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Opinion: Can India become trusted ally of Japan?

By Miyake Kunihiko


Until very recently, India was a mysterious nation to me. I started my diplomatic career in Egypt and Iraq, and I was later posted to the United States and China. I also was stationed in Switzerland for a long time where I oversaw trade negotiations. During my tenure at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I was not posted to the Indian subcontinent nor did I make a business trip there.


My first business trip to India was in the summer of 2007. I accompanied then Prime Minister Abe Shinzo as a liaison coordinator of the Prime Minister’s Office [Kantei]. During his stay in India, Abe said [in a speech to the Indian parliament]: “Japan has undergone ‘The Discovery of India’, by which I mean we have rediscovered India as a partner that shares the same values and interests and also as a friend that will work alongside us to enrich the seas of freedom and prosperity, which will be open and transparent to all.” This was the birth of his “free and open Indo-Pacific” concept.


Strategic positioning of India


I have not doubted the significance of India since that time. But I was not sure how Japan should position India as a strategic partner. What is India’s national strategy? Is it a maritime state or a continental state? Has it abandoned its traditional nonalignment policy? And if so, does it maintain that posture now? Can India become a trusted ally of Japan to deter China? Regarding these core issues, I remained skeptical for a very long time.


Diplomats who have worked in China tend to see India incorrectly


I wrote about these concerns after my retirement from the foreign services about ten years ago. A colleague of mine who had worked in India rebuked me. Knowing well that I had worked in China, the person said, “India’s concerns about China are real and those who have worked in China tend to see India incorrectly.”


In fact, however, India’s China policy has remained cautious. India and China have continued to buy Russian oil even after Russia invaded Ukraine, and neither of them imposes sanctions on Russia. I met several “experts on Indian affairs” and asked them why that was, but I could not get a satisfying answer. I finally came to realize that none of them had a good understanding of India in the true sense.


India’s national strategy


When I was in Washington, DC, recently, I came to understand India’s true nature through long conversations with an Indian American scholar who specializes in strategic issues. What I learned is that India’s true aim is “to become an independent and strong nation.” That’s it. Nothing more and nothing less. This expert, who was born in India, told me about India’s core interest, and I came to understand things a little better. I became convinced that if India’s national goal is “to become an independent and strong country,” it will never become an ally of another country, be it Japan, the U.S., China, or Russia.


What is the Quad?


Then what is the purpose of the “Quad” (a four-way dialogue among Japan, the U.S., Australia, and India)? There are concerns that the Quad may turn into a military alliance in the future, but that should not be a worry. The objective of the Quad is not to create a four-nation military alliance. If I were asked what the real objective of the Quad is, I would answer without hesitation: “to engage India.”


Let me be clear. The objective of the Quad is not to make India part of an anti-China alliance. In the past, the country pursued a “nonalignment” policy. Today the core tenet of its foreign policy is “strategic autonomy.” Since India seeks to become a strong and independent nation, it is unproductive to ask it to join an “alliance” with Japan, the U.S., and Australia.


There is only one thing the Quad can expect from India: to remain an “independent and strong nation” in dealing with China and Russia and to stay neutral and not take either side.


Japan and the U.S. recast the term “Asia-Pacific region” as the “Indo-Pacific region” precisely because they wanted “to engage India.” That is why India will remain a nation of strategic importance to Japan long into the future.

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