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October 24, 2019

India-Japan: The Emergence of Strategic Relations (2015-2019)

History of Indo-Japan Relations

The relationship between India and Japan is as old as time itself. However, if we were to define the timeline it is believed that it was around the 6th century that Buddhism made its way to Japan. In ancient times, Indian traders as well as spiritual and religious ambassadors, helped Buddhism spread via China and Korea to Japan, inadvertently becoming a major component of Indian soft power and diplomacy. However, it is only recently in the 21st century that India has confidently started accepting and revisiting these ancient friendships that she had once forged with distant cultures.

Today, the interest of the common man is palpable with new books, documentaries and discussions on India-Japan relations. The recently released documentary “Indian Deities Worshipped in Japan” funded by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs and directed by the well-known art historian Binoy K. Behl reveals the influence of not just Buddhism but also Hinduism in Japan. Primary evidence of Nipponization of Hinduism in Japan is found in the Japanese “Seven Gods of Fortune” out of which four are Hindu deities – Lakshmi (Kichijoten), Sarasvati (Benzaitensama), Kubera (Bishamon) and Shiva (Daikokuten). Apart from these deities, Yama, Ganesha, and Garuda also play a central role in Japanese spirituality. Yoga and the influence of Sanskrit on the Kana script, as well as cuisine have all stimulated the relationship shared by both the countries.

Though for many centuries, we may have overlooked the importance of India-Japan relations, it was post World War II on 28th April 1952 that Japan signed a Peace treaty with India—one of the first treatises that Japan signed, re-establishing and encouraging diplomatic relations between the two countries. Ever since the establishment of diplomatic relations, the two countries have enjoyed cordial relations. Japan has realised the strategic importance of India and India has been greatly benefitted by Japanese technology and the Official Developmental Assistance (ODA) extended by Japan. The recognition of the future possibilities with India being a geographic anchor and Japan being a development anchor has made both the countries key actors in the Indo-Pacific region.[1]

The Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategic framework as well as India’s Act East Policy is certainly of great importance to the entire Indo-Pacific region but relies heavily on the role of India and Japan. These relations are today based on common interests, values and vision rather than solely relying on mutual benefit. Both these frameworks also place India and Japan at the forefront of maritime security and stability, economic growth and technological development in the region.

Recent Relations

The personal rapport between the Indian Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi and the Japanese Prime Minister Mr Shinzo Abe, has further led to the development and strengthening of the relationship between the two countries leading consequently to the effectiveness of the bilateral ties between the two countries maturing at an unprecedented rate. For instance, Japan had expected India to improve the business environment for Japanese companies functioning in India and India responded by establishing the “Japan Plus” office in the Ministry of Commerce and Industry as a “one-stop” location for resolving problems faced by Japanese companies.  This was accomplished within six months of PM Modi’s government coming into power.

India is one of the largest recipients of Japanese ODA loans for the past few decades. Delhi Metro is one of the most successful examples of Japanese cooperation through the utilisation of ODA. In 2018, the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) signed loan agreements with the Government of India in Delhi to provide Japanese ODA loans of up to a total of 115.45 billion yen for the following two projects.

  • Construction of Mumbai-Ahmedabad High-Speed Rail (loan amount: 89.547 billion yen) [2]
  • Kolkata East-West Metro Project (III) (loan amount: 25.903 billion yen)[3]

The Shinkansen system that forms the basis of the Mumbai-Ahmedabad High-Speed Rail is the topmost railway system around the world in terms of its safety and accuracy. Japan and India confirmed that the railway’s operation would commence as early as 2023. The high-speed railway projects not only have a developmental and strategic significance for India but also a geo-strategic one for Japan. The Shinkansen system has been a reminder to the world of the reconstruction of post-second world war Japan into an economic and technological superpower. However, Japan’s only successful sale of the high-speed rail before India has been to Taiwan, due to the competition it faces from China. China’s high-speed rail, the Shanghai Maglev is the fastest in the world and cheaper but not safer than the Shinkansen.

Nevertheless, the Shinkansen in India has highlighted the closeness shared by both the countries in the Indo-Pacific region thereby claiming their stronghold concerning a rather expansionist China, a country that both India and Japan have territorial disputes with. China’s economic clout in the region through investment, infrastructure and connectivity has been seen by many as the growing Chinese hegemony in the region. For example, China in the high-speed rail technology sector has signed deals with Indonesia and Thailand in the region.

In terms of human resource development in India’s manufacturing sector, Japan announced its cooperation of training 30,000 Indians over the next 10 years under the Japan-India Institute for Manufacturing (JIM). This initiative will encourage Japanese style manufacturing skills and practices, enhance India’s manufacturing industry base and contribute to “Make in India” and “Skill India” Initiatives. JIM and the Japanese Endowed Courses (JEC) in engineering colleges will be designated by Japanese companies in India. In the summer of 2017, the first four JIMs started in the States of Gujarat, Karnataka, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu, and the first JEC was established in the State of Andhra Pradesh aimed at training and cross-flow of Indian and Japanese students and young professionals. In 2018, JIM registered 100 per cent placement for its first batch of students.[4]

In 2017, during PM Abe’s visit to India, 15 more MOUs were signed in the areas of connectivity, investments, civil aviation, Japanese language training, disaster risk management, science, technology and sports. In 2018, 32 more MOUs were signed ranging from Currency Swap Agreement, India-Japan Digital Partnership as well as implementing an arrangement for deeper cooperation between Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force (SDF) and the Indian Navy amongst various other sectors. Similarly, the ambitious 1,500 km long Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DMIC) — a USD 100 billion project—was developed by both governments with a level of persistence that has again proven naysayers wrong. Encouraged by the DMIC, additional industrial corridors are being developed in India.[5] Prime Ministers Abe and Modi have also adopted the Tokyo Declaration, elevating India and Japan’s bilateral relationship to the “Special Strategic and Global Partnership”. While security collaborations are of primary focus, the partnership has also encouraged further Japanese investment in India. The target has been set to double Japanese FDI within five years, with Japan pledging to provide India with USD 35 billion in private and public financing.

Japan-India “Special Strategic and Global Partnership” benefits both Japan and India’s mutual interests in stable economies in the Indo-Pacific region. It also endeavours to work towards a FOIP. However, there is the red tape that needs to be addressed for this partnership to be a successful and long-lived one. To begin with, India will need to clear out the bureaucratic red tape for Japanese companies to enter. Even though the “Japan Plus” office has been set up to assist Japanese businesses, internal issues need to be addressed like labour market reforms and land acquisition amongst many others.

Leveraging existing economic partnerships should also be at the forefront. For instance, the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreements (CEPA), a free trade agreement, has been signed by India with ASEAN; Japan has signed a CEPA with ASEAN and Japan and India have signed a CEPA with each other. However, this agreement has been completely under-utilised. CEPA has been described as the most comprehensive of all such agreements concluded by India, covering trade in goods and services, movement of persons, investments, intellectual property rights, customs procedures and other trade-related issues. The CEPA envisages abolition of tariffs on over 94 per cent of items traded between India and Japan over a period of 10 years.[6]

If CEPA could be leveraged, then all the concerned countries would benefit from each other. “CEPA could be made active by co-designing trilateral alliances on a case-by-case basis. Japan and India have demonstrated the ability to work well in trilateral structures on security (the Malabar exercises with the United States), and must now extend this ability to form trilateral alliances on the economic side as well. For instance, economic trilateral agreements with American corporations for equity investments and industrial expertise in projects where both India and Japan need to “import” technology or capital; or with France in Francophone Africa, which has remained an elusive market despite India’s significant diaspora in English-speaking Africa; or local partners in the FOIP, who will be critical in mitigating project-specific risks. This will be vital to ensuring that the FOIP does not become more of a geo-strategic security framework devoid of an economic pillar of sustenance”.[7]

India- Japan Security Collaborations

To pursue economic, strategic or cultural co-operation, India and Japan will have to actively maintain balance in the Indo-Pacific region. With rising tensions in territorial disputes with Japan’s neighbours, PM Abe has advocated closer co-operation between the two countries. Japan realises that a strategic alliance with India is likely to transform the security environment of the region.

In 2016, this led to the signing of a nuclear deal between India and Japan. Japan has signed such a deal with a non-signatory of Non-Proliferation Treaty for the first time. The deal gives Japan the right to supply nuclear reactors, fuel and technology to India which is aimed to help India build six nuclear reactors in southern India, increasing nuclear energy capacity ten-fold by 2032. By doing so, Japan reinforced to the world its faith in the Indian government and its ethos, knowing well the strategic criticism of the same. Japan also revealed its strong will to support India achieve its economic rise that without ample energy resources would be impossible. For India, her economic and developmental aspirations need to be fuelled by massive energy resources. Nuclear energy is the only option that India has that could fuel her ambitions without producing large scale carbon emissions.

There has been scepticism and criticism on the India-Japan nuclear deal, but India is a mature and responsible democracy. Even though it is not a part of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, India’s record has proven her reliability. And, even if the international community officially recognises India as the ‘sixth nuclear great power’ — along with US, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China — this will not necessarily prompt other great powers to claim the ‘seventh’ or ‘eighth’ position in the near future.[8]

The possibility of countries like North Korea, Pakistan and Iran becoming nuclear powers have and will continue to be problematic as these countries are involved in underground procurement. Their intentions are unclear and their geographical proximity to both Japan and India remains a matter of concern. This is amplified by the fact that China is supplying nuclear plants to Pakistan. Nuclear deterrence for both the countries is imperative and a shared concern at this point in time.

The other concern for both countries is the importance of balancing power in the Indo-Pacific region. China in this respect is going to continue being the primary focus for both the countries. The changing US-China dynamic and their ongoing economic war is an additional challenge. The desire of the United States to play a central role in peacekeeping in Asia and build and benefit from regional economies has concerned China who sees itself as the rising power challenging the dominant position of the US.

India and China too have had many border skirmishes and the border disputes remain intractable. From June to August 2017 there was yet another standoff at Doklam with China, this time involving Bhutan. Japan, gave a strong message to China in support of India. That too when powerful countries like the US and Australia chose to take a neutral stand. Japanese Ambassador to India in a strong statement said that no country should change the status quo. During this time, there were the Malabar exercises taking place and Japan dispatched the largest helicopter carrier Izumo to join the US and Indian carriers. Chinese media was quick to warn India and stated that India should not be depending too much on Japan.

The Malabar Exercise which began as a US-India naval drill back in 1992 has become a key platform of engagement in the Indo-Pacific region. Today, with Japans inclusion not just as a guest observer but as a permanent participant, the Malabar Exercise is seen as a platform for the convergence of allies against China’s assertiveness in the region. Its success can be determined by the fact that in the last two decades from a bilateral exercise it has elevated to a trilateral exercise and hopefully a quadrilateral one in the future.

China’s defence budget is three times that of India’s. The 2019 defence budget for China is about USD 177.61 billion. To counter the increasing Chinese defence budget, Japan and India must cooperate more closely. Viewed from this angle, Japan-India cooperation at the Indo-China stand-off at Doklam is an exceptional diplomatic example. Both countries should only elevate such co-operation in the future.

Japan has also been supportive of the present Indian government and has worked with India in many areas to limit and balance the expansion of China. India and Japan have agreed to implement the Trincomalee port development project which decreases the importance of China’s Hambantota port project in Sri Lanka. In Iran, India has collaborated with Japan to develop the Chabahar port project which decreases the importance of the Gwadar port project in Pakistan.

China has always wanted other countries like Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh amongst others to support its position. China’s Belt and Road Initiative with an approximate budget of USD 1 trillion for infrastructure building announced in 2013 by President Xi Jinping has attracted many countries. The State-owned China Communications Construction Company (CCCC), states that it has over 700 projects in more than 100 countries, valued at over USD 100 billion. One such project is the Port City Colombo in Sri Lanka. However, what these countries may have overlooked is that the CCCC has been mired with controversy and difficulty. The Hambantota port, for instance, has barely had any container traffic and has left Sri Lanka in debt and the port in virtual disarray. When Sri Lanka could not pay the loans it took to build the port, it gave the port to China on a 99-year lease.  This by many is also seen as a debt trap.

Similarly, due to China’s hasty approach to set up high-speed railway projects in South East Asia, the Indonesian project has seen a considerable delay. China seems to have overlooked the religious, cultural and economic issues specific to these countries that can create project delays or failures. There is even a question on the route that the high-speed railway project in Thailand is slated to take. Thai analysts fear that the route may not have the potential economic benefits as claimed. Analyst Siwat Luangsomboon from Thailand’s Kasikorn Research Centre said that assuring profitability of the route could prove challenging. “From China’s perspective, the route is beneficial in terms of technology costs and infrastructure. But in Thailand and Laos, two countries with a much smaller area, the route may not pass areas that are production bases or where there is high population density, which will affect long-term train services.”[9]

India has always been a contender to China’s influence in the region and with Prime Minister Modi’s government, China is wary of India’s growing ambition in the Indo-Pacific region. This was evident after the results of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections in India. In an unprecedented reaction, the Chinese vice-President Wang Qishan visited Pakistan to offer security assurances to ensure the integrity of the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the most important stretch of the Belt and Road Initiative. The diversification of CPEC is being seen as a reaffirmation of China’s backing of Pakistan. “No matter how the international landscape changes, China and Pakistan will always stay iron brothers that trust and support each other,” Wang said at a meeting, noting that Beijing had always supported Pakistan in its “core interests”.[10]

However, to counter this initiative, the most important joint project between India and Japan has undoubtedly been the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor and India’s strong refusal to join the “One Belt One Road” summit as China is building a road through Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. This is also a reminder to China that PM Modi’s government has created a new geo-political narrative.

The US-2 Deal

The ShinMaywa US-2 – a Japanese large STOL amphibious aircraft designed for air-sea rescue (ASR) work, and can also be used as a firefighter taking 15 tonnes of water, if sold to India can have strategic and economic implications for India and Japan. The negotiations may be delayed but if it is concluded, the impact of the deal will greatly benefit both the countries. For Japan, this would mean breaking into new markets. Japanese public opinion, as well as the government, is presently divided on the export of defence equipment. But PM Abe is seen as a strong ally of India and Tokyo has seen a clear shift in its security policy under his regime. His keenness to strengthen India will strengthen Japan’s regional influence as well. With President Donald Trump’s government, Japan has been under pressure. With the overtures to North Korea and the US government’s new economic policies, there is uncertainty about the Trump government’s commitment to U.S allies. In case the Trump government decides to re-frame U.S-Japan security pact, Japan will need an additional ally in Asia and that ally can only be India.

India, on the other hand, will benefit by speeding up the Indian Navy response in and around the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, a major strategic area from a geopolitical viewpoint. This US-2 sale has critical strategic potential as it can also be used as a solid symbol of India’s presence and power projection. Also, if the US-2 deal is concluded, it will give India more access to Japan’s sophisticated defence-related technologies. Furthermore, Japans ShinMaywa industries have also offered to set up production in India under the “Make in India” initiative. This would not only be a landmark deal for Japan, as it would be the first major export for Japanese defence but would also boost the “Make in India” initiative by partnering with Mahindra Defense Systems, part of the Mahindra Group, India.

If security cooperation between Japan and India as an important priority, they must not hesitate in promoting the conclusion of this deal, thereby opening the way to strategic benefits for both countries. Many analysts consider this deal “dead” due to the delay. But taking into consideration the benefits of the US-2 deal for both the countries, it may not be wise to disregard it just yet.

Apart from the US-2 and Nuclear deal, there is a lot to look forward to with the India-Japan partnership. As projected, India and Japan being the emerging balancers in the Indo-Pacific region, can begin with supporting countries with border disputes with China around the South China Sea. They can spearhead various trilateral dialogues with other vested countries like Singapore, Philippines, and Vietnam amongst many others. Both the countries can lead the way in securing the Indo-Pacific while co-operating and assisting other countries in the region.

The US-2 deal and the Malabar Exercise are not the only collaborations that both the countries are looking forward to. There is a clear vision outline as seen in the outcome of the 2018 Annual Summit meeting between India and Japan which further identified areas of interest in maritime security. For instance, the Summit vision statement outlined the Agreement for Maritime Domain Awareness. At the outset, this agreement is focussed on commercial shipping but it could in the future provide immense information on maritime movement, intelligence sharing and other security partnerships. Another Agreement that identified the future joint co-operation objectives was the Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA) which states that it “will enhance the strategic depth of bilateral security and defence cooperation”. It further emphasises the importance of this agreement by stating “mutual logistics support in the Indo-Pacific Region contributes to regional peace and stability.”  Japan has signed similar agreements with the U.S and some other countries. Agreements like these enhance a navy’s ability to monitor a large region by using each other’s bases around the world.

Furthermore, Japan has the potential to share further technology with India. For example, to protect India’s aircraft carriers, India must address China’s anti-ship ballistic missiles, which can attack India’s aircraft carriers at any time. Therefore, New Delhi needs a sea-based missile defence system. Under the joint Japan-U.S. development of sea-based missile defence systems, Tokyo is taking the lead on developing important components. Consequently, Japan and India, along with the United States, can potentially cooperate in the missile defence sector. Because missile defence systems are closely related to space technologies, the possibility exists that Japan-U.S.-India cooperation in the missile defence sector will extend to cooperation in space as well.

Moreover, minesweepers are an important tool for India to deal with Chinese submarine incursions because submarines can deploy sea mines, providing a powerful area denial capability. Japan has good know-how and equipment to dispose of sea mines. In fact, since its involvement in World War II, Japan has had to sweep sea mines for more than 65 years after the war. In 1950, Japan participated in the Korean War to sweep sea mines. Furthermore, in 1991, Japan sent minesweepers to dispose of mines after the Gulf War. As a result, under the Japan-U.S. alliance, the United States counts on Japan’s mine-sweeping expertise. Japan is proud of its world-class know-how in minesweeping.

Finally, Japan’s submarine detection sensors are sophisticated because Tokyo has placed an emphasis on detecting Russian submarine activities since the 1980s. Japan’s systems are world-class in this regard. Therefore, to address China’s naval activities in the Indian Ocean, Japan-India strategic cooperation in this area can also be extremely effective and useful”.[11]China’s military is by far the most powerful in the South China Sea. Therefore, it becomes crucial for other countries in the region to develop further collaborations with each other, to work closely in areas of development and security and to create policies that will promote strategic cooperation. These steps will also allow South East Asian countries to forge bonds based on mutual trust and understanding.[12]

Japan is looking out for India because India has the potential to become a trustworthy security partner for the Japan-U.S. alliance. India-Japan partnership can have both a positive impact on regional stability and trilateral India-Japan-U.S. cooperation can also play an important global role.

The future of India-Japan Bilateral Relations

India and Japan share the hope of maintaining peace and security in Asia and are encouraged by their mutually warm relations since India’s Independence. With both governments led by strong security reformists, the route to regional safety and peace is beginning to be defined primarily by India and Japan.

Japan realises that it may not be enough to rely on the US for key security and economic partnerships in the Indo-Pacific region. With President Trump’s government withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and there being further bilateral hitches, Japan needs to create a balancing act. This, of course, does not mean that the dependence on the US should decrease but that Japan would benefit from harnessing other friendly countries to counter China. Japan’s Self Defense Force (SDF) has various limitations and as the Japanese have been raised largely as pacifists, this is a delicate situation. India realises that for her growing infrastructural and technological requirements, Japan is a strong partner with a history of success and achievements in these sectors. But to maintain good relations with Japan, India will also have to consider maintaining relations with the US.

The India-Japan relationship is important from any lens, be it economic, security, geopolitical or even cultural. Beijing, Tokyo, Washington and New Delhi are probably the most vested in this emerging relationship. India is a dormant superpower in terms of human resource, economy and defence and Japan appreciates this and realises the potential of India against an assertive China. India, with Japans aid for infrastructure development and defence partnerships can enhance its productivity, economic growth and industrialisation. Japans ODA can help India like no other aid from any other country. If India continues to value its relationship with Japan and appreciates the role that it has played in elevating India’s global status, it won’t be long for Japan to be India’s top strategic partner, potentially at the same rank as the US or Europe. However, this will not undermine or substitute India’s many other strategic partnerships; if anything it will complement them.

The future holds many possibilities for strengthening networks in South East Asia. The FOIP framework is being pushed with determination by both the countries. Japan’s involvement in infrastructure building in the North East Region of India is one such example of the FOIP framework being put into action. The main aim of the project is to increase trade between India and South East Asia but infrastructural development in the region will also allow for easier movement for the Indian Army that will be able to deploy forces and supplies faster to the border area in case of emergencies.

Most recently, from 2 May 2019, one of the most significant multilateral activities took place on the South China Sea much to China’s dismay. Japan’s Maritime Self-Defence Force, Indian Navy, United States Navy and the Philippines Navy sailed together for the first time. The vessels included some of the finest and largest in their fleet. The Indian Navy included destroyer INS Kolkata and INS Shakti, Japanese side included the Japanese lead ship of the Izumo class helicopter destroyer, JS Izumo, in addition to the destroyer JS Murasame, the US Navy’s Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer and USS William P. Lawrence and Philippines patrol vessel BRP Andres Bonifacio. They engaged in communication and formation exercises, passenger transfers as well as leadership exchange aboard JS Izumo.

Multilateral exercises like the above will allow countries with a common vision of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific region to create networks, increase familiarity and trust, and have an opportunity to train together. Inadvertently, the message that it also gives to China is that the FOIP is not just a term but an actionable plan.Later in 2019, India and Japan have also agreed to hold a 2+2 dialogue between the defence and foreign ministers of the two countries. The 2+2 dialogue is also a testament to this emerging friendship and vision of both the countries for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific region that is fair and inclusive, thus limiting the aggressive posturing by China.

However, with China, both countries will continue their economic and strategic pursuits irrespective of their concerns with its assertiveness. But the common historical, cultural, economic, geopolitical vision shared by India and Japan will finally form a formidable union that can determine the future of the FOIP framework.

*Ms. Rami Desai is the Director of iSTRAT CA, a company that deals in research, communication and data management and skill development.


[1]Joshi, Bharat R. “A Strategic Framework That Works for Japan and India.” The Japan Times, n.d.

[2] Ibid.

[3]“Press Release.” JICA. Accessed September 22, 2019.

[4]Desk, Express Drives. “Japan-India Institute for Manufacturing to Create 30,000 Skilled Manpower for India, Gets ISO Certification.” The Financial Express. The Financial Express,

November 5, 2018.

[5]Joshi, Bharat R, n1.

[6]Sasi, Anil. “Explained: Where India, Japan Ties Stand Now and What Is Planned for the Future.” The Indian Express, October 30, 2018.

[7]Joshi, Bharat R, n1

[8]“The Significance of the Japan–India Nuclear Deal.” East Asia Forum, December 22, 2015.

[9]“If China Funds Thailand’s High-Speed Rail, Will the Debt Be Too Much?” South China Morning Post, April 25, 2019.

[10]Chaudhury, Dipanjan Roy. “Backing Pakistan ‘Core Interests,’ China V-P Inks Pacts to Diversify CPEC.” The Economic Times. Economic Times, May 28, 2019.

[11]“The Importance of a Japan-India Amphibious Aircraft Deal.” Indian Defence Update, May 18, 2019.

[12]cogitASIA CSIS Asia Policy Blog. Accessed September 22, 2019.

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