Turning a new leaf
Japan’s Prime Minister Abe’s visit to New Delhi as the guest of honour at this year’s Republic Day parade underscores the rapid multiplication of ties between the two countries. This follows Japanese Emperor Akhito and Empress Michiko symbolic visit and Defense Minister Itsonuri Onedera’s four-day visit.
The upping of interactions between the two countries is being viewed in the context of Abe taking office for the second time. Abe is one Asian leader who understands the security dilemma in the region as it exists and believes that tightening of bonds with New Delhi is consequential in shaping Asian geopolitics. Japan’s economic resurgence combined with growing tensions with China over maritime disputes has led Japanese strategists and investors to embrace India as a partner and market. During his first term as the Prime Minister, the right wing leader in 2007 had proposed a ‘broad Asia’ alliance of Asian democracy which was speculated to be Japan’s version of NATO to counter a rising China.
Before assuming office for the second time after the 2012 general elections, he presented his vision of a ‘Democratic Security Diamond’, which envisages ‘a strategy whereby Australia, India, Japan, and the US state of Hawaii form a diamond to safeguard the maritime commons stretching from the Indian Ocean to the Western Pacific.’ Abe has thus been working on the idea of joint defence productions to lower costs and use of overseas military technologies. The two countries are likely to discuss nuclear cooperation and the sale of the US-2 amphibious aircraft well suited for advanced air-sea search and rescue operations. The cost of a single US-2 aircraft is roughly $109 million which has caused a stalemate between India and Japan over its sale. While Tokyo wants New Delhi to buy the aircraft, back home the defense is in the favour to produce it jointly. The civilian-nuclear cooperation touches a raw nerve with Japanese public opinion following the Fukushima disaster, but Abe views the export of Japanese reprocessing technology as a strategic area for cooperation with India.
As commercial relations with China turn dry, Japanese businesses are looking at India as a large market.
In the last five years the bilateral trade has increased 80 per cent and stands currently at 18 billion dollars. This year’s goal is 25 billion dollars which, nonetheless, is still dwarfed if compared to India-China bilateral trade figure inching towards 100 billion dollars. Yet, over the years Japan has extended financial and technical support to several infrastructure projects—metro railway systems, industrial corridors, highways, bridges and power plants to name a few. Tokyo has already promised $92 billion towards construction of the Delhi-Mumbai industrial corridor and is expected to announce the launch of the Bangalore-Chennai high-speed railway. Japan’s lead in building smart grids, generating energy from waste and storage solutions could likewise create new opportunities for savvy Indian companies.
Notably, this bonhomie in economy, technology and defense sector is taking place keeping an eye on China’s growing military ambition. China’s repeated incursions in Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh have proved to be constant irritants for India. Beijing’s intimate alliance with Islamabad in defense and nuclear cooperation is seen as a way to counterbalance India. Not just India, China is also embroiled in a series of territorial disputes in the East and South China Sea. The Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and Japan claim that China is encroaching on their territories. Escalation of tensions in Senkaku/ Diaoyu islands, its latest Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) are considered acts of bullying by neighbours. This has led to formulation of a ‘strategic deterrence’ against the PLA navy.
How China reacts to it is another matter, however. Nothing irks China more than nations ‘ganging up’ against it. For this reason the Chinese strategy has been to deal with each nation separately and never through multilateral talks, thereby reducing their collective force. Beijing views Tokyo’s security partnership with countries as a way to encircle china.
It should be recalled that during Exercise Malabar in 2007, along with India and the US, Singapore, Australia and Japan were also involved. It was one of the largest multilateral naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal featuring three aircraft carriers, 28 surface vessels, 150 aircraft and over 20,000 personnel. This was seen as an anti-China naval platform prompting Beijing to issue demarches to all five participating countries. Since then, Exercise Malabar has reverted to being a bilateral venture.
India on its part has been leery in warming up to a single country, for the fear of miffing the other away. Thus, India’s response to Japan’s initiatives of ‘Democratic Security Diamond’ etc have remained lack lustred. New Delhi is not very comfortable with extending the existing bilateral maritime cooperation to a multilateral arrangement. India also maintained a studied silence over the Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea. Those in the Japanese strategic circles expect India to denounce Beijing’s move to unilaterally change the status quo in the East China Sea. Onodera during his visit hinted that Abe will seek New Delhi’s support over the ADIZ row.
The ball lies in India’s court. Our ‘core interests’ lie in maintaining a strategic economy and securing its territory. Japan shares with India an acute concern over the export of terrorism from Pakistan and Afghanistan. Both the countries can collaborate on a full spectrum of issue areas. New Delhi’s policy alteration from the rhetoric ‘Look East’ to finally ‘Acting East’ has far reaching economic and strategic potential to sustain a non-sino centric axis and maintain a pluralism of power in Asia.
The author is research scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University