Later this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi should be making a state visit to Japan. Over the past few years Tokyo has emerged as the most important capital in Asia for New Delhi’s long-term strategic interests. This relationship has two fundamental but inter-related pillars. One is the rising importance of Japanese investment and the ability of this investment to provide the competitive manufacturing sector that India needs for genuine economic take-off. The other is a strategic relationship that is fundamentally about finding means to constrain the dangerously nationalistic strains of Chinese foreign policy.
Beijing became more assertive after it came to see the 2008 financial crisis as the beginning of the end of US global influence. It then reasserted or used military pressure to aggravate largely dormant territorial disputes along the Indian border, over the Senkaku Islands off the coast of Japan, and, most blatantly, lay claim to the entire South China Sea. China has faced strong resistance and even severe economic costs following the first two claims. But its attempt to snatch and grab the South China Sea has proven remarkably successful. The Southeast Asian nations have been unable to put up a united front against Beijing. Most strikingly, an isolationist Washington initially looked the other way.
India has faced a dilemma on how to respond to China’s snatch-and-grab of the northern half of the South China Sea. Beijing’s actions are a breathtaking violation of international law. New Delhi understands that such violations, in which might makes right, undermine the international order that it both supports and benefits from. Beijing seems to have concluded that legal agreements reflect power realities and when the realities shift, so should the agreement — even if unilaterally. But the other reality New Delhi faces is a lack of military and economic strength to project power into the South China Sea. It has thus criticised China indirectly by upholding general principles like “freedom of navigation” and the United Nations law of the sea. Overall, it has been cautious not to overstretch its limited security resources. India struggles to defend Mumbai and would be guilty of hubris if it thought it could do a better job protecting Malaysia.
Therefore, India’s priority must be to build up its own capabilities both in terms of economic and military heft but also in the way of relationships with countries with similar concerns regarding China. Japan is the only one in Asia that can both massively enhance the country’s economic base while contributing to strategic balance as well. Tokyo is not a perfect partner: it is geographically far-off and its pacifist tendencies mean that simple things like buying military equipment are extremely difficult. Japan has its own complaints regarding India, especially on the investment side. The China challenge provides an existential impetus to overcoming such problems which the two governments must address post haste.