In 2018, Japan was one of world’s top purchasers of American defence equipment, and it has just announced its intent to purchase 105 advanced F-35 stealth aircraft.
Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is in a tearing hurry in the remaining little over two years left in his term-limited tenure as Prime Minister to seal a lasting legacy. Unless a new formula can be found to further extend the time-limit stated in his Liberal Democratic Party’s Constitution, Mr Abe will have to demit office in September 2021. At the same time, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is currently at the peak of his strength and stature following a sweeping electoral victory.
One commonality of interest is a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” originally alluded to by PM Abe in his address to Indian Parliament in August 2007, in his first term of office, by citing the Confluence of the Two Seas, year 1655, book written by Mughal prince Dara Shikoh, on the mixing of waters of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Another is to keep the flow of oil being sold by Iran at rock-bottom prices, even in local currencies like the rupee, amidst non-UN economic sanctions imposed on Iran by the US government.
In 2018, Japan was one of the world’s top purchasers of American defence equipment, and it has just announced its intent to purchase 105 advanced F-35 stealth aircraft. Stealth because they cannot be located on radar. This purchase would give Japan the largest F-35 fleet of any US ally, at a cost of over $9 billion, and this also serves to reduce Japan’s trade surplus with the US that is a major irritant in relations. PM Abe has successfully avoided a trade war with the US, unlike the US-China trade war. Abe has used multiple tactics, including playing golf with President Donald Trump every time they meet, a game Abe loves, and Abe repeatedly needs more strokes to complete his 18 holes than Trump, who naturally has had the advantage of regularly playing golf on weekends with the greats of the game like Tiger Woods at Trump’s many golf properties.
Similarly, through effective informal diplomacy, there has been recent movement on formal offers the US has made to India on defensive THAAD and Patriot missile systems that are capable of knocking out incoming ballistic missiles from across two troubled borders. These systems, originally derided as “Star Wars”, have become part of the arsenal of Japan, Korea and NATO allies. The political origin of such systems was the passionate advocacy by the late US Senator Malcolm Wallop, a close friend of President Reagan, who authored the book The Arms Control Delusion and who believed, and used to tell me, that the USSR and its successor territories would never live up to commitments on arms control and that missile defence was a preferred option. He used to add that some US Senators were naïve to trust without verification.
If one believes in the logic of “peace through strength” then having deterrent high capability equipment would be vital to supporting the Indian defence forces, among the largest in the world, numerically. The Indo-Pacific is increasingly becoming a high-tension flashpoint with the threatened takeover of Taiwan by China. If that were to happen, it would be perceived in Japan as the crossing of a “red line” and risks to Japan itself elevated to the point where it would likely find sufficient domestic support to finally change its “Peace Constitution” that was drafted by the US Occupying Forces soon after the end of World War II. India too sees the Indo-Pacific as its zone of both influence and great trade potential; and wants to keep it free and open. Heads of state from Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand , Nepal and Bhutan attended PM Modi’s second term swearing-in ceremony, countries along with India that comprise BIMSTEC or the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation.
Another area where economics and national security interplay is the complex matter of relations with Iran and its willingness to sell oil at below-market prices in local currency amidst non-UN sanctions imposed by the US. Both Japan and India are deeply enmeshed in importing Iranian oil; and both have historically only adhered to UN-sanctions; and having to cut off oil purchases would be economically harmful to both countries.
The surprising offer by PM Abe to mediate between the US and Iran, accepted by President Trump, in turn throws up yet another commonality of interest. While India has prided itself on its leadership of the Non-Aligned Movement and therefore extensive network of links across the globe with countries like post-revolutionary Iran, as well as increasingly close relationship with the US, it has also been buffeted by its own self-created timidity of diplomatic initiative, irrespective of which party was leading the government. The net result is that one cannot point to many instances where India has been dramatically successful diplomatically on bold initiatives, despite enjoying much worldwide goodwill, historically. Japan has had to manage amidst severe post-War constraints, and despite at one point having been the second-largest economy in the world, it has little to show in terms of spectacular diplomatic successes. However, there has been little-publicised outreach by Japanese leaders, that has kept its own economic interest at heart. For example, while PM Abe’s offer to mediate with Iran may sound as unprecedented, it is a fact that, for example, my good friend and mentor Dr Saburo Okita, a former foreign minister of Japan and distinguished economist, himself went to Iran on a mission to soothe ruffled feathers decades ago. PM Modi’s appointment of former Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar, as Minister for External Affairs, is an interesting development since it enables India to credibly join in these endeavours with expertise to ensure that oil keeps flowing at reduced prices to both India and Japan. Especially since the rupee has been floundering for an extended period, this is a particularly valuable offer. The sanctions the US has imposed on Iran were led by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton. However, the US public is currently very weary of additional conflict, after decades of multiple wars that have been exceedingly costly in both human and financial terms, just as the erstwhile Soviet Union experienced after years of what seemed then as an unending war in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Another commonality of interest, potentially, is to solve the imbroglio in North Korea (DPRK) or mitigate those multiple risks. Japan, and PM Abe especially, have a soul-touching desire to solve the mysteries of Japanese citizens abducted by the North Korean regime and some of whom are still reportedly living in a guarded compound in Pyongyang, and India through its non-alignment, had maintained cordial relations with the North Korean regime for many decades without contributing in any way to the DPRK’s ballistic missile and nuclear programs, unlike two countries in the neighbourhood that have nevertheless not faced any opprobrium.
If India and Japan, not known for bold and publicly risky initiatives, can shake off those reputations for over-cautiousness, there can be useful progress for all, and especially for India-Japan, that is becoming the abiding economic, social and cultural relationship in Asia of the 21st century.
Dr Sunil Chacko is a graduate of Harvard and Columbia University and served in the Executive Office of the World Bank Group. He was a research scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University prior to getting a scholarship to attend Harvard. He is an Adjunct Professor and advises on the Japan-India economic and social relationship.