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Post-Covid-19 Strategic Priorities: The India-Japan Action Agenda

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Beijing’s ascent in the global order and the ensuing disequilibrium in the power balance between the US and China at the global level, and the India-China and Japan-China relationships in Asia, are making New Delhi and Tokyo weigh their strategic choices. Japan, as a beneficiary of the US-led system, does not favor the idea of a Sino-centric order. India’s Indo-Pacific vision aims at empowering it as a leading power, instead of a balancer, in a multipolar world. India and Japan, writes Titli Basu of the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, are well positioned to shape strategic solutions and to deliver on the shared responsibility of providing global public goods.

Post-Covid-19 Strategic Priorities: The India-Japan Action Agenda

Joint exercise, Arabian Sea: Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force sailors greet their Indian Navy counterparts, September 2020 (Credit: JMSDF)

With a pandemic and the ensuing global recession on the one hand, and political chaos in the US amid an ideological battle for supremacy with China on the other, the world has rarely been so fluid. Securing geopolitical and geo-economic interests demands greater leadership from democratic powers in setting rules, norms and principles. While Covid-19 has exacerbated Washington’s waning global leadership, Beijing has alienated supporters of the rules-based order. In this regard, India and Japan are well positioned to shape strategic solutions and to deliver on the shared responsibility of providing global public goods.

Covid-19 has made great powers revisit their grand strategies and further sharpened the conversation on nuances of strategic decoupling. The pandemic has thrown new challenges into the matrix, including rapid advancement in digital trade, strategic vulnerabilities in supply-chain risk management, predatory bargain hunting, tightening export controls and licensing practices for emerging technologies, and investment screening in core sectors. High technology – next-generation telecommunications networks (5G), artificial intelligence (AI), quantum computing, big data, robotics, and the Internet of Things (IoT) – is reshaping the global order. Policy elites in the Five Eyes capitals suspect Beijing’s Made in China 2025 and China Standards 2035 strategies are aimed at challenging western competitiveness in high-tech sectors.

As offshoring of manufacturing enabled Chinese dominance in the tech landscape and the digital Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) facilitated the growth and global expansion of Chinese companies such as Huawei, policy makers in both New Delhi and Tokyo have been preoccupied with a range of strategic questions, including:

  • How to address the strategic vulnerabilities and safeguard national security arising from “high-risk” vendors? 
  • How to balance trust, transparency and resilience in supply-chain risk management with the logic of economic efficiency, cost competitiveness, and the market? 
  • How to restructure and diversify strategic supply chains alongside a China-Plus One model? 
  • How to navigate the politics of agenda-setting in regional economic integration through mega free trade agreements (FTAs)?
  • How to advance quality infrastructure development, adopt alternative financing options, and ensure responsible debt management? 

Searching for solutions in the Biden presidency

Covid-19’s impact on balance of power, order and ideologies is driving the international relations debate. To be sure, the erosion of the post-war liberal order was a feature of the pre-pandemic world. In an effort to make America great again, Donald Trump effectively diluted the US-led rules-based system. By weakening multilateralism and security alliances, Trump’s America First left America behind. Strategic thinkers are considering the potential directions of a Joe Biden presidency, especially its China policy and possible adjustments to the US’s Indo-Pacific strategy. 

In contrast to the China hawks, there are influential voices in America urging a more careful and considered approach in coordination with allies, not only to deter and compete with China but also to offer Beijing incentives to cooperate. The attack on the US Capitol on January 6 shocked the world. With Biden taking over, Washington’s allies and partners are hoping that Washington will return to some stability and will demonstrate a commitment to universal values, reassert US primacy in the international order, reassure security allies, and recommit to multilateralism

Biden’s strategy will set the tone for how the US-China strategic competition develops – whether it will intensify further, or cool down relatively into a more practical working relationship, particularly on issues of mutual interest and urgency such as the pandemic and climate change. 

Chinese experts at the Xiangshan Forum in early December indicated that they expect that the fundamental differences between Washington and Beijing will continue. In Washington, there is a bipartisan consensus that the pro-engagement strategy in favor with administrations before Trump’s had not yielded desired results. Strategic clarity on Biden’s China policy sooner rather than later is imperative. What is meant by “managed coexistence” with China, as proposed by Jake Sullivan, the new White House national security adviser, and how it is different from the Chinese concept of “cooperative competition” requires greater scrutiny. 

Biden also needs to clarify what is implied by a “secure and prosperous” Indo-Pacific as opposed to a “free and open” Indo-Pacific (FOIP). Aimed at upholding the rule of law, freedom of navigation, and free trade, the FOIP concept has already gained traction not just among the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, countries (Australia, India, Japan and the US) but also in Europe and Southeast Asia, each having its own stance towards the Indo-Pacific. 

This holds implications for American allies. For instance, Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide had temporarily started using the phrase “secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific” in November. But debatein Japan’s policy community raised concerns that shifting from “free and open” to “secure and prosperous” could indicate an erosion of commitment towards the fundamental principles of FOIP. 

The China factor and the India-Japan strategic outlook 

Beijing’s ascent in the global order and the ensuing disequilibrium in the power balance between the US and China at the global level, and the India-China and Japan-China relationships in Asia, have prompted New Delhi and Tokyo to weigh their strategic choices. China is relentless in its desire to engineer a hierarchical Asian order, with Beijing at the top, fueling its vision of a Chinese century as distinct from an Asian century. The Chinese Communist Party is advocating a “Sinicized” value system to re-establish China as a pre-eminent power, enunciated in the narrative of leader Xi Jinping’s “Chinese Dream” – the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”. Great powers commit to order-building projects with competing political values and ideologies. With the Chinese challenge to liberal order, the Indo-Pacific project was launched. 

As an anchor in the US hub-and-spoke San Francisco system of alliances and beneficiary of the US-led liberal order, Japan has positioned itself as a stabilizer of the US-led system and does not favor the idea of a Sino-centric order. As Pax-Sinica designs came to play, Japan debunked the narrative of being a reactive state and embraced the role of “proactive contributor to peace”, anchored on the notion of positive pacifism. Japan’s FOIP concept germinated from a hallmark speech by Suga’s predecessor, Abe Shinzo, titled “Confluence of the Two Seas”, which he delivered in 2007 at the Indian parliament. Tokyo has pragmatically recast the FOIP idea from a “strategy” into a “vision” to avoid projecting it as divisive and to garner support from ASEAN. 

Abe and Modi hug it out for a free and open Indo-Pacific, Yamanashi, Japan, October 2018 (Credit: @narendramodi on Twitter)

Abe and Modi hug it out for a free and open Indo-Pacific, Yamanashi, Japan, October 2018 (Credit: @narendramodi on Twitter)

Japan opted for internal and external balancing, by reorienting its security posture on one hand and bolstering its alliance with the US and weaving a network of allies across the Indo-Pacific based on shared values on the other. In this regard, India emerged as a key variable in the geopolitical churning that shaped the Indo-Pacific discourse, not just in Tokyo but also in Washington. New Delhi started featuring in Tokyo’s security outlook as the US Defense Department recognized its potential as an enduring security partner and, in this context, the US-Japan Security Consultative Committee favored deepening the partnership with India.


Meanwhile, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Indo-Pacific vision aims at empowering India as a leading power, instead of a balancer, in a multipolar Asia. Policy pronouncements suggest that New Delhi seeks to be a stabilizing power bringing its capacities to bear on the international system for global good – a net-security provider rather than a disruptive power in the Indo-Pacific. Shaking off hesitations of history, India aspires to be a rules-shaper, “a decider and not an abstainer”, as External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar put it in remarks at the Raisina Dialogue in Delhi in January 2020.

New Delhi has set about pursuing a collaborative agenda to shape a free and open Indo-Pacific. This has entailed the structural reorganization in its external affairs ministry and the institution of 2+2 ministerial dialogues with key Indo-Pacific powers including the US, Japan and Australia. India and its Quad partners elevated talks to the ministerial level. Quad Plus meetings and Indo-Pacific trilaterals in various combinations (India-Japan-US, India-Japan-Australia, India-Australia-France, and India-Indonesia-Australia) demonstrate Delhi’s determination to engage in a collaborative and cooperative agenda to shape a free and open Indo-Pacific.

Mapping the gaps in the regional economic architecture 

In 2015, building on the strategic congruence in securing a stable rule-based order, New Delhi and Tokyo engaged in forward thinking, together weaving a joint Indo-Pacific Vision 2025 aimed at synergizing capabilities while navigating the risks and rewards that the region offers. But as India and Japan have joined forces to tap into the complementarities and advance mutual strategic interests, it is also important to mind the gaps and nuances in each side’s approach. 

Japan, for instance, has emerged as a rule-maker and champion of free trade. It has positioned itself strategically within both the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), driven by the responsibility to play a productive role in influencing the regional architecture-building process. Tokyo has been at the forefront of rule setting whether it was marshalling the TPP-11 to come together following the US exit, concluding an Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) with the European Union (EU) following Brexit, or leading the conversation at the G20 meeting in Osaka on the Data Free Flow with Trust initiative aimed at building rules for data governance. 

New Delhi’s opting out of RCEP even before the Covid-19 outbreak underlines the pressing need for India to accelerate structural reforms and boost competitiveness. Building a US$5 trillion economy is contingent on enabling India to endure international competition and seize the benefits from export opportunities that external markets offer and that multilateral agreements create.

Action agenda in the post-Covid-19 Indo-Pacific 

Despite differences in some areas, India and Japan, along with other strategic stakeholders in the Indo-Pacific including the US, Australia and partners from ASEAN and Europe, have joined forces in building issue-based winning combinations and tapping collective capacities to deliver on the shared responsibility of securing global goods. 

The dividends of an India-Japan “Special Strategic and Global Partnership” have matured and both countries are working together on several initiatives including the Resilient Supply Chain Initiative (RSCI), the Quad Tech Network, the Global Partnership on Artificial Intelligence, the Democracy-10 coalition, the G20 Principles for Quality Infrastructure Investment, and the International Solar Alliance. India is inching towards joining the Blue Dot Network. Moreover, New Delhi’s recent involvement along with Tokyo in the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing framework to navigate tensions between law enforcement and the encryption policies of tech companies shows an expanding stake in international partnerships for security. 

This cooperative action agenda prioritizes strategic risk management in global supply chains across critical sectors, governance of advance technologies, advancing quality infrastructure through responsible debt financing, managing maritime global commons in accordance with international law, global health governance, resurrecting multilateralism, and steering reforms within international institutions such as the United Nations Security Council, of which India became a non-permanent member for a two-year term on January 1.

The conversation on building resilient supply chains is unfolding against the backdrop of altering cost structures across nations and the rapid implementation of digital technologies in manufacturing. Tracing the intricate supply-chain structures, recognizing latent vulnerabilities and knowledge gaps, gauging policy choices and augmenting international coordination are important for re-engineering supply chains. Policy elites are brainstorming on making supply chains more resilient without weakening competitiveness. 

The RSCI advanced by India, Japan and Australia is aimed at restructuring supply chains, production networks, and trade balances mainly influenced by geostrategic developments. Businesses would need to be provided incentives to diversify their bases. Tokyo has extended subsidies for relocating production from China back to Japan – and also to Southeast Asia, India and Bangladesh. 

So far, two Japanese companies, Sumida and Toyota Tsusho, have diversified into India, while most other companies have favored Southeast Asia, given Japan’s deep investments and already existing value-chain network in the region. As India aspires to become a competitive hub for manufacturing, it has to plug into the global supply chain and become an integral part of the global ecosystem. The government is pushing initiatives such as production-linked incentives in critical sectors to help make Indian manufacturing globally competitive. 

The success of the RSCI is contingent on the ability of India, Japan and Australia, along with Southeast Asian economies, to outline common rules to advance supply chains, preferential investment rules, agreement on key tariffs specific to supply chains, quality standards, rules of origin for determining value addition, cross-border data flow rules, and dispute settlement mechanisms. Advancing cooperation in information and communication is a priority, and discussion is underway on key issues such as advancing 5G networks, promoting global standardization of 6G technology, and sourcing submarine fiber-optic cables from Japan. Japan’s Rakuten 5G network, based on Open Radio Access Network technology, has enlisted the help of Indian tech companies and is collaborating with Sterlite Technologies for hardware and HCL, Wipro and Tech Mahindra for software. Rakuten and Jio of India are poised to collaborate on 5G and the development of a telecom supply chain. 

Japan is also a key partner on the connectivity pillar of India’s Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative. Island nations across the Indo-Pacific should be accorded primacy in the strategic thinking. Japan has supported connectivity in India’s strategic peripheries and beyond with the aim to connect the economic growth poles and advance economic linkages, production networks and value chains on the one hand and build strategic leverage in the great power game on the other. India-Japan third-country projects are underway in Bay of Bengal states including Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka.

The Quad foreign ministers gather in Tokyo, October 2020 (Credit: Ron Przysucha/US Department of State)

The Quad foreign ministers gather in Tokyo, October 2020 (Credit: Ron Przysucha/US Department of State)

Third-country projects are challenging, as is demonstrated by Sri Lanka’s East Container Terminal project and the politics that engulfed it following the change of government in Colombo. The opportunity for Japan and India to offer an alternative to the BRI is obvious, especially in the context of Tokyo’s Expanded Partnership for Quality Infrastructure (EPQI) initiative and the Quad’s discussion of regional infrastructure development.

In advancing maritime security and upholding the rule of law, India and Japan have built a deeper security network with Indo-Pacific stakeholders through a growing number of logistics agreements, intelligence-sharing arrangements and reinforcing interoperability between navies through joint drills such as the Malabar naval exercise in key theaters. Both are also joining to tap the full potential of the Blue Economy. Going ahead, as European powers including France and Germany are augmenting their presence in Indo-Pacific waters, there is potential for greater cooperation through joint exercises and operations. 

In the power corridors of Indo-Pacific capitals, the strategists are focusing more and more on the economy-security nexus, especially in the context of post-pandemic recovery. Shifts from techno-globalism to techno-nationalism, and balancing national security and economic globalization amid a fragmented international system are the defining trends. In navigating the risks and rewards of the Indo-Pacific, India and Japan are set to work individually, bilaterally, and in “mini-lateral” geometries to shape the post-Covid-19 order. 

Opinions expressed in articles published by AsiaGlobal Online reflect only those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of AsiaGlobal Online or the Asia Global Institute

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