New identity

Published : Jan 14, 2011 00:00 IST

The new-found interest of Japan and the U.S. in India shows it as a country of much perceived importance in East Asia in 2011.

in Singapore

INDIA'S place in East Asia is an issue for likely debate among policymakers in the region in 2011 and beyond. Three distinct factors forced the issue to the fore on the eve of the New Year.

In the ascending order of importance, these factors were: (1) the agreed expansion of the East Asia Summit (EAS) to include the United States and Russia in 2011; (2) the WikiLeaks disclosure of a dim assessment of India in East Asia; and (3) Japan's move to bolster its defence against China through a series of measures, including enhanced security cooperation with India, among others.

The really new focal point of utmost regional interest centred on Japan's national defence programme guidelines, which were unveiled in Tokyo on December 17. Japan expressed heightened concern over the military modernisation by China and unveiled a 10-year plan, effective from 2011 onwards, to build a dynamic defence force to face this security environment. Tokyo's action plan was officially portrayed as a three-dimensional strategy, with India figuring in the third layer of Japan's core interest.

Japan, according to its Defence Ministry, would make indigenous efforts, in the first place, to increase the credibility of [Tokyo's] deterrent capability. The stated objective in that context was to transform pacifist Japan's current basic defence posture into a truly dynamic defence force as such. A number of practical steps, all aimed at augmenting Japan's military firepower in defensive and offensive modes, would fuel the strategy. Japan envisioned no direct role whatsoever for India in its indigenous efforts.

Overwhelmingly prominent in the second dimension would be Washington, with Japan announcing its plans to further enhance and develop [its] indispensable alliance with the U.S.. In a significant sense, Japan now appeared to walk out of its post-imperial shell of pacifism. Openly proclaimed was Tokyo's intention to continue to maintain and improve the credibility of U.S.' extended deterrence, with nuclear deterrent as a vital element. Devoid of the complicated terminology used here, the simple but strong message was that Japan would seek greater protection, from now on, under the U.S. nuclear umbrella that was unfurled, metaphorically, several decades ago. Obviously, Tokyo now conceived no particular role for India in the modernisation of this American nuclear umbrella, a project that would extend to Japan-U.S. cooperation in ballistic missile defence and fields.

Outwardly, a complex aspect of this proposed Japanese endeavour is that Tokyo sees its U.S. nuclear umbrella as something not at all equivalent to possessing one's own atomic arsenal. A logical counterpoint, though, is that a nuclear umbrella, provided by as close an ally as the U.S. is to Japan, is virtually a matter of having access to atomic weapons. Significantly, a top Japanese official, Hidenobu Sobashima, told this correspondent that we rely on the U.S. for the security of Japan [and], therefore, we feel that the Japan-U.S. security arrangement is very important and we don't feel there is inconsistency between this security arrangement and what we promote under nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation.

Sobashima was answering questions on whether the U.S. nuclear umbrella for Japan was turning into a counter-issue in parleys with India. Tokyo and New Delhi are currently engaged in serious talks for a possible civil nuclear pact, and Japan has insisted that India make commitments beyond its unilateral and voluntary moratorium on nuclear weapon tests. Sobashima, authorised to brief the media on these negotiations, would not go into the contents at stake. So, it remains unclear, at least as pure theory, whether India's voluntary moratorium, at one level, and the U.S. nuclear umbrellas for its allies, at another level, are equally consistent with the spirit, if not also the letter, of the discriminatory Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive [Nuclear] Test Ban Treaty.

Without addressing such a finer point about nuclear umbrellas, the new Japanese defence guidelines laid down that Tokyo will play an active role in the international nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation efforts. Japan would do so to address the threat of nuclear weapons, especially from North Korea, described as a grave destabilising factor in East Asia today.

Japan has cited as concerns for the regional and global community two other key issues: the insufficient transparency over China's military modernisation and Russia's increasingly robust military activities. And, India is being sucked into this vortex as a possible security partner for Japan in its defence against China. Such an envisioned partnership with India is of an indirect nature, and New Delhi, therefore, figures firmly only in the third dimension of the latest Japanese defence guidelines.

Tokyo now seeks multilayered security cooperation with the international community along what may be seen as the third frontier for Japan, the other two being its own national boundaries and its theatre of cooperation with the U.S. In this overarching framework, as outlined in the guidelines, Japan will enhance security cooperation with countries such as the Republic of Korea, Australia, [some members of] the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and India. The nature and scope of the intended security cooperation have not been spelt out.

It can surely be argued that the mention of India at the fag end of a list of countries for unspecified security cooperation does not necessarily amount to great expectations from Tokyo regarding New Delhi as a friend or potential ally. Two reasons, however, make it clear that the very mention of India in Japan's overall defence calculus can be seen as quite a substantive reality. First, Tokyo has placed India alongside two or more of the U.S.' key allies in East Asia. The second and more important reason, from Tokyo's standpoint, is that India and Japan have already begun translating into reality their bilateral action plan for defence-related security cooperation.

India and Japan have already teamed up with the U.S. and held sophisticated naval exercises, at least twice, off Okinawa, not far from the area of China's maritime interests of the military kind. Significant as this fact is, there is no hard evidence to suggest that Tokyo, under its new guidelines, will like to co-opt India for any of Japan's proposed front-line activities near China. In a coded formulation, China was portrayed in the guidelines as the new threat to Japan's security. So, Japan's latest priority would be the enhancement of force disposition in southwest Japan close to China. This area was recently the scene of high tensions between China and Japan over the status of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. There is clearly no mention of Japan's potential security partners, including India, in the proposed context of a value-added force disposition near China.

The complexity of such a new Japanese defence doctrine, focussed on indigenous effort as also the alliance with the U.S. and the identification of new security partners, does, nonetheless, show India as a country of much perceived importance in East Asia.

Such an empirical conclusion is in apparent conflict with the central point in the WikiLeaks disclosure of a conversation between a senior official of Singapore, a key ASEAN country, and some U.S. diplomats in September 2009. The Singapore official was quoted, in the leaked U.S. diplomatic cable, as saying that India's policy or posture towards ASEAN was stupid. In the reported perspective of the Singapore mandarin, India is half in, half out of ASEAN.

At first glance, such a view can be seen to be based on facts other than the new-found interest on the part of both the U.S. and Japan in India as a possible or potential player in a likely new configuration of major powers in East Asia. At the same time, India is almost universally seen in ASEAN circles, a sub-region of the larger geopolitical East Asia, as a player way behind China in their respective cooperation with the countries interested in economic and political engagement.

Illustrative of this bifocal vision about India in East Asia is a comment by Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury, formerly Foreign Minister of Bangladesh and currently Senior Research Fellow at the Singapore-based Institute of South Asian Studies. In a conversation, Chowdhury said: India is endeavouring to engage itself in this [East Asian] region in a way that is in consonance with India's perceived national self-interest and proportionate to that requirement. The challenge was to find the equilibrium in this endeavour, he said.

A discussion on India's place in East Asia in 2011 and beyond will be vacuous in the absence of an assessment on the likely entry of the U.S. and Russia into the EAS. There is a general consensus in the region, overriding the obvious reservations in some quarters, that the entry of the U.S. and Russia will make East Asia much more of a level playing field than now for inter-state cooperation and competition.

Refreshing in this context is a comment on India by K. Kesavapany, a seasoned Singapore diplomat and Director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in the city state. I am not interested in fanciful talk of India containing China or being a part of that containment [by other countries]. Why should India do so and face the consequences? I am talking about India being one of the balancer-powers in South/Southeast Asia, as the U.S. clearly is in Northeast/Southeast Asia. The time has come for India to take its place at the table of the Asian greats, a league [of relevance to Asia] that includes the U.S., China, Japan, [South] Korea, ASEAN and Russia.

Within the framework of India retaining its strategic sovereignty, Kesavapany said: India's [current] closeness to the U.S. has important consequences: not only for India but [also] for Asia.

On the big picture of the need for Asian reconciliation, Kesavapany said: China and Japan need to reconcile; so, at a different level, do China and India. The House of Asia needs at least four pillars: China, India, Japan and ASEAN.

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