India-Japan Ties: An Evolving Partnership In Troubled Waters

Since the 1990’s, India’s strategic outlook has steadily evolved from being a land power to becoming a maritime power. The change was prompted by its growing trade and the need for security of its trade and energy routes. Consequently, the sphere of interest for India also expanded from South Asia to the Indian Ocean Region. “Look East” Policy re-designated as “Act East” Policy by the Modi Government – is an important pillar of India’s evolving maritime outlook. New Delhi’s maritime concerns include ensuring a peaceful atmosphere in the Indian Ocean Region.
India’s strategic location in the region has bestowed it with significant advantages. Especially when the world focus in the 21st century has shifted to the Indo-Pacific region from the Atlantic. The region has come to prominence for its geopolitical and strategic significance as well as maritime trade passing through the sea lanes.
It is an energy-rich region with an abundance of mineral wealth and marine biodiversity. More than half of the world’s container ships, cargo and oil tankers pass through the maritime trade routes in this region. These sea lanes function as veins and arteries of global economies facilitating maritime trade.
India is seen as an emerging power in the region and the only competitor to China in the long run. The ‘rise’ of China’s economic and political might and its assertiveness over territorial boundaries in East and South China Sea have raised concerns among littoral states in the region. The 21st Century Maritime Silk Road under One Belt One Road initiative by China is seen as its expansion in the region through infrastructure and port-led development.
These initiatives indicate China’s growing influence with shifting the power dynamics in Beijing’s favour. The ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy’ by Japan supported by India through its Act East Policy aims to counter changing dynamics in the regional politics. The strategy aims to connect the two continents—Asia with Africa—and the two oceans—Indian and Pacific. Japan has been a major partner in India’s rise. At the early stage of India’s liberalization process, it offered to invest in India. The partnership has strengthened since Modi and Abe have taken over as Prime Ministers of India and Japan respectively.
Japan has offered to invest in major infrastructure projects in India. These include Mumbai Metro III (through JAICA), Mumbai-Ahmedabad Bullet Train project, Delhi-Mumbai and Chennai-Bengaluru Industrial Corridors. Its Overseas Development Assistance has grown many folds in the past few years. Japan is the largest bilateral donor for India, extending loans and grants since 1958.
India must grab this opportunity to attract Japanese investments for port-led development under the Sagarmala initiative. About 95% of India’s merchandise trade in volume passes through sea-ports. Hence, ports function as economic drivers in country’s growth and development. India’s turnaround time at major ports was approximately 4 days in 2014-15, as against the global average benchmark of 1-2 days. Thus, India must improve the efficiency of its ports with modern capabilities to boost its economic activity.
Japan is India’s third largest source of foreign direct investment with $26 billion inflows over the last 17 years. Similarly, it is India’s 11th largest trading partner with bilateral trade worth over $14 billion in 2015-16.
The partnership has gone well beyond investment and trade. Seaborne threats in the form of piracy and maritime terrorism have made the maritime security of utmost importance. Japan has now become a permanent partner in the Malabar naval exercise. Tokyo has made a nuclear deal with New Delhi – the first ever by it with any country that is not a signatory to the NPT. Together, the two countries have proposed to promote the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC).
The rise of China has proved to be a major concern for both India and Japan. Both perceive it will jeopardize the peace of the Indo-Pacific region. Both are not happy with the Chinese position in the South China Sea. The Joint Communique/Statement after the recent visit by the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to India clearly points to the role of China in supporting countries like Pakistan and North Korea. The use of the word alliance in the Communique overcomes the old Indian taboo.
The stronger cooperation between the two countries is a clear message to China, at a time when the role of US in Asia is at best uncertain. The two Asian democracies are signalling that they are prepared to play a positive role in the Indo-Pacific region together. The growing friendship between the two countries has a significant geopolitical context that seems to drive their geo-economics further.
India, Japan and the US have further planned to enhance cooperation in maritime security, connectivity and proliferation issues. This comes in the wake of turbulent situation in the region with increasing Chinese dominance in the South China Sea and North Korea’s firing of ballistic missiles over Japan and its sixth nuclear test, conducted recently.
These uncertain and unforeseeable events in the world politics demand for a resurgence in maritime diplomacy with changing times. Maritime diplomacy is now not only restricted to politics, trade and security but has widened its gambit towards climate change and sustainable environment. Both India and Japan are committed to freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific region respecting the sovereignty, international law, practising free and fair trade and promoting dialogue. These evolving India-Japan ties with increased cooperation, signify concentrated efforts towards re-balancing regional order.

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