Japan, India, and Democratic Cooperation in Asia

BOSTON—There was a time, not that long ago, when the question of whether “Asian values” — whatever they meant — were compatible with democracy was being hotly debated. But times have changed. Today, over 2 billion Asians (roughly half the continent), live in free, democratic polities, more than in the United States and Europe combined. But as the balance of democracy moves from West to East, what does the future hold for global democratic cooperation?

A useful indicator of things to come may be the growing alignment between India and Japan — Asia’s largest and wealthiest democracies. This weekend, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will be welcomed in New Delhi as chief guest at India’s Republic Day celebrations, marking the next step in an increasingly close strategic partnership. Despite poor relations in the late 1990s, when India conducted several nuclear tests, Tokyo and New Delhi have developed a partnership encompassing more robust economic ties, defense exercises, high-level security and foreign policy dialogues, and regular apex-level meetings. The primary motivator of this fast-developing relationship may be balance of power considerations; both countries have growing concerns about China, a country with which they have active territorial disputes. But just as importantly, both Tokyo and New Delhi have become much less reserved in recent years about adopting the rhetoric of values-based cooperation.

During his first tenure in office from 2006 to 2007, Abe and his advisers developed the notion of an “Arc of Freedom and Prosperity,” a region of market democracies curving from East and Southeast Asia, to India and up to Central and Eastern Europe. These countries, Abe felt, should assume greater importance in Japan’s strategic calculus, as countries that broadly shared Japan’s values. Abe persevered with this theme upon his return to the prime ministership in late 2012, and last year’s National Security Strategy explicitly mentions cooperation with countries with which Japan shares “universal values and strategic interests” as a priority.

India, despite proudly branding itself as the world’s largest democracy, has traditionally been more circumspect about public announcements of democracy’s value in influencing cooperative relations between states. But that did not stop Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh from calling Japan a country with which India had “shared values and shared interests” and “a shared commitment to the ideals of democracy, peace, and freedom” in a speech in Tokyo last year. Such statements build on the words of his predecessor, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who described the United States and India as “natural allies,” bound implicitly by a shared sense of values.

Beyond simple rhetoric, India, Japan, and Asia’s other democracies have taken a few small, but meaningful, steps over the past decade to advance democratic cooperation. In 2005, during the headier days of U.S.-India collaboration, the two countries agreed to support a Global Democracy Initiative to support developing democracies. Meanwhile, Indonesia — a large, young, but nonetheless vibrant democracy — established the Bali Democracy Forum in 2008 to strengthen democratic institutions through dialogue between various countries’ foreign ministries. Such developments, while admittedly modest, are all too often overlooked in Western commentary, where doubts persist on the viability of global democratic cooperation, based largely on progress — or lack thereof — in the Middle East, post-Soviet states, and China.

But the West — and Europe in particular — can still play a crucial role as a successful model for how to integrate values into regional institutional cooperation. In contrast to Europe after World War II, Asia’s regional institutional architecture evolved gradually on the basis of respect for sovereignty, rather than shared values. Some of this may have resulted from contrasting security environments. Whereas Europe saw two distinct blocs face down one another during the Cold War, Asia’s multipolarity ensured that ideology played less of a role in coalition building.

But the end result is that, today, any indication of interference in the affairs of another state is generally frowned upon in Asian multilateral settings. Consequently, issues of governance are rarely discussed, for the sake of regional harmony. Members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), perhaps the most successful example of Asian regional cooperation, include single-party states, robust multi-party democracies, authoritarian military regimes, and an absolute monarchy, bound together by geographical proximity and only a vague sense of common purpose.

And yet it is unclear whether this state of affairs is tenable in the long-run. As Japan and India continue to find common cause with one another, as well as with other democratic governments in the Asia-Pacific region, they may want to look more closely at the European model of how to forge a community bound by a shared set of values that celebrate unity in diversity, prosperity, and political choice.

Dhruva Jaishankar is a transatlantic fellow with the German Marshall Fund of the United States’ Asia program.

The views expressed here are the views of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the stance of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
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