India–Japan relations have always been on the smooth road and has never been nudged by the USA. But, Mr. Trump’s assertiveness for isolationist policy and his paradoxical behavior have raised eyebrows over the impact on India-USA relations. This may have spiraling impact on India-Japan relation, if the exasperated Trump really pursues an “American only” policy.
Both the USA and Japan are strategically important for India. The USA plays a crucial role in India’s foreign and economic policies and Japan plays a lead role as a strategic economic partner of India.
Japan is a key ally to USA. It has been playing an important role in driving Obama’s Asia pivot policy, the main aim of which is to counter China’s hegemony in Asia. The recent summit between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Japan mirrored Japan’s circuitous drive to accelerate the USA Asia pivot policy.
During the recent visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Japan, economic focuses were preceded by defense commitments. Japan’s sale of US -2 amphibious planes to Indian Navy, a pledge for defense equipment and cooperation through Defense Framework Agreement and Joint Working Group, joint cooperation for development of Chabahar Port in Iran and reiteration of commitment for maintenance of peace in South China sea in the Joint Statement, all reflected new directions in the India-Japan relationship. This harps on dwarfing China’s concern in Asia and Asia –Pacific region
Prime Minster Shinzo Abe explained his new strategy in the Indo-Pacific region. He called for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy in Tokyo International Conference on African Development in August in Nairobi. The aim was to create a stronger connection between Asia and Africa and emphasized a joint role by Japan and India in this connectivity. Both realized the importance of Japan and India cooperation to balance the Indo-Pacific region and continue their maritime exercises with the USA. Maritime exercises by India and the USA in Malabar began in 1992. Later, Japan joined the exercise.
The sustainability of the USA’s Asia Pivot policy and its potential impact on India- Japan relations depends upon how the new US President, Mr Donald Trump, calibrates US foreign policy. Will he tinker Obama’s Asia Pivot strategy or follow suit? If he tinkers, what shape the India- Japan relation will take, given the new direction underpinned in the relation during the recent visit of Modi to Japan?
Mr Trump, as a candidate, was known as “unfriendly toward Japan” (according to The New Yorker) and threatened to quash the fifty-six year old US security alliance with Japan. He said, “ You know we have a treaty with Japan, where if Japan is attacked we have to use the full force and might of United States”. But, “ If we are attacked, Japan doesn’t have to do anything. They can sit home and watch Sony television”. It may prove benign to Mr Abe to amend the Japanese Constitution, despite the Japanese people’s feeble support. But, Trump’s allergy to protect Japan at the cost of American tax payers is likely to weaken the USA – Japan bond.
To this end, a revisit of the India–Japan relationship is not a bad prognosis. With the unexpected victory of Mr Trump, his inexperienced policy strategies are likely to put the India-Japan relationship into quandary, particularly from the perspective of both countries joint role in Asia and Asia–Pacific region.
Mr Modi established a close bond with President Obama, keeping an eye on a nuclear deal and protection to Indian IT professionals in the USA. Will Trump replicate the Obama-Modi partnership? Trump called Mr Modi a ‘great man’ and had expressed his willingness to work closely with India. If Trump pursues an isolationist “America First” policy and the growing relationship between India-Japan is not a hinge on the USA’s foreign policy, including economic expansion, Trump’s isolationist policy is unlikely to haunt the India-Japan relationship.
Trump assertiveness to dump TPP ( Trans-Pacific Partnership) may prove benign for India-Japan relations. This is because it will bring Japan more close to India. Abrogation of TPP is a loss to Japan. It could help Japan to revitalize the economy through a powerful economic block, which spearheads trade and investment opportunities. The dumping of TPP will force Japan to revisit its global strategy for trade and investment partnership with RCEP members, where India offers a big market, owing to high GDP growth and a large middle class.
India has emerged as the Asian Detroit for Japanese automobiles, leaving behind Thailand. India produces three times more cars than Thailand and Japan is dominant player in the Indian car industry. There is a large potential for the Indian automobile market through the RCEP route.
Trump’s outrage against outsourcing cheap human resources and warning to restrict HI B policy may dampen India’s IT software market. But, it may also prove propitious as it will force India to find alternate markets. Japan can prove green-pastures for the new Indian IT software market. Today, Japan constitutes less than 2 percent of India IT software market export. The language barrier, a factor to stymie the India’s export potential of IT software, is abating with the growing Japanese investment in India.
India-Japan relations, which are now deeply rooted, is synergized by several similarities between Mr Modi and Mr Abe. Both are congruous to big ticket reforms. Both inherited deeply fractured economies that were not curable by mild or near term reforms. Mr Modi received an high inflation indicted economy and was engulfed by corrupted governance, and Mr Abe inherited a long recession economy with rare chances for upturn in the economy.
Mr Modi tried to re-write a new chapter for the India- Japan relationship with a shift from strategic economic relation to global partnership. He reiterated that India and Japan were the two oldest democracies in Asia and were among the three biggest economies. He asserted that 21st Century is to be decided by Asian countries and India and Japan bilateral relations will be the engine for 21st Century growth.
Therefore, Trump’s calling Mr Modi a “good man” and Japan being an ally of the USA , which is unlikely to be altered in real foreign policy of Trump, both tender little vibrations in India-Japan relations.
*S. Majumder, Adviser, Japan External Trade Organization ( JETRO), New Delhi. Views are personal.