Author: Chietigj Bajpaee, King’s College London
The renewed polarisation of the international system following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the intensification of the US–China strategic rivalry is increasing pressure on other countries to pick sides. But despite this return to a ‘with us or against us’ narrative, Japan and India, as aspiring global powers, are well-positioned to bring a much-needed non-western perspective to discussions on the emerging global order.
In this context, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s visit to India in March 2022 assumes added importance beyond the bilateral agreements that were concluded, which included 5 trillion yen (US$42 billion) in Japanese investment in India and the India–Japan Clean Energy Partnership. The larger strategic significance of Kishida’s visit lies in its reaffirmation of Japan’s role as a shaper of India’s regional engagement and broader global outlook.
This year marks the third decade of India’s ‘Look East’ Policy — renamed the ‘Act East’ Policy in 2014 — which is rooted in New Delhi’s efforts to reorient and strengthen the country’s post-Cold War eastward engagement. Japan has played a key role as a facilitator of this process by supporting India’s membership in regional forums, such as the East Asia Summit, and investing in infrastructure connecting India and East Asia, particularly in India’s northeast and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
Tokyo has also taken more indirect action to facilitate India’s regional engagement. For instance, Japan was one of the first countries to broaden the strategic geography of Asia, which drew India deeper into the regional architecture. This began with former prime minister Shinzo Abe’s 2007 ‘Confluence of the Two Seas’ speech, which referred to the prospect of a ‘broader Asia’ rooted in the ‘dynamic coupling’ of the Indian and Pacific oceans and continued under various Japanese narratives, most recently the ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’.
Japan has also sought to push India to embrace, to some degree, its commitment to free trade. Tokyo is encouraging New Delhi to re-join the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) trade agreement, which it exited in 2019. While India maintains an aversion to re-joining RCEP amid concerns that this would accelerate China’s penetration of the Indian market, its protectionist sentiment has somewhat softened as illustrated by its recent conclusion of trade agreements with the United Arab Emirates in February and Australia in April 2022.
Undergirding these developments is a mutual aversion to the emergence of a Sino-centric regional and global order. This has manifested in the development of joint Indo–Japanese initiatives, such as the Supply Chain Resilience Initiative, which seeks to strengthen the resilience of regional supply-chains by diversifying them away from an excessive reliance on China. India has also been included in the Japanese government’s ‘China exit’ list of countries, whereby Japanese manufacturers are eligible for subsidies to shift production out of China. If successful, these efforts will strengthen networks between Japan, India and the rest of Asia.
While India–Japanese collaboration is rooted in the Indo-Pacific, it is increasingly extending beyond Asia. This was reflected in the Joint Statement that was concluded between both countries during Kishida’s visit, which builds on their ‘Special Strategic and Global Partnership’. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi also noted that strengthening the bilateral partnership ‘will encourage peace, prosperity and stability in the Indo-Pacific region and in the world’.
In this context, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is emerging as a key driver of Japan and India’s evolving global outlooks as both countries have been forced to reassess their relations with Moscow. Russia suspended efforts to reach a post-World War II peace treaty with Japan to resolve their long-standing territorial dispute over the southern Kuril Islands (which Japan claims as the Northern Territories) after Tokyo imposed sanctions on Russia and provided military aid to Ukraine. India’s public actions have been less decisive given its deep-rooted relations with Moscow and reliance on Russian military hardware and oil imports, but questions are being raised about the utility of close relations with Russia amid Moscow’s growing dependence on China.
The situation in Ukraine was a major point of discussion during Kishida and Modi’s meeting. This comes as India has been labelled a ‘shaky’ member of the Quad after being the odd one out in terms of its position on Russia. As such, Japan is playing a key role in moulding India’s global outlook — in this case, by seeking to ensure that New Delhi remains aligned with other Quad member states on Russia.
Japan and India have historically maintained self-imposed restraints in the conduct of their foreign policies fuelled by their ideological proclivities — namely, Japan’s pacifist constitution and India’s longstanding commitment to non-alignment and its more recent manifestation of ‘strategic autonomy’. But recent developments have prompted both countries to abandon their timidity and develop more proactive foreign policies.
Skirmishes along the Sino–Indian border in 2020 have driven India to soften its omni-alignment posture, which entailed maintaining equidistant relations with all poles of influence in the international system. This is evidenced by New Delhi’s renewed enthusiasm for the Quad and recent sale of the Brahmos supersonic cruise missile system to the Philippines, which aim to bolster coastal defence capabilities vis-a-vis Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea. Despite being firmly embedded in the US-led alliance system, Japan is seeking to develop its own voice on regional and global affairs, enabled by a constitutional reinterpretation to facilitate limited forms of ‘collective self-defence’.
As Japan prepares to host the Quad summit in May 2022 and India occupies a non-permanent seat in the UN Security Council and prepares to hold the G20 presidency for the first time, both countries are uniquely positioned to participate in and shape key debates on issues of global governance. This assumes newfound importance amid a renewed rivalry between the world’s major powers, a climate of protectionism and the emergence of a less western-centric form of globalisation.
Chietigj Bajpaee holds a PhD candidate from King’s College London and the National University of Singapore. He has previously worked with several public policy think tanks and risk consultancies in Europe, the United States and Asia. He is author of China in India’s post-Cold War engagement with Southeast Asia (Routledge, 2022).
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