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The China factor in Japan-India ties

By Rupakjyoti Borah - posted Thursday, 10 December 2009

When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said in Washington during his recent US visit that India has taken note of a "certain amount of assertiveness" by China lately, though he did not "fully understand" the reasons for its actions, he hit the nail right on the head.

With China-India tensions on the rise, in part due to the former’s repeated claims over Arunachal Pradesh, officials and the general public in India have been left wondering what lies behind the recent Chinese bluster. The ghosts of 1962 have been brought out of the closet. As winter sets in on the Himalayan ranges on the Indo-Chinese border, temperatures are sure to rise in the plains below. No wonder, there is a renewed interest in India to improve its ties with Japan.

The relations between India and Japan have seen a series of ups and downs. When India conducted a series of nuclear tests in May 1998, Japan reacted strongly, like many other countries. It suspended all political exchanges and economic assistance for nearly three years. However a turnaround in the damaged ties was achieved in August 2000, when the Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori paid a five-day visit to India.


There have been a number of Prime Ministerial visits since then. The Japanese PM Junichiro Koizumi visited India in 2005, followed by the visit of PM Shinzo Abe in 2007. From the Indian side, Atal Behari Vajpayee visited Japan in 2001, followed by Dr Manmohan Singh in 2006 and 2008.

In May 2007, a new arrangement focusing on the security scenario in the Asia-Pacific, the Quadrilateral Initiative (QI), kicked off with an unpublicised first meeting between US, Indian, Australian and Japanese officials - at the rank of assistant secretary of state - on the sidelines of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) meeting in Manila. However, the Quadrilateral Initiative seems to have fizzled out since none of these countries wanted to antagonise China.

A host of factors have led to a change in the way India and Japan perceive each other. These include factors like the slowdown of the Japanese economy, the rise of China and the growing economic and military might of India. Though Japanese and Indian officials will not like to admit it, both countries have reasons to be concerned about Chinese moves. India’s national psyche still bears the scars of the Sino-Indian war of 1962, despite the efforts to normalise relations. India is worried about China’s “string of pearls” strategy of setting up military and naval facilities in India’s vicinity, in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Japan is also worried about Beijing’s rising clout in Asia and on the international stage.

India plays a major role in ensuring interrupted supply of Japan’s energy requirements. Japan is heavily dependent on energy supplies from the Middle East and the Indian navy is the strongest navy in the entire Indian Ocean littoral region. The southernmost of India’s Andaman and Nicobar group of islands is barely 90 nautical miles from Indonesia’s Aceh province. Another factor which has led to improved ties between India and Japan is the growing closeness between India and the United States.

Japan lent its support to the US-led pro-India consensus in the Nuclear Suppliers Group. During the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Japan in October 2008, Japan and India signed the “Joint Statement on the Advancement of the Strategic and Global Partnership between Japan and India”, and the “Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation between Japan and India”. The security accord is momentous since Tokyo has concluded such an agreement with only one other country, Australia.

The landslide victory of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) in the recent Japanese elections has sent ripples across the world. However, it remains to be seen if the DPJ government brings about a radical change in India-Japan relations. Early indications suggest that Japan’s efforts to tap the Indian market’s potential will continue since the DPJ has promised to raise the Japanese economy out of the slump. A host of Japanese companies, particularly electronics and automobile companies are in India and they have made very healthy profits, even as they face recession elsewhere.


As an observer remarked, India is one of the few Asian countries where a visiting Japanese PM does not have to start with an apology.

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About the Author

Rupakjyoti Borah is a PhD candidate at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, India. He has been a Visiting Fellow at the Centre of International Studies, University of Cambridge, UK.

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