It is hard to imagine two countries more different than India and Japan, without falling prey to cliché. They have different thought processes, different religions, and different economic development. They are polar opposites when it comes to social organization, material richness, and the image projected to the world. For as deeply intertwined as India’s history is with British colonial rule, Japan is equally as proud for having never been subjected to the dishonor of a foreign cultural conquest.
And yet the two countries have excellent relations: two Asian giants, one in the economic sense and the other in the political. Although distant from each other, India and Japan find many points of contact, but the interests that bring them together are primarily two: the complementary nature of their economies, and a shared fear of Chinese expansionism.
India touts its demographic dividend, while Japan is a society that is growing old in its temples. The former is working to improve its quality of life, while the former struggles to maintain its current high standard. Delhi imports Japanese products that suffer from lack of internal demand, and serves also as an attractive alternative for multinational corporations looking to delocalize. As a result, a large part of India’s local automotive industry is the product of Japanese investment. Japan is the fourth-largest investor in India, following the UK, Mauritius, and Singapore.
Trade volumes are modest but growing rapidly, especially after the signature one year ago of an economic partnership deal that eliminated virtually all customs duties. India also represents a bulwark for Japan’s quest for energy from the Middle East. Sixty years of diplomatic relations were celebrated with numerous political and economic visits. The relationship was sealed by joint military exercises in the Sea of Japan. The operation was not excessive, involving only 1,400 sailors and four warships, but the true purpose of the exercise was clear: a signal to China, who has been practicing an expansionist policy along the Asian shores of the Pacific, full of downplayed demands. This immense natural stage is becoming the meeting place for the ambitions of three contrasting powers.
India would like to expand its sphere of influence east of the Strait of Malacca, to gain access to the Pacific, in addition to the Indian Ocean. Guided by ambitious and well-equipped armed forces, even in political circles it is believed that India’s size cannot be limited to simply leading a sub-continent. Economic growth and the confirmation of alternative but fruitful models has given Indian society a boost of national pride that sees itself on an international course in the short term.
Japan instead would rather maintain its status quo. After its defeat in WWII, Japan has counted on the US umbrella to provide it with friendship and protection. Along with South Korea and Taiwan, Japan formed part of a cordon around China. There has been no love lost between China and Japan for centuries. Japan has relatively few territorial disputes, generally a sign of unresolved tensions, but it is also the country most troubled by Beijing’s assertive policy. China is reconsidering its continental stance. It has invested in its army and navy, paralleling its economic growth with military expansion. Its ships sail beyond Chinese territorial waters with surprising frequency. In a sense it is a return to past prominence, to the beginning of the Ming Dynasty, when China was the largest, most powerful, and most prosperous country in the world. Admiral Zheng He, a Muslim and a eunuch, led seven expeditions into the Indian Ocean between 1405 and 1433. His ships reached the far away ports of Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Horn of Africa.
As is well known, a decadent, corrupt, and Sino-centric court burned the ships and condemned China to isolation and backwardness. Six hundred years later, the shipyards of Nanjing have built a replica of Zheng He’s ship, a seventy-one meter “treasure ship” that in 2014 will reprise the ancient admiral’s original voyages. The political significance of this effort is easy to see. It is a reminder that for centuries the southern seas were the dominion of the Chinese, a historical precedent that will not be disregarded in future negotiations.
Mundane stretches of water are now beginning to resemble a chessboard. China looks to contain India with a string of pearls, a series of assets strategically placed in India’s neighboring rivals. Beijing has built a series of important ports in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Burma, and Thailand, all for the purpose of protecting its ships and supplies. Delhi responds in kind, strengthening ties with Tokyo and exerting its influence over the ten ASEAN countries during disputes with Beijing over the South China Sea. With open conflict being all but impossible, the players flex their muscles, count their alliance, and most importantly they show a willingness to encroach upon water that until now were considered to belong to others. Just like globalization, shipping lanes, naval maneuvers, and the oddities of international alliances know no borders.