As Japan reformulates its foreign policy in the quest to assume a greater leadership role in Asia, it finds it shares an unprecedented convergence in interests, values and strategies with a rising India that is eager to "look east" and integrate itself into Asia and Asian institutions.

Better relations with India will serve Japan well in the long term as it seeks to reassert its leadership in Asia, while a strategic partnership with Japan will increase the chances of India's integration into the Asian political equation. The prospects for the India-Japan relationship are boosted by the fact that Japan's key ally, the United States, has also embarked on a strategic partnership with India.

Moving beyond simply assertions and grandiose plans of a strategic partnership, as has recently become commonplace, a systematic study of convergences in the political, economic and strategic arenas demonstrates that very clear strategic imperatives exist for India and Japan to embark on a durable and meaningful partnership. Close ties between India and Japan will have far-reaching implications for the region and are likely to become a key driving force in shaping a new international order in Asia based on democratic values and market principles.

Bound by a pacifism that impacted all aspects of its foreign and security policy, a debate has recently raged within Japan on the future of pacifism in Japanese foreign policy. Former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi sought to bring Japan out of the shadows of its post-World War II history and worked hard with US President George W Bush to enable Japan to assume a more prominent role in global affairs. Similarly, Koizumi's successor, Shinzo Abe, a more conservative leader, has pledged to amend Article 9 of Japan's postwar constitution, a move that would allow the military to venture abroad and for Japan to emerge as a "normal" country again.

Japan's new political landscape cannot be understood without recognizing the impact that the rise of China has had on Japanese elites. Over the past few years, Japan has slowly been diplomatically overshadowed by a fast-growing China that is intent on staving off any counter-balancing efforts against it. Whether it is in Southeast Asia or South Asia, China has become a more prominent partner of many key Asian states, partly by virtue of its large trading links with these countries.

The rise of China and increasing tensions between the two countries has altered this sense of complacency. Japan has therefore become more proactive in maintaining its leadership role in Asia and beyond. Japan has sought partners in Asia, other than the US, to limit Chinese influence, if not to contain China. Building on Koizumi's January 2002 proposal for a new Asian regionalism based on the promotion of market economics and democratic values, Abe has envisaged an "Arc of Freedom and Prosperity" in essence made up of democratic nations that line the outer rim of the Eurasian continent.

This has necessitated a strong focus on India, evident from its prominent featuring in Japan's recent diplomatic overtures and initiatives in Asia. It is clear that Japan and India are likely to become closely tied partners in coming years based on common values and strategic interests and as a useful complement to Japan's traditional strategic reliance on relations with the US.

Japan in India's strategic perspective

Domestic developments within India have followed a similar path of attempting to shed old shibboleths. Emboldened by its rapid and sustained economic-growth story, and a new strategic partnership with the most powerful country in the world, the United States, India has shed its foreign-policy shackles of non-alignment and is slowly seeking to develop interests-based friendships and partnerships with the major powers of the world.

Japan then becomes a suitable partner for several reasons. First, an economic partnership and enhanced trade and investment ties with the second-largest economy has to be an essential component of India's economic strategy. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has repeatedly emphasized that economic ties must be the bedrock of India's relationship with all the major powers in the world, including Japan.

Second, India wants to integrate itself with the rest of Asia, and as it "looks east", it has realized that it needs partners within Asia that will take up its cause. Japan has been more than happy to play that role. Without Japan's initiative and the manifestations of the China-Japan rivalry, it is possible that India would not have been invited to participate in the East Asian Summit. For India, therefore, its relations with Japan are crucial in its quest for greater economic integration with the Asia-Pacific region.

Third, India is wary of a China that is striking strategic partnerships with its neighbors, including Pakistan and Bangladesh. A strong tie-up with Japan enables India to play China's own game in its back yard. India also shares Japanese (and US) concerns about China as a regional hegemon in Asia, and believes that a stronger partnership between the democratic nations of Asia will exert a moderating influence over a rising China and ensure a multipolar Asia.

Finally, India's strategic partnership with the US envisages India as a key partner in regional issues, and it is only appropriate that India and Japan, as partners of the US in Asia, develop a strong relationship.

The view from China

The Chinese are more worried about a militarily assertive Japan than they are of a rising India. However, coming on the heels of the strategic partnership between India and the United States, a similar relationship between Japan and India is bound to ruffle feathers in Beijing.

Though India does not feature at the very top of Chinese security threats or as a legitimate competitor in East Asian affairs, by striking partnerships with the two countries with the most potential to affect China's development, India is bound to become more assertive in its dealings with China itself - an implication that Beijing in all likelihood has already grasped.

Given the strategic partnerships that the Chinese enjoy with India's neighbors, it seems only reasonable that India have the freedom to choose its own strategic partners, wherever they might be. Indian thinkers have argued that just as Indian considerations are not allowed to affect the Pakistan-China "all-weather friendship", India should not allow China's strained relationship with Japan and even Taiwan enter the India-Japan relationship equation.

The Chinese have already been warily watching as different aspects of the US-India strategic partnership unfolds, and are equally concerned about talk of a quadrilateral strategic partnership among the US, Japan, Australia and India - an arrangement that clearly spans China's borders along the Asia-Pacific rim. The Chinese clearly do not want a strategic alliance, formal or informal, among the Japanese, the Indians and the Americans, which they allegedly made clear to the Indians on the eve of Manmohan's trip to Japan last December.

Interestingly, New Delhi was not immediately enthused by the idea of expanding the US-Australia-Japan trilateral strategic dialogue to include India, but Beijing's demand that India not join paradoxically only enhanced its desire to pursue such an arrangement, possibly reflecting an increased willingness among Indian elites to pursue relationships and initiatives based on their core national interests.

The quadrilateral dialogue was kicked off on May 25 as senior officials of Japan, Australia, the US and India met for the first time on the sidelines of an Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum meeting in Manila. Though it has a clear geopolitical significance, the grouping is likely to be projected not as a formal strategic alliance, but as a way to induce a constructive engagement among the major players in Asia.

Implications for the US

A strategic and global partnership between India and Japan largely bodes well for US interests in Asia and beyond. US support and encouragement of this relationship is predicated on the assessment that the optimal strategy for maintaining order and stability in Asia, as the region assumes the mantle of the new center of gravity in the international order, would be to support the creation of strong democratic centers of power and enhance cooperation among them, enabling them to take the lead in solving regional and global problems in the process.

Trilateral cooperation among the US, India and Japan therefore becomes immensely useful for the United States for various reasons. First, it would allow these countries, which share common values such as democracy and rule of law and interests such as an open and free Asia, not to be dominated by a single power, to come together to help formulate a vision and a strategy for the future of the continent.

Second, trilateral cooperation can also serve to demonstrate that US strategy in Asia is best served by a combination of formal and informal alliances that come together to serve the larger US interests in Asia. Third, US-India-Japan cooperation, with the possible addition of Australia, could create a core arrangement that could then evolve into a larger security architecture in Asia.

It should be noted, however, that this trilateral relationship must not be used as a device to contain China; rather, such a partnership should seek, by way of shaping the strategic environment in appropriate ways, to induce China to evolve as a constructive, rather than revisionist, power in Asia.

The India-Japan partnership in Asia and the world also could provide comfort to a United States that is feeling marginalized by virtue of being denied membership in the East Asian Summit, among other Asia-led initiatives. Strategic partnerships with both countries, in addition to a strong partnership between them, will allow the US to maintain an active strategic presence in Asia, even if it is formally excluded from certain institutions and initiatives.

That said, India, or even Japan, will not serve as the proxy of the US. However, a partnership between the democratic states in Asia will ensure that it remains open and free, politically and economically, that will in turn bring the benefit of a protected commons that includes safety of sea lanes, and a secure and reliable access to energy sources. Moreover, it will allow Asian countries to work together against the threats of terrorism, religious extremism, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

India and Japan today share a clear congruence of interests due to systemic and structural changes in the international system in recent years, in addition to fundamentally sound reasons for a partnership in the economic, political and military arenas, amid larger strategic considerations. Firm determination to give the relationship a concrete form exists at the highest political level on both sides and, as a result, both countries have worked hard over the past few years to establish a solid foundation for building the relationship into a truly strategic partnership.

India will undoubtedly continue to feature prominently in Japan's global and regional strategy, while Japan will most likely become a key hinge of India's "Look East" policy and its efforts to become an integral part of regional economic, political and strategic discourse. Asian regional institutions and even Asia itself, which count India as a key member state, will look very different from ones that exclude it.

While certain hurdles exist, they are unlikely to derail the current path of the relationship. China will warily watch the India-Japan relationship, much as it remains wary of the evolving US-India strategic partnership, but if India and Japan tread carefully, Chinese considerations should not affect their relationship.

At the same time, India, Japan, the US and Australia should not seek to enter a formal alliance; rather, a quadrilateral security dialogue is the best mechanism to promote cooperation without ruffling feathers in China. Most important, the India-Japan relationship can become a key driving force in the emergence of a new security architecture in Asia based on the protection of democratic values and market principles.

Anirudh Suri is editor of South Asian Perspectives, a monthly publication of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. This article originally appeared in Asia Times Online on June 9, 2007.

(Copyright Anirudh Suri 2007)