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What Are The Options For India Vis-À-Vis Sino-Japanese Rivalry?
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Sumantra Maitra | Date:06 Sep , 2016 0 Comments
Sumantra Maitra
is doctoral researcher at the University of Nottingham, UK.

Credit goes to Mr Shinzo Abe, as he drove his liberal party to a second straight victory in Japan’s elections. When in 2012, Abe first won, he came on a platform of plain economic realities that Japan was facing. After four years of rule by LDP, Abe was propelled to the forefront to fix the shambles that Japanese economy was. After he came to power, his government took a little bit nationalistic tone. Abe, who is often compared to India’s PM Modi, as the new age conservative center right pragmatic leaders, is in that respect, the exact opposite to Modi.

While Narendra Modi came with nationalistic overtones and turned to be a primarily trade and economics PM, Abe was in reverse. That probably worked, in his country, as Abe got re-elected with a supermajority in both the houses. It is a phenomenal achievement and, even though the economy remains stagnant, Abe’s victory in both the houses means, changes are coming.

Shinzo Abe has long wanted to transform his country, and not just economically but bring back the heydays of the 1980s. He wants to fundamentally alter the state of his country. Abe wanted to change Japanese pacifist constitution, to what he says as “fit the times”. Abe said that, Japan needs to worry about its security posture with the changing times, as United States, the traditional power balancer and security provider in Asia, is in an accepted decline.

The policy circles within the United States have open debate, if they need or are capable of carrying the security burden of stable and rich countries like Japan and Korea, and with the rise of Donald Trump, these debates are increasingly becoming public, thereby influencing policy decisions in alliance states like Japan as well. In that respect, Abe makes sense to his countrymen when, he states that Japan faces multiple growing and mutating threat scenarios and, is contemplating taking its own security destiny in its own hands.

Although, his countrymen disagree as to how much that security buildup is necessary. While there is no doubt, Japanese people are pursued by the light nationalism of Abe, otherwise he wouldn’t win twice, with this stagnant economy, his ‘gung ho’ attitude about militarism is what makes many Japanese pensive.

There have been protests before and any change in the constitution needs to be updated and corroborated with a referendum which will be nationwide and, as divisive referendums are, this can actually tear the country apart. Will Abe risk it? Hard to say yet. If he can build his legacy, build on economy, then he might not. If he has no other way, and wants to take his country down on the road that David Cameron just faced, then it will be a tragic end indeed.

Conservative MPs have enough seats to start the constitutional change. However whether they want to, is a different matter, but they will be sure to try and rip up the nationalist genie whenever the economy goes down. Reforming the constitution imposed upon Japan by United States, post second world war is an unpopular decision, which gained traction over time, and Abe risks losing his political prowess, if he focuses on that and only that. Poll in Asahi, as reported by Guardian shows 48 percent in favour, and 44 against. In an eventuality of a referendum, Japan will be torn apart.

Outside in diplomacy, Abe will continue his trend of G7 major powers liberal trend, which was even highlighted during Obama’s visit to Hiroshima. The thing that is worrying is how much US can control the Japanese alliance behaviour. And what if Japan drags US into a conflict in Asia, which brings us to Abe’s economy. After its failed and hyped launch, the stagnation is still haunting Japan. Productivity is down, as is competitiveness. And most importantly, the promised version of Japan’s economy, the labour reforms and immigration reforms, never happened.

Japan is a dying country, with negative population growth, and majority of the population is old and over working age. That could be modified with talent and immigration, but Japan is also a notoriously closed and insular country when it comes to welcoming foreigners and skilled migrants. Japanese Indian trade deals and skilled migrant exchange, as well as student exchange and scholarships schemes will solve the problem, but unfortunately, we haven’t seen much progress in that direction yet.

The military is a different game. Japan and India are natural allies, and both the admins know that. Japan and India take part in the Malabar exercise regularly. Tokyo and Delhi are steadily expanding cooperation in the military fields[1], Japanese scholars urge regularly for India to start a formal strategic alliance, [2] and Indian defense scholars are also recently agreeing to that inevitability. [3]

Now that Japan is testing long range missiles, and the East Asia region is heating up, India can start psy-ops in the South China sea, and corner China with pincer movements which are classical Mahanian naval tactics. [4] There is scholarly agreement that, Japanese military is quite capable on its own to tackle Chinese military forces. [5]

However, the point I am trying to make here is not one of policy prescription, neither one of capability. Indian military has now no intention or obligation to come into Japan’s aid, in case of a military conflict with China. Now does Japan need Indian military help. The point however remains, that India, in case of a conflict between China and Japan, can successfully exploit the leverage.

The situation will be qualitatively similar to United States sending USS Enterprise to the Bay of Bengal, as a show of force. It is well known in Chinese policy circles that, China is loath to fight or face two conflicts on two fronts. Given that situation, a conflict between China and Japan might be a golden opportunity for India to conduct psy-ops and show of force in South China sea, as a leverage point, and further studies as to the feasibility needs to be done by the Indian military urgently.

It would be interesting to see which route Abe takes to solidify his legacy. Whether he will bring back Japan’s primarily trade giant days with the help of India, or whether he will be known as the man who reversed the pacifist past of Japan, again with help from Indian military. Only time will speak, but it will be interesting to watch.


[1] Mina Pollmann March 04, 2015, The Diplomat, Japan and India’s Warming Defense Ties

[2] Satoru Nagao Why Japan needs India as Strategic Partner?

[3] China pushes natural allies India, Japan closer to US

[4]For further reading and detailed studies done on this matter, please see
“Indian Naval Strategy in the Twenty-first Century” By James R. Holmes, Andrew C. Winner, Toshi Yoshihara. Also, “An Indian Monroe Doctrine”

[5] For more structural comparative analysis, please see more quantitative points about military balance. ,


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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

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