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India-Japan Ties: Asia's Fastest Growing Relationship?

A discussion about the partnership described as Asia's fastest growing relationship.

Date & Time

Nov. 15, 2011
3:30pm – 5:30pm ET


5th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center
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In 2007, India and Japan concluded a strategic agreement. A joint declaration of New Delhi and Tokyo announced that this accord would become an “essential pillar for the future architecture” of Asia. Since then, the two countries have signed a comprehensive economic partnership agreement and held preliminary talks on a potential civil nuclear deal. At an Asia Program event on November 15, speakers offered Indian, Japanese, and American perspectives on what one strategist has described as Asia’s fastest growing relationship.

According to Takenori Horimoto, professor of contemporary South Asian politics at Shobi University, incompatibilities in the foreign policy stances of the two nations prevented the development of fruitful bilateral relations during the Cold War. Japan was closely aligned with the United States, while India remained formally non-aligned and even flirted with the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, India maintained a closed economy in contrast to Japan’s relatively open export-led economic policy. Since the 1990s, however, there has been a renaissance in relations between Japan and India. With New Delhi’s post-Cold War economic liberalization policies, India has become a new market for Japan. Meanwhile, the rise of China has meant that both Japan and India have increasingly eyed each other as potential strategic partners in the last five years.

Indeed, as K.V. Kesavan, a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation noted, India-Japan relations have entered into a period of relative stability. A more multidimensional foreign policy in New Delhi than that which existed under the Cold War has included a move to make India a maritime power and to forge friendships to the nation’s East, including with Australia, the United States, and Japan. This has complemented a commitment across the Japanese political spectrum to improve bilateral relations with India. Certainly, Indian nuclear tests in 1998 did result in consternation in Japan, a nation resolutely committed to nuclear non-proliferation efforts. However, since the administration of Yoshiro Mori, Japan’s prime minister from 2000 to 2001, business and political leaders from Japan have been eager to visit India and continue to reaffirm the relationship. Even Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama (2009-2010), whose foreign policy choices vis-à-vis the United States led to massive confusion and political tension in Tokyo, was not too distracted to pay a major state visit to India.

For the United States, the increasingly warm bilateral relations between India and Japan are a welcome development. According to Daniel Twining, senior fellow for Asia at the German Marshall Fund, a key U.S. strategic goal since at least 1996 has been to convince an often reluctant Japan to play more of an active role as a security provider in Asia. Such a move represents a desire on the part of the United States to move away from its Cold War “hub and spokes” model of alliance management to a model based more on alliance “networks.” However, it seems that for Japan such networking still requires Washington to take the initiative. Increased Japanese attention to India after 2005, for example, followed America’s own diplomatic advances toward the Subcontinent. Nevertheless, warm relations between New Delhi and Tokyo are helped by the fact that there is no “historical baggage” from Japan’s colonial legacy at play in the bilateral relationship. This is something that cannot be said of many of Japan’s other Asian neighbors, particularly Seoul and Beijing.

However, all three speakers were eager to point out that while it may be possible to say that New Delhi and Tokyo are attempting to hedge against China’s rise, closer strategic ties between India and Japan should not necessarily be viewed as an attempt to contain China.  Indeed, while both India and Japan have an interest in maintaining freedom of navigation in maritime areas claimed by Beijing, they are also both enthusiastic trading partners with China. The speakers noted that if China is interested in rising peacefully, then strong India-Japan relations would help to preserve stability in the region and prevent any temptation on the part of Beijing to engage in destabilizing strategic adventurism.

By Bryce Wakefield

Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program

Image: The Japanese Self Defense Force and the Indian Navy were two of the forces taking part in the Malabar 2007 exercises off India's western coast. Source: Wikimedia Commons.


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Indo-Pacific Program

The Indo-Pacific Program promotes policy debate and intellectual discussions on US interests in the Asia-Pacific as well as political, economic, security, and social issues relating to the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region.   Read more

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