The Indo-Japanese Relationship: Predicated on External Factors?

5 April 2016 Lindsay Hughes, Research Analyst, Indian Ocean Research Programme Download PDF

Key Points

  • The India-Japan relationship was born out of mutual strategic necessity.
  • While it had its beginnings during the tenure of India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, it really hit its stride when the nationalistic Mr Modi and his equally nationalistic Japanese counterpart took office almost simultaneously.
  • Both leaders perceived China as a threat, which has hastened the development of the alliance.


India and Japan have a developing relationship that extends into the economic, trade and technology fields. Although there has been historical contact between the two countries – Buddhist texts from India, for instance, found their way to Japan via China in ancient times – it amounted to very little in real terms. More recently, after the Second World War, an Indian judge, Justice Radhabinod Pal, was one of the jurists at the Tokyo International Military Tribunal for the Far East, which was constituted in April 1946 to try some of Japan’s wartime leaders for war crimes. In June 1952, the two countries signed the India-Japan Peace Treaty. According to the terms of this treaty, they agreed to maintain amicable ties and negotiate on aviation, shipping and potential commercial ties. Perhaps most importantly, India agreed to waive all claims to reparation from Japan for the latter’s actions against the former during the Second World War.

India received Japanese Overseas Development Assistance grants from 1958 but little else eventuated in terms of trade and commerce, politics (except in terms of the two countries as secondary players in the larger Cold War) or defence relations. The Cold War, in fact, saw the two diverge as Japan became an established player in the United States-led Western camp and India, despite its adherence to its principles of non-alignment, leaned more to the Soviet Union than it did to the West or, indeed, to non-alignment. Japan held India at arm’s length, recognising its Peace Treaty with the latter but remaining cognisant of the fact that New Delhi was growing increasingly close to Moscow, with which Tokyo had both a territorial dispute in the Kuril Islands and an ideological one. The visits by Japanese and Indian leaders to each other’s countries brought about little by way of change.

It took the rise of a third country and the election of two nationalist leaders in Japan and India to change that situation.


The end of the Cold War saw changes in India’s foreign policy. Without its security guarantor – in fact, with the collapse of its security guarantor – New Delhi realised that it had to integrate further than it previously had with the world. It also lost a major trading partner. Its GDP per capita fell to US$350 in 1991. This was in stark contrast to the booming economies of the South-East Asian “Tigers”. Concurrently, a drastic reduction in its foreign exchange holdings forced then Finance Minister, Manmohan Singh, to seek to integrate India’s economy with that of the world, starting with the South-East Asian economies. This led to India’s “Look East” policy which, in its second phase, was extended to include Japan.

Japan’s situation was different but no less troublesome. Despite being firmly embedded in the US camp, it still attracted severe criticism from Washington when the US went to war against Iraq in 1990. Tokyo was criticised by Washington for its “cheque book diplomacy”; it contributed a sizable US$13 billion to the US war effort but did little to provide manpower or materiél. In 1993, furthermore, North Korea conducted missile tests and followed that up with another test that saw a missile fly over Japan’s Honshu Island in 1998. In between those incidents, Japan had a front-row seat in the nuclear tensions between North Korea and the US in 1994. These incidents saw the development of a debate on Japanese security among its élite with influential strategists such as Sato Seizaburo demanding no less than an amendment to Japan’s pacifist constitution and a re-assessment of its right to individual and collective self-defence.

While these issues brought about disparate difficulties for India and Japan, they were united in their growing concerns about the rise of China. As the Chinese economy grew, its political and military influence and capacity grew accordingly. This growth inevitably brought China into competition with India and Japan, two of its immediate neighbours. The unease felt in those two countries grew when China conducted an underground nuclear test in May 1995 and followed that with two more in August and September of the same year. Those tests saw relations with Japan, which ostensibly opposed the employment of nuclear power for military purposes, deteriorate and cause India to conduct its own tests in 1998. Unable to differentiate between the motivations of China and India in conducting these tests or unwilling to do so, Indo-Japanese relations also plummeted.

China’s nuclear tests and its growing influence affected India and Japan in another way: it brought the two closer together as each sought to ally itself with the other to balance China. Japan fears that China’s People’s Liberation Army is modernising in preparation for a struggle with the US over Taiwan and also against Taiwan. Between 1990 and 2005, China’s military spending saw an average increase of fifteen per cent per annum. In 2007 that figure rose by eighteen per cent to more than US$45 billion, leading then US Vice-President Dick Cheney to accuse China of pursuing military policies that were at odds with its stated ambition of a “peaceful rise”. Japan also fears that China could seek vengeance for the crimes committed by Japanese army leaders in Manchuria and other parts of China during the Second World War. China, for its part, accuses Japan of remaining militarily-minded and secretly unrepentant for those war crimes, despite its protestations to the contrary. China has also been wary of Japan’s ability to acquire a military nuclear capacity and makes no effort to conceal its feelings on that issue and Japan’s moves to re-interpret Article IX of its constitution, which forbids the country from ever again going to war. While China has some cause for concern, the mutual suspicion between the two countries leads to further suspicion and antagonism.

India, similarly, views China with a degree of suspicion. This is predicated to a very large degree upon the war it fought and lost against China in 1962. That defeat has seared itself into the Indian psyche. Thus, when China conducted its nuclear tests in 1964, India began its own nuclear research in earnest. China’s annual nuclear tests between 1965 and 1973 undoubtedly spurred India towards conducting its own “peaceful” nuclear test in 1974. (It is to be noted, however, that despite several more Chinese nuclear tests between 1974 and 1996, India did not conduct further tests until 1998.) India, nevertheless, began over time to look past its ongoing tensions with Pakistan and see itself more as a competitor to China. Many military innovations and acquisitions automatically took on an anti-China perspective. Thus, when India unveiled the canister-launched version of its Agni-V nuclear-capable ballistic missile, a report from a major Indian newspaper described it as ‘[t]he country’s most formidable nuclear missile till now since it brings the whole of China and much more within its strike envelope’, adding that the Defence Research and Development Organisation, the missile’s designer, ‘… says it can develop missiles with strike ranges of 10,000-km to rival China’s DF-31A missile that can hit targets 11,200-km. “But there is no need as of now. Agni-V’s strike envelope takes care of our existing threat perceptions,” said a scientist.’ This aspect aside, India also views with suspicion China’s alliance with Pakistan, the arch-enemy with which it has fought three wars since 1947.

The stage, clearly, was set for closer Indo-Japanese ties based on a mutual distrust of China.

Shinzo Abe, a staunch conservative, was elected to the office of Prime Minister of Japan in September 2012 for the second time and re-elected in December 2014 after calling a snap election. Mr Abe visited India in 2007 during his first tenure as Prime Minister, during which he proposed an alliance of Asian democracies to counter China’s growing economic and strategic influence. There were three major outcomes of Mr Abe’s next visit to India in 2014 when he met with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. First, the India-Japan Global and Strategic Partnership, which had been limited until then to Japanese assistance in infrastructure projects in India, was boosted to include strategic and security issues. The intention of this was clarified almost immediately by a joint statement from the two Prime Ministers that virtually condemned China’s unilateral announcement of an Air Defence Identification Zone over the sea to its east. Third, Singh and Abe announced closer co-operation between their respective armed forces and a joint naval exercise in the western Pacific. China, it would appear, was the focus of these three agreements. Mr Abe was the Chief Guest at India’s Republic Day celebrations in 2014.

Mr Abe also struck up a friendship with Narendra Modi who was then the Chief Minister of Gujarat and who had introduced far-reaching economic reforms in that state with successful outcomes. It came as little surprise then, that when the very nationalistic Mr Modi was elected to the office of Prime Minister of India in May 2014, one of his first overseas visits was to Japan to meet the very nationalistic Mr Abe. The two leaders discussed civilian nuclear energy, the supply of rare earths to Japan to compensate for reduced Chinese supplies and joint naval exercises. Japan agreed to increase its foreign direct investment in India to US$35 billion over five years and to work on enhancing India’s infrastructure, including creating and supplying bullet train networks.

Mr Abe’s visit to India in December 2015 yet again saw the two countries enter into agreements that were decidedly China-focussed. Modi and Abe signed two major agreements, one on the Transfer of Defence Equipment and Technology, presumably in anticipation of Japan’s sale of Shinmaywa US-2 amphibian aircraft, allegedly among the best of its kind anywhere in the world, and the other on Security Measures for the Protection of Classified Military Information. These are foundational agreements that have set the stage for further military and strategic co-operation between the two countries and are a striking indication of Japan’s (read Abe’s) gradual negation of its constitutional requirement not to supply military technology to other countries. (The other major example of this negation is Japan’s bid to supply its Soryu-class submarines to Australia.) China appears to be, once again, the focus of these agreements.

The military factor aside, the two countries announced a US$12 billion facility to support Japanese organisations that plan to operate in India. Some of the major infrastructure projects that Japan supports in India include the Western Dedicated Freight Corridor, the Ahmedabad Metro Project, the modernisation of ship recycling yards in Gujarat, the Mumbai trans-harbour link, the peripheral ring road around Bengaluru, the Chennai Metro project, the Tuticorin outer harbour project, the rejuvenation of the Ganges River, the Shinkansen bullet train project to connect Ahmedabad in Mr Modi’s home state of Gujarat to Mumbai, India’s financial capital, and road connectivity projects in India’s north-eastern states that border Chinese Tibet. Japan also announced overseas development aid of 400 billion yen (approximately $4.6 billion) to India in 2015 and agreed to train ten thousand Indian students and trainees in various capacities in Japan over the next five years. To boost tourism, India offered Japanese tourists a visa-on-arrival facility, which was to come into effect from March this year.

Arguably most important, however, was the agreement reached by the two countries on the supply of civilian nuclear technology to India. Again, not surprisingly, the two countries used the opportunity to emphasise that peace, stability and development in the Indo-Pacific region are indispensable to India’s national security and prosperity, and that close co-operation between Japan and India is the key to achieving regional peace and stability. They also emphasised the importance of international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the peaceful resolution of territorial disputes without the use or threat of force, freedom of navigation and overflight and unimpeded lawful commerce in international waters. China’s territorial claims in the South and East China Seas, its refusal to acknowledge the jurisdiction of the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, to which the Philippines has brought its case against China’s territorial claims, and its unilateral announcement of an Air Defence Identification Zone come to mind immediately as the target of the joint statement between the Indian and Japanese leaders. Given the depth of their strategic re-alignment towards each other, it is little wonder that India and Japan have included a military aspect to their agreements.

To conclude, it is difficult to fathom how two hard-headed, nationalistic leaders could have created so great a strategic re-alignment towards each other, their personal friendship notwithstanding, had it not been for a major external factor: the rise of China. Beijing poses a threat to both New Delhi and Tokyo, first by the sheer speed of its rise and, second, by its aggressive behaviour towards its neighbours in the Indo-Pacific region. India and Japan see the opportunity to balance China though their alliance, one blessed by the US, which is making its own approaches towards both countries in its own efforts to form regional alliances to balance China. It is certainly true that India could prove to be the market that Japan requires to re-start its economy now that China appears to be growing more distant, but to this end at least, the India-Japan alliance is one born of perceived mutual necessity and not one that developed through normal trade and commerce.

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