By Yu Koyama
The Japanese government emphasizes the importance of its bilateral ties with both India and Russia. But the depth of Japan’s ties with the two countries differs. Japan is trying to build a good partnership with India on both the security and economic fronts, but it has yet to conclude a peace treaty Russia due to conflict over the Northern Territories issue. Japan is taking a cautious stance toward a Japan-Russia-India framework because it could provoke the U.S.
Several senior officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs have noted that they don’t know about the trilateral framework so they cannot comment on it officially. It is crystal clear that MOFA is nervous about this trilateral framework.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe maintains close ties with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin. He and Modi make reciprocal visits to each other’s countries every year. In October 2018, Modi became the first foreign leader to visit Abe’s private vacation home in Yamanashi Prefecture. They confirmed their commitment to deepening partnership between Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force and the Indian Navy as well as cooperation in infrastructure investment in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and other nations.
With regard to Russia, Abe has thus far met with Putin 26 times to facilitate negotiations on the signing of a peace treaty, including the resolution of the Northern Territories issue. “Prime Minister Abe and Indian Prime Minister Modi share a similar national security vision,” said a senior MOFA official. “Abe can hold in-depth discussions with President Putin.”
But the situation is different when it comes to nation-to-nation relationships. Japan and the U.S. identify India as a partner in pursuing a “free and open Indo-Pacific vision,” which they have launched as a counterweight to China. India has also demonstrated a cooperative stance and is deepening its ties with the two nations by participating in joint trilateral military training. On the other hand, Russia is wary of the U.S.-led initiative. It is building a closer partnership with China to face off against the U.S. and Japan, an ally of the U.S.
If the “Japan-Russia-India” partnership is built under such circumstances, the U.S. will surely become wary. India has not specified what it is trying to achieve through the trilateral mechanism, but a source inside the Japanese government noted that “the U.S. Department of State and Department of Defense will disapprove of it based on the political implications alone.”
“It remains to be seen what [the trilateral framework] is trying to achieve” on the economic front, said a MOFA source. It is hard to imagine that Russia would join the “Indo-Pacific” vision to help Japan and India with investment in third nations, as it does not favor the U.S.-led regional initiative. Meanwhile, it is theoretically possible for India to take part in the “economic cooperation program” that Japan is promoting in continental Russia, but the aforementioned source noted that the “program is aimed at resolving the Northern Territories issue through the fostering of mutual trust between Japan and Russia,” adding that “if India joins, the objective may become obscured.”