The warm toasts at the private dinner between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe in Tokyo recently marked the revitalization of a crucial strategic partnership. The summit provided a rare success for both beleaguered premiers and might well be the last foreign policy hurrah for Singh.
While there is much to celebrate, there are inherent limits to the scope of India-Japan cooperation. This is on account of fundamental differences in the way the two Asian powers regard each other.
In Japan, there are two contending views about alliances, including with India. The first perspective holds that Japan’s alliance with the US is sufficient to ensure its core security interests, including the growing contestation with a resurgent China. This view argues that no other alliance is either necessary or is as reliable. Japan’s alliances with other powers, such as Australia and South Korea, are seen as part of the overarching alliance with the US.
The second viewpoint argues that while the security alliance with Washington might be sufficient for now, there are inherent advantages in buttressing this crucial traditional bilateral partnership with similar arrangements with other rising powers, which are not traditional US allies, such as India.
It is the latter school, best represented by Abe, which is behind the ongoing efforts to strengthen relations with New Delhi.
The future prospects of Indo-Japanese strategic cooperation are dependent on the conclusion of this debate. Until the Washington-plus view prevails in Tokyo, the relationship will remain opportunistic and dependent on personalities.
Irrespective of the contretemps in Japan over strategic partnerships, there is another difference constraining Indo-Japanese strategic cooperation. Both schools believe that in any alliance—bilateral or multilateral—only the US has the right to bear nuclear arms and provide a nuclear security umbrella. Consequently, Japan, which is under the US nuclear umbrella, believes that any ally of Japan (including India) should remain voluntarily non-nuclear and content with the protection provided by the US nuclear arsenal. As a corollary, allies should be willing to provide only conventional military support.
This is true of every other alliance involving Japan but is, clearly, unlikely to be the case vis-à-vis India.
New Delhi cherishes both its nuclear arsenal and the strategic autonomy that it provides. Unless there is a sea change in Japanese thinking on this score, the relationship with India is likely to remain constrained.
Despite these serious limitations, both countries need to enhance cooperation in at least three areas: first, in the maritime realm, they need to move beyond just bilateral cooperation and declaratory support of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Instead, they should strengthen multilateral processes to enforce UNCLOS principles, preferably through UN mechanisms. Similarly, they should coordinate to push for global counter-piracy norms through the UN. This will also strengthen their case for Security Council reform and permanent membership.
Secondly, Tokyo and New Delhi should use their newly acquired observer status on the Arctic Council to cooperate on joint scientific and maritime projects as well as work with other members to shape the norms governing the use of this fragile global common.
Finally, cooperation in the nuclear arena is vital not only for bilateral relations but also for Japan’s relations with the US and France.
The much-coveted nuclear deal, if accomplished, might just change the traditional Japanese mindset and allow Tokyo to tacitly accept India as a nuclear-armed ally. Otherwise, the strategic partnership will remain stunted.
W.P.S. Sidhu is a senior fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, New York University. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight.
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