Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio was in India on a two-day visit from March 20. This was a surprise because it was technically Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s turn to visit Japan, and moreover Kishida will be returning to India in September for the G-20 Summit. It is possible that Kishida visited New Delhi because Japan wanted to assuage any Indian unhappiness about Japanese Foreign Minister Hayashi Yoshimasa not attending the G-20 Foreign Ministers meeting in India two weeks ago. India has been very active in promoting its G-20 leadership and Japan probably did not want to appear as if it was trying to underplay India’s role.
Kishida may also have been keen to visit India to set up his surprise trip to Ukraine, which followed immediately after.
While in New Delhi, Kishida invited Modi to attend the G-7 Summit in Hiroshima in May, which was accepted by the Indian prime minister. Japan is heading the G-7 this year.
India-Japan relations have been progressing rapidly over the last few years. Both countries are not only facing political and diplomatic pressures from China but also direct military pressure. India has a long, unsettled border with China that is subject to periodic tensions. In 2020, a Chinese incursion led to clashes that killed 20 Indian Army personnel and unknown number of Chinese soldiers. Subsequent to this, India and China have deployed vast number of troops to the border, where they continue to remain in a state of high readiness.
Japan similarly has been facing pressure from China in the East China Sea. There have been repeated Chinese air and naval intrusions into the areas around the Senkaku Islands (claimed by China as the Diaoyu), including last week. Over the last week, Japan moved hundreds of troops closer to the Senkaku Islands with anti-shipping and surface-to-air missiles.
Japan also feels pressured because Russia has been sending bombers on patrol near that area too. Thus, Japan has been seeking greater support from its regional partners, including by reaching out to South Korea, Australia, and India, in addition to the United States. Thus, both India and Japan feel some mutual empathy regarding the pressures they face from China.
While in New Delhi, Kishida also gave a speech at the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA) about Japan’s new plans for the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP). He emphasized that “India is an indispensable” partner for developing the FOIP. While China was not mentioned in his speech, it is very clear to see that the concern about China was driving Japan’s approach toward the Indo-Pacific.
For example, he talked about the need to build economic relations based on trust, free from coercion and threats of force, and expressed concern about such connections becoming a breeding ground for political vulnerability. All of this appears to be directed at China’s pattern of using coercive trade practices because of the dependencies that many economies have with China.
Similarly, Kishida talked about the threat of disinformation and the need to ensure a free and fair cyberspace, which again is an issue that many countries in the region are concerned about, and the Quad partners are also talking about.
Kishida paid particular attention to providing economic assistance to various countries in the region including South Asian states like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, which are facing severe debt burdens, as well as the Pacific Island states, where China is trying to make inroads.
All of this should have been pleasing to his Indian hosts. However, the Japanese prime minister also repeatedly criticized what he called “Russia’s aggression against Ukraine,” linking it to many of the other principles in his speech about ensuring a free and open Indo-Pacific. This could have made his hosts somewhat uncomfortable considering that India has been reluctant to criticize Russia for its invasion. Kishida did try to find a middle ground by noting that Modi had told Russian President Vladimir Putin that today’s era is not one of war.
As noted earlier, Japan does feel military pressure from Russia, whereas India has had a long strategic partnership with Moscow, which account for the differences in approach.
Despite the difference over the Russian invasion of Ukraine, India and Japan share concerns about China and that has been the key driver of their relationship. This is unlikely to change anytime soon. Indeed, what is more likely is that India and Japan will agree to disagree on Ukraine while driving their relationship forward focusing on China.