is not empty rhetoric, but a move to show China that other major players in Asia also view territorial disputes as solely the purview of international law. This runs counter to the common Chinese tactic of seeking to resolve territorial disputes bilaterally, efforts which invariably – given the scale of Beijing's economic and military resources – positions China as the dominant partner in negotiations.
Japan seeks to develop Indian naval capability to patrol the Indian Ocean, while simultaneously supporting current American patrolling of the SLOCs. India can be seen as a potential insurance policy for Japan to hedge against potential American unwillingness to confront China in the event of a Sino-Japanese trade war.
Japan is seeking Indian cooperation at the international level by instituting common geopolitical norms, an aim shared by New Delhi as both prime ministers announced the future creation of two-plus-two talks between their respective foreign and defence ministers. To this end Japan has also agreed to regular defence exchanges as well as bilateral maritime drills, with both countries directing officials to set up working level talks on defence equipment procurement and technology cooperation.
Jeremy Luedi is the editor of Asia by Africa. His writing has been featured in Business Insider, The Japan Times, The Diplomat, FACTA Magazine, Yahoo Finance, Asia Times. His insights have also been quoted by TIME, OZY, and the Washington Times, among others.