Why Is India Important to Japan, the US, and Australia?
Japan–India relations are seeing lively development in the year 2023. In January, Indian fighter jets visited Japan for the “Veer Guardian” joint exercise. In February, the Indian Army visited Japan for the “Dharma Guardian” joint exercise. In March, Japanese and Indian transport airplanes took part in the “Shinyuu Maitri” joint exercise, and in the same month, the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) also conducted the “La Perouse” joint exercise in the Indian Ocean with the participation of Japan, the US, Australia, India, France, the UK, and Canada. The JMSDF has also conducted small-scale joint exercises with the Indian Navy.
Moreover, in March, the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and the Prime Minister of Japan visited India. Furthermore, the Prime Minister made a historic visit to Ukraine from India via Poland. The Prime Minister’s visit to India was originally scheduled to take place from March 19 to 22, and the Indian announcement was also based on these dates. Since he actually flew to Poland on the night of the 20th, Japan and India must have coordinated regarding the schedule on the nights of March 20 and 21; in this respect, it may have been the first secret diplomatic operation between the two countries.
India currently holds the G20 chairmanship. The G20 combined accounts for two-thirds of the world’s population, 85% of GDP, and 75% of international trade. At the same time, Japan holds the chairmanship of the G7 and has invited India as a guest country. This is why the leaders of Japan and India are sure to meet at both the G7 Summit in May and the G20 Summit in September. This year will likely be a major milestone for Japan–India relations.
Why is India important to Japan (and the US and Australia) this year, and what problems is this relationship facing? These are issues that need to be examined to determine what is likely to happen in the future. The issues are examined one by one below.
1．Why India is important to Japan
(1) The Indo–Pacific and the Quad aims as advocated by Prime Minister Abe
Relations between Japan and India have long been marked by indifference. Particularly during the Cold War, Japan was an ally of the US, while India became a de facto ally of the Soviet Union; hence, their relationship became estranged. The strengthening of relations in more recent times had not progressed since Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori’s visit to India in 2000, but it gained momentum after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe addressed the Indian Parliament in 2007 and announced his views on the Indo–Pacific and the Quad. Prime Minister Abe was popular in India, and later, Japan–India relations developed at an increasing pace during his time as Prime Minister.
Judging from Prime Minister Abe’s speech to the Indian Parliament titled “Confluence of Two Seas” and the paper “Asia’s Democratic Security Diamond” published by Abe in 2012, the Indo–Pacific and the Quad he envisioned had the following three characteristics.
One is the need for a way of thinking that unites the Pacific and Indian Oceans, which are undergoing remarkable economic development and increasing their influence as centers of world politics. According to the British think tank, International Institute for Strategic Studies, as of 2012, the total defense spending of Asian countries not including Australia and New Zealand exceeded that of the NATO countries in Europe. In the past, when a major war broke out in Europe, this affected the world and was considered a world war. However, if a major war broke out in Asia now, the entire world would be affected. In other words, Asia has also begun to have a level of influence such that it can earn the title of the center of the world. , which have newly begun to become a center of world politics. This is the Indo–Pacific.
Second, the region has been threatened by Chinese domination, evoking the need for a counter-concept. If we think of it as the Indo–Pacific, this includes all countries that have territorial problems with China. The Quad is a group that consists of all influential countries in the Indo–Pacific with the exception of China. As such, the Indo–Pacific and the Quad are useful when considering cooperation among countries as a strategy against China.
Third, it is a concept that highlights the importance of India. The difference between “Indo–Pacific” and “Asia-Pacific,” a term used since the end of the Cold War, is India. Within the Quad, Japan and Australia are allies of the US, and if it were only about cooperation among these three countries, there are already many opportunities, so there is no need for a new framework. The reason for advocating the Quad was to get India into the ranks.
In other words, the combination of the Indo–Pacific and the Quad as envisioned by Prime Minister Abe was to counter China’s domination by considering the rapidly growing region as one and including India.
Therefore, what kind of concrete impact will the inclusion of India and the envisioning of the Indo–Pacific and the Quad have in terms of the China strategy? It is expected to have an impact from three perspectives: military, economy, and values.
The Chinese pattern of territorial expansion demonstrates that the Indo–Pacific and the Quad are militarily effective. For example, China’s territorial expansion in the South China Sea exhibits a pattern of military balance shifting and territorial expansion occurring when a “power vacuum” arises. In fact, when France withdrew its troops from the region in the 1950s, China occupied half of the Paracel Islands. In the 1970s, after the Vietnam War, when US troops withdrew from Vietnam, it occupied the other half of the Paracel Islands. In the 1980s, when the Soviet military presence in Vietnam was reduced, it advanced into the Spratly Islands and occupied six locations. When US troops withdrew from the Philippines in the 1990s, it occupied Mischief Reef. When the military balance changes and a “power vacuum” arises, China attempts territorial expansion. Conversely, maintaining the military balance can be seen as a cornerstone of measures against China.
However, maintaining such a balance is surprisingly difficult. This is because China’s military spending has grown remarkably. According to a database from the Swedish think tank Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), China’s military spending increased by 72% in the decade from 2012 to 2021. In the same decade, US military spending fell by 6.1%, indicating that the budget is insufficient to maintain the military balance.
This is where the Indo–Pacific and the Quad come in. What would happen if Japan and India cooperated? China will have to distribute its budget between Japan (to the East China Sea) and India (to the India–China border). If China’s military spending is dispersed, it will be easier to maintain the military balance.
Even if China advances into the Indian Ocean and threatens the sea lanes of Japan, the US, and Australia, if the Indian Navy maintains security in the Indian Ocean, the latter three nations will not have to devote so many ships to the Indian Ocean. Cooperation with India is also important in terms of assistance to Southeast Asian countries. India is responsible for the training and maintenance of navies and air forces in Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and other countries in the region, as well as the maintenance of fighter jets in the Indonesian Air Force. supersonic anti-ship missiles to the Philippines. Regarding these points, if India is included in the Indo–Pacific and Quad, it will become a major force in deterring China’s territorial expansion.
Promoting cooperative relations with India in the form of the Indo–Pacific and the Quad will also influence the effectiveness of the economic aspects of the Indo–Pacific strategy. First, China’s growing influence is related to its economic growth. China has been able to rapidly increase military spending because its economy has grown, and its budget has swelled. This budget is spent not only on defense but also on infrastructure development projects, such as the Belt and Road Initiative. Some of these infrastructure projects are profitable, the host countries are heavily indebted, and consequently, China expands its influence. Furthermore, China uses economic coercion against countries that criticize it. For example, when Australia called for an international inquiry into the origins of COVID-19, China delayed imports of wine and lobster from Australia, effectively imposing economic sanctions. In this way, China’s economic strength and the dependence of other countries on trade with China have led to its increasing influence and coercive aggression against other countries, both militarily and diplomatically.
This is why, when considering measures against China, it is necessary to curb the influence of the Chinese economy. Therefore, based on the concept of the Indo–Pacific and the Quad, what happens if we include India? In terms of the size of India’s economy, it has the potential to become an alternative to China. India also has untapped rare earth reserves, which have the potential to reduce dependence on China from a supply chain perspective.
Furthermore, cooperation with India acts a countermeasure to China from the perspective of values and the idea of a rules-based international order. For example, when China began building artificial islands in the South China Sea, the Philippines resorted to an international tribunal. The 2016 ruling rejected China’s territorial claims and called for a halt to the construction of artificial islands. However, China refused to participate in the trial itself, ignored the verdict, and not only proceeded with the construction, but also began deploying missiles, bombers, and so on, even though it initially said that the artificial islands were not for military purposes. These actions that ignore international law mean that China is challenging the current rules-based international order.
By contrast, India also had a maritime border issue with Bangladesh, but when Bangladesh appealed to the International Court of Justice, India decided to take the fight there. In 2014, the International Court of Justice ruled in Bangladesh’s favor, and this ruling accepted by India. The latter’s attitude respects international law and is based on the rules-based international order. This attitude should serve as a model for countries around the world.
2. Difficulties in diplomacy with India
In this way, accepting India as an ally is in the national interest of not only Japan but also the international order, including the US and Australia. However, building relations with India also has some challenges that need to be addressed. In particular, the following three points are emerging as major issues.
(1) Deep ties with Russia
Russia is a country that has exhibited clear opposition to the Quad. This has become particularly problematic since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine. Within the Quad, differences in policy toward Russia between Japan, the US, Australia, and India have surfaced. Not only did India not condemn Russia , but it also increased its oil imports from Russia under sanctions; from the perspective of Japan, the US, and Australia, this appeared as support for Russia. In reality, India is trying to remain neutral, albeit considerate of Russia. For example, while China has condemned Western sanctions, India has not. At the UN Security Council, it not only abstained from resolutions condemning Russia, but also abstained from those introduced by Russia and China. As for the massacre in Bucha, India vehemently condemned it although it did not name Russia. India is also providing humanitarian assistance to Ukrainian refugees. Furthermore, in August 2022, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi began to ask President Putin directly to end the war as soon as possible, saying, “This is not the time for war.” India’s stance is opposed to aggression itself, but retains neutrality in consideration of Russia, an old friend.
Why is it against aggression but considerate of Russia? This is because India recognizes that Russia has consistently sided with it for the past 70 years. This mainly includes three occasions. First, India expected Russia to deal with China, Pakistan, and once even the US. India and Russia entered into a de facto alliance in 1971 when India decided to attack Pakistan. India was concerned that if it attacked Pakistan, China would side with Pakistan and attack it. This is why it wanted an arrangement that would have the Soviet Union attack China if the latter attacked India. Hence, it concluded a de facto alliance with the Soviet Union in the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship, and Cooperation.
After the Cold War, relations with Russia remained important even after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Pakistan adopted the “Thousand Cuts Strategy” to support radical Islamic terrorists and believed that a thousand small wounds would weaken India’s national power. Hence, India needed information on Islamic extremist movements, which Russia provided. Moreover, if Pakistan-backed terrorists attack, India might attack Pakistan, and it wanted support under such conditions. Specifically, if the UN Security Council passed a resolution to stop an Indian attack on Pakistan, it wanted Russia to veto it. In fact, during the Third Indo-Pakistan War, the Soviet Union vetoed resolutions calling on India to cease military operations.
Furthermore, India believes that Russia also functioned as a countermeasure against the US in the Third Indo-Pakistan War, when the US sent an aircraft carrier to the Indian Ocean to threaten India, but the Soviet Union in turn threatened the US by surfacing submarines behind the US aircraft carrier. Due to these reasons, India has a sense of being an ally of Russia.
India is also dependent on Russia for arms supplies. Currently, about half of the Indian Army’s arsenal is of Soviet or Russian origin. This is especially true for frontal equipment such as tanks and fighters. Weapons are precise but used in rough environments; hence, they break quickly. There are dedicated maintenance teams that constantly repair them during use and such weapons therefore depend on a supply of repair parts. Moreover, frontal equipment consumes ammunition, so they also depend on a supply of ammunition. In other words, the Indian Army, which has a large amount of Russian-made frontal equipment, relies on Russian supplies of repair parts and ammunition. Therefore, if India were to launch a large-scale attack on Pakistan or China, it would have to be hastily supplied with repair parts and ammunition before the war could start. In fact, during the Third Indo-Pakistan War in 1971, India was not ready as, for example, 70–80% of its tanks were under repair, so India asked the Soviet Union to supply repair parts. The Soviets carried transport planes full of repair parts. Despite carrying weapons to attack Pakistan, they landed in Islamabad, Pakistan to refuel as they did not have sufficient range.
It is also important to note that the weapons supplied by Russia include very new ones that other countries do not have. While the West does not trust India and has been reluctant to supply advanced technologies such as nuclear submarines and supersonic missiles in the past, Russia has supplied India with these and India is grateful to Russia.
In addition, India-Russia relations are linked to the Cold War political system. India’s political system was liberal democratic, but its economic system was socialist and economically tied to the Soviet Union. India’s products were not internationally competitive, but the Soviet Union took them and turned them into money, weapons, and so forth. When India held elections, these were funded in part by donations to political parties from Indian companies funded by trade with the Soviet Union. Therefore, during the Cold War, the Soviet Union had a strong influence over India. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, India also changed its economic policy; hence, the influence of the Soviet Union disappeared. However, there was still a sense of friendship with Russia, especially among the generation that lived through the Cold War, and this came to the surface with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Therefore, in advancing the Indo–Pacific and the Quad, it is necessary to ensure that the relationship between India and Russia does not have a negative impact.
(2) Land borders
As indicated in Prime Minister Abe’s “Asia’s Democratic Security Diamond,” the Quad was originally meant to be a cooperative relationship with a focus on military cooperation. However, India is cautious about this military cooperation. India promotes cooperative relations for maritime security and counter-terrorism under a Japan–US–Australia–India framework, including the Malabar exercises, but in land-based and aviation matters, it promotes cooperation on a bilateral basis, such as US–India, Japan–India, and Australia–India, thus applying different approaches. Why is this?
A major difference in perceptions between Japan, the US, Australia, and India in the Quad is and Australia have no land borders with China, while India does. Therefore, China is a much more serious matter for India than for Japan, the US, or Australia, and the issue of the India–China border must be handled with caution because it could immediately escalate into fighting.
This was especially evident in 2020, when Chinese forces attacked the Indo–Chinese border, killing 20 people and injuring 76 others, for a total of nearly 100 casualties on the Indian side alone. Since then, the Indian and Chinese armies have gathered troops with the latest weapons from all over the country and remain in a state of combat readiness.
The attack reminded India of a fundamental dilemma of the Quad. While the Quad is useful for countering China, if the latter recognizes it as a military alliance against it and decides to fight, India is likely to be the first to be attacked. From China’s viewpoint, Japan, the US, and Australia are countries across the sea, while India is a country that is very close to it by land;, making it easy to attack. Moreover, while Japan, the US, and Australia are firmly bound by a formal alliance, India is a friend with weak ties.
As such, India has a dilemma. Cooperation with the Quad countries could initially strengthen the defense of the India–China border. However, cooperation with the Quad should not provoke China too much. Hence, while reiterating that India does not consider the Quad as a military alliance against China, it is actually pursuing defense cooperation on a bilateral basis. At first glance, Japan, the US, and Australia are forced to adopt a seemingly contradictory response by giving due consideration to India’s situation and cooperating in strengthening the defense of the India–China border, while saying that is not a military alliance.
(3) Opposition to the West and lost personal ties
India was a British colony and has a strong distrust of Western countries. The acceptance of the Indo–Pacific and the Quad in India seems to have been strongly influenced by the Japanese advocacy of the Quad, and in particular, that by Prime Minister Abe, who had earned the personal trust of India. In this case, the right-wing leanings of Prime Minister Abe worked in a positive way. India’s perception of Japan is still that of an Asian country that defeated Europe in the Russo-Japanese War and supported the Indian independence hero Subhas Chandra Bose in World War II. The Modi administration, in particular, has tended to shine a spotlight on Bose, and in September 2021, a huge statue of Bose was erected in central Delhi.
The problem is that Prime Minister Abe was assassinated. If the Quad becomes more US–led, India, which opposes the West, may distance itself a little, and the question arises of how Japan can attract India without Prime Minister Abe.
3. Changing India
In this way, strengthening relations with India through the Indo–Pacific and the Quad frameworks is an effective strategy against China, but it also faces the problems of Russia, land borders, and the absence of a Japanese leader. What should we do? In thinking about this, it is useful to understand and encourage change in India itself.
(1) Declining dependence on Russia
First, India’s dependence on Russia is clearly declining. This is clear when considering the arms trade. According to SIPRI’s database, the amount of weapons by India from four countries, the US, the UK, France, and Israel, exceeds that of weapons imported from Russia.
Figure 1: Share of Indian weapons imports by country (value basis)
* Light blue = total amount of weapons imported from the US, the UK, France, and Israel.
* Red = total amount of weapons imported from the Soviet Union and Russia.
Moreover, during the Cold War, the Soviet Union did not export arms to China and Pakistan, which are hostile to India, but Russia is now increasing arms exports to China. Russia has explained to India that the weapons it sells to India are better than those it sells to China. However, there are many military secrets, so India has no way of confirming this. Such proximity between Russia and China undermines India’s confidence in Russia.
Figure 2: Share of Chinese weapons imports by country (value basis)
* Created by the author based on the SIPRI database (https://www.sipri.org/databases/armstransfers).
* Light blue = total amount of weapons imported from the US, the UK, France, and Israel.
* Red = total amount of weapons imported from the Soviet Union and Russia.
Not only that, but in parallel with the recent closeness of China and Russia, there has also been an increase in the number of cases of Russia exporting weapons to Pakistan. For example, the JF-17 fighter aircraft jointly developed by China and Pakistan as well as the J-10 fighter jet made in China imported by Pakistan have Russian-made engines. Russia also exports Mi-35 helicopters to Pakistan.
Figure 3: Share of Pakistani weapons imports by country (value basis)
* Light blue = total amount of weapons imported from the US, the UK, France, and Israel.
* Red = total amount weapons imported from the Soviet Union and Russia.
* Yellow = total amount of weapons imported from China.
Adding to this situation, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is creating problems. Russia needs weapons for the war, and Western sanctions have reduced semiconductor imports, making it difficult to produce weapons. This is why less arms are being exported to India. As a result, India is increasingly trying to reduce arms imports from Russia. In fact, the Indian Air Force has reduced the amount of weapons it imports from Russia, and the Ministry of Defence as a whole has indicated that more than 100 parts of Russian-made weapons will be domestically produced through technology transfers. Thus, India’s move away from Russia is a tailwind for the Quad.
(2) China’s unstoppable advance and growing military cooperation
India wants to emphasize that the Quad is “not a military alliance” to avoid escalating China’s activities along the India–China border. In reality, Chinese activities clearly continue to escalate.
The number of violations of the India–China border by China was 213 in 2011, but it has increased since to 426 in 2012, 411 in 2013, 460 in 2014, 428 in 2015, 296 in 2016, 473 in 2017, 404 in 2018, and 663 in 2019. In other words, it increased in 2012, leveled off thereafter, and grew again in 2019.
Interestingly, the number of incidents of Chinese vessels violating the contiguous zone around the Senkaku Islands also increased in 2012, leveled off, and then increased again in 2019. The number of cases was 12 in 2011, 428 in 2012, 819 in 2013, 729 in 2014, 707 in 2015, 752 in 2016, 696 in 2017, 615 in 2018, and 1,097 in 2019.
Figure 4: Comparison of the number of Chinese violations of the India–China border and around the Senkaku Islands
In other words, China is escalating the situation with India in the same way it is with Japan. Therefore, even if India tries to be considerate of China by saying that it is “not a military alliance,” in the end, China will escalate its actions on the India–China border. For India, strengthening its defense system on the India–China border is an urgent task, and if it is to be useful, it must promote cooperative relations with the countries of the Quad.
The US is aware of this, and in 2022, US troops were 200 kilometers from the Indo–Chinese border in August and 100 kilometers in November and December, as joint US–India military exercises were conducted. The US–India arms deal also provides a large supply of necessary weapons at the India–China border. Furthermore, Japan is building roads in northeastern India, which is an economic project that can also be used by Indian troops deployed on the India–China border for movement. I also had the opportunity to visit the India–China border in August 2022, but the infrastructure development on the Indian side had been delayed, indicating the need to rapidly make improvements. Therefore, the Quad countries should provide sufficient support for the defense of the India–China border in light of this situation in India, thus enhancing the usefulness of the Quad for India.
(3) Personal ties that Prime Minister Kishida is trying to rebuild
Prime Minister Kishida’s visit to India in March 2023 was an important visit in terms of Japan–India relations after the assassination of Prime Minister Abe. The Indo–Pacific and the Quad began with Prime Minister Abe’s speech to the Indian Parliament, and India is indeed their birthplace. In India, Prime Minister Kishida unveiled a more concrete plan for the Indo–Pacific, “A New Plan for a ‘Free and Open Indo–Pacific’ (FOIP).” This is meant to be a Japanese expression of how important India is to the Indo–Pacific and Quad. Not only that, but the announced plan also clearly states how support will be given to the countries of the Global South, which is something that India has called for, so that Japan and India share national interests. In May 2023, Japan will chair the G7 summit and invite Prime Minister Modi representing India as a guest country. The G20 summit will be held in September, and Prime Minister Kishida will visit India again. This relationship can provide many opportunities to build relations between the leaders of Japan and India. If we can make good use of these opportunities, we may be able to get the Japan–India relationship back on track after the death of Prime Minister Abe as well as secure the future of the Indo–Pacific and Quad.
As China’s power grows, relations with India are important to Japan. This is why we must strengthen our relationship with India. To this end, it is necessary to understand the environment in which India finds itself and to take its nature into account. In light of recent changes on the Indian side, it seems possible to strengthen relations. The question now is how to make the most of these opportunities.
（This is an English translation of an commentary written by NAGAO Satoru, Specially-appointed Research Fellow, the Japan Forum on International Relations / Fellow(Non-Resident), Hudson Institute, which initially appeared on the JFIR website of the “JFIR Rising Star Program: JRSP” as of March 31, 2023.）
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 Shinzo Abe, “Asia’s Democratic Security Diamond,” Project Syndicate, December 27, 2012 (https://www.project-syndicate.org/magazine/a-strategic-alliance-for-japan-and-india-by-shinzo-abe?language=english&barrier=accesspaylog).
 The International Institute for Strategic Studies, “The Military Balance 2013,” p. 33.
 Ministry of Defense of Japan, “The Situation in the South China Sea (China’s Land Reclamation and Trends in Related Countries),” July 2022 (https://www.mod.go.jp/j/approach/surround/pdf/ch_d-act_b.pdf), slide 6.
 Dr Diego Lopes da Silva, Dr Nan Tian, Dr Lucie Béraud-Sudreau, Alexandra Marksteiner, and Xiao Liang, “Trends in World Military Expenditure, 2021,” Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, April 2022 (https://www.sipri.org/publications/2022/sipri-fact-sheets/trends-world-military-expenditure-2021).
 Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, “Policy Speech by Prime Minister Kishida: (A New Plan for a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP)), March 20, 2023 (https://www.mofa.go.jp/mofaj/fp/pc/page1_001544.html).