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Japan and the World Seen Through India's Ancient Statecraft Theory

While the realpolitik worldview of the "Arthashastra" was penned thousands of years ago, it continues to influence India's foreign policy thinking today.



Chandragiri hill in Karnataka, where Chandragupta Maurya, the founding king of the Maurya Empire is said to have visited. Chanakya, who is traditionally credited as the author of the treatise “Arthashastra,” served as his chief advisor. (©KGBedits via Wikimedia Commons)

The evolution of India's foreign policy found itself transiting through multiple phases. India began essentially as a reluctant player in global politics post its independence in 1947. However, it emerged to become a significant stakeholder in the remodeled multipolar architecture of the 21st century. 

The journey and blend of India's foreign policy choices and strategies do not limit its calculus to safeguarding its mainland and islands. Nor are they limited to ensuring a safe, secure, and stable Indian Ocean. They also demand that India is actively engaged with the world while determining what sort of engagement it seeks. 

Two years following India's independence, an anonymous Indian official wrote in the July 1949 edition of Foreign Affairs ruling out alignment with any power bloc. This thinking was carried over through many decades following India's independence.

Foundations of Indian Diplomacy

In the context of historical influences and motivations, the foundational premise and conceptual underpinning of Indian diplomacy can be traced back to the end of the fourth century BC.  This is when the theoretical roots of ancient India's strategic thinking and orientation were sown through the Indian treatise Arthashastra. (Its name means the "Science of Material Gain" or the "Science of Polity.")

The voluminous masterwork was written in Sanskrit by Kautilya, known more popularly as Chanakya. He was India's most cerebral minister and chief advisor to the founding King of the Mauryan Empire. Maurya and Chanakya jointly managed to unify most of Greater India into one state from the beginning of the former's rule in 321 BCE until his voluntary abdication in 298 BCE.

An artistic depiction of Chanakya from the cover of the 1915 English translation of the "Arthashastra" by R Shamasastry. (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

If geopolitics and balance of power underpin international relations, the treatise Arthashastra delineates theories of statecraft, diplomacy, strategy, and prerequisites of politics and power. The treatise rests on the fundamental notion of pragmatism and utility to justify state actions. 

Arthashastra is considered unique in Indian literature owing to its forthright advocacy of realpolitik. It endorses a realist paradigm that was popularized in Western international relations theory much later.

The Ancient Rajamandala Theory

Significantly, Arthashastra initiated the political philosophy and theory of the "circle of states." The theory continues to be of enduring relevance even today, as India pragmatically crafts and shapes its foreign policy choices in the 21st century. 


According to the "circle of states," also referred to as the Rajamandala theory, adversarial states border the ruler's state by forming a circle around it. As a reactive strategy in response, another set of states surrounds this set of hostile states to form an outer concentric circle ring. The states in the second circle are described as the natural allies of the ruler's state against the hostile states placed between them. 

The theory of the "circle of states" entails that every ruler within the international system will find a state at the center of its own circle of states.

Avoiding war and attaining one's goals remains the highest form of strategy prescribed by any political tradition or volume — whether Kautilya, Sun Tzu, or Machiavelli. However, the Arthashastra sums up the basic conditioning of international politics thus:

[...] bilateral relations are determined by the power equation between the two states, with the inevitability of military preparedness to deter aggression by a powerful neighbor.

India's Realist Vision

Flowing from the above construct, India's foreign policy thinking and strategy in the 21st century places critical significance on its geographical spaces. It envisages its neighborhood in the form of three concentric circles. 

The first encompasses the "immediate neighborhood" in the form of southern Asia. The second circle includes the "extended neighborhood" stretching across Asia to Far East Asia and the Indian Ocean littoral. The third and final circle covers the global stage, with India being a key player in every successive circle. This reflects the Arthashastra's realist vision of geopolitics and statecraft.

India-Japan Relations

The geo-strategic vitality of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and the South and East China Seas renders India and Japan indispensable partners in realizing the larger regional objectives in these spaces. 

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi shakes hand with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in New Delhi, India, on September 9, 2023. (©Evan Vucci/Pool via REUTERS)

In the context of the Arthashastra, the outermost circle takes India into the Pacific, engaging convergent interests to ensure core security while also promoting a stable periphery. However, it is the interplay of these circles that will determine India's maritime future. This will also determine the larger strategic posture featuring Japan that shall emerge across the Indo-Pacific. Today, the two nations are the leading powers in the Indo-Pacific region. And they have a shared interest in the safety and security of their maritime domain.

Placing the above in terms of policymaking, Japan has welcomed the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI) announcement by India. By doing so, it acknowledged the growing space for cooperation between the IPOI and the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP). 


Today Japan participates as a lead partner in the connectivity pillar of the IPOI. This contemporary placement also reaffirms Tokyo's standing in a theory that was penned around the end of the fourth century BC. After all, Japan finds itself placed in Arthashastra's second circle geographically.


Author: Dr Monika Chansoria

Monika Chansoria is a Senior Fellow at The Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo and the author of five books on Asian security. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the views of any organization with which the author is affiliated. Follow her column, "All Politics is Global" on JAPAN Forward, and on X (formerly Twitter).

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