Quiet approach

Print edition : June 18, 2010
in Singapore

A.K. Antony, Defence Minister, with Toshimi Kitazawa, his Japanese counterpart, before their meeting in New Delhi on April 30.-PRAKASH SINGH/AFP

Quiet diplomacy often forms the substance of international relations. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the recent dialogue between Japanese Defence Minister Toshimi Kitazawa and his Indian counterpart A.K. Antony is a potentially important pointer in the evolving geopolitics of the East Asian region.

Details of the Kitazawa-Antony talks in New Delhi on April 30 were not released by either side at that time. The meeting was not a secret event, of course, and no hidden agenda need, therefore, be read into the failure of the two sides to make any immediate comment. However, the details, as later ascertained by this correspondent in Singapore, do reveal some new trends in the defence-related diplomacy between the two countries.

More importantly, these new trends fit into an emerging pattern of India's incremental dialogue with China's neighbours in East Asia Japan, South Korea, and member-states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Such scaled-up dialogue need not necessarily be seen as an effort by India to try and balance out China. Nonetheless, it is becoming gradually evident that India is trying to make its presence felt in China's neighbourhood. And, in this, New Delhi has found willing partners.

Such a gradually emerging big picture of India in the larger East Asian geopolitical region can only be gleaned from some of the finer details of India's current dialogue with Japan and with South Korea on parallel tracks. Relevant to this context is the India-Republic of Korea Foreign Policy and Security Dialogue in Seoul on April 9, apart from the Kitazawa-Antony talks.

This particular dialogue between India and Japan is noteworthy on two counts: one, the new move for an exchange of information on the escorting schedules of the Japanese and Indian naval vessels engaged in their independent anti-piracy operations along the Gulf of Aden; and two, the manner in which Kitazawa took Antony into his confidence over Japan's views about China's military activities in the area surrounding the Japanese archipelago.

There certainly was nothing amiss about such discussions. However, the key diplomatic point to note is that China has been placed on the agenda of Japan-India dialogue on defence cooperation. This does not, of course, signal any kind of military coordination by Tokyo and New Delhi in their independent interactions with Beijing. What cannot, however, escape notice is the fact that the Japan-India defence ministerial dialogue, a crucial aspect of a relevant Action Plan, has now acquired a new dimension beyond the obvious bilateral one. China has been recognised as a potential factor in the evolving Japan-India engagement.

Interesting indeed is Kitazawa's discourse on China's naval activities in the area surrounding Japan in April and thereabouts. Antony was informed of Tokyo's perceptions on how China's military helicopter(s) carried out proximate flights in the vicinity of Japanese escort ships. And, Kitazawa is believed to have pointed out how Japan recognised the importance of engaging China to take responsible actions as well as to comply with all international laws and regulations.

Also emphasised was Tokyo's view that Beijing should display greater transparency than now on all matters relating to China's military modernisation and defence posture. It is understood that Antony conveyed to his Japanese counterpart some thoughts on India's ongoing interactions with China in the defence sector. This was done with reference to the evolving political framework of India's dialogue with China across a wide spectrum of common and differential interests.

About a week after the Kitazawa-Antony dialogue, but unrelated to it, the Japanese government lodged a protest with China over its perceived military activities in the seas surrounding Japan. Of no direct relevance to the future of the Japan-India defence dialogue were Beijing's thoughts on Tokyo's unusual diplomatic action of this kind.

The emerging China factor apart, Tokyo is clearly seeking to move closer to New Delhi in the defence domain in a manner consistent with Japan's post-imperial military doctrine of pacifism. Military experts say that the latest move for exchange of information on the [independent] escorting schedules of the Japanese and Indian naval vessels, now engaged in anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden sector, reflects a deepening of trust between these two navies. The Japanese navy, or more precisely the Maritime Self-Defence Force to call it by its pacifist name, is generally seen to be wary of such coordination, except perhaps with Washington, Tokyo's long-standing military ally despite all the current turbulence in their ties.

Antony and Kitazawa have also agreed that India and Japan should hold a naval exercise by 2011. The two countries have already held trilateral naval exercises, of the sophisticated kind, involving the United States as well. At least two such trilateral exercises have taken place off Japan, not far from the Chinese maritime domain. In addition, India and Japan teamed up with the U.S. and Australia, besides Singapore, for a multilateral naval exercise in 2007. Another talking point during the Kitazawa-Antony meeting was the idea of joint training, involving the Japanese and Indian navies, for humanitarian assistance, disaster relief and U.N. peacekeeping operations.

These and other aspects of the Japan-India defence ministerial dialogue do not really signify an altogether new political direction in the overall bilateral domain. In fact, a defence-cooperation-related Action Plan was already agreed upon during Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama's visit to New Delhi for talks with his Indian counterpart, Manmohan Singh, early in January. Despite this diplomatic caveat, the new reality is that the defence-related Action Plan is being actively implemented, that too with reference to the emerging political dynamics in East Asia. These dynamics can be traced primarily to the relentless rise of China as a potential superpower.

Another aspect of these dynamics is that Hatoyama has so far failed to master the diplomatic equivalent of rocket science in his efforts to deflect Japan off its geosynchronous orbital path around the U.S. in global affairs. However, he has not completely given up his efforts to bring about some balance, if not total equality, between the U.S. and Japan in their 60-year-old military alliance.

The Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force destroyer J.S. Yuudachi leading a formation during Exercise Malabar 2007 in the Bay of Bengal. More than 20,000 naval personnel from the navies of Australia, India, Japan, the Republic of Singapore, and the United States took part in the exercise.-U.S. NAVY/AP

Not to be underestimated in this broader context is the political importance of the new references to China in the Japan-India defence ministerial dialogue. More significantly, India and Japan are engaged in a politically calibrated exercise to tone up the overall dynamics of their bilateral engagement.

Antony and Kitazawa may not have directly dealt with the idea of translating into reality the 2+2 Dialogue formula, which Hatoyama and Manmohan Singh agreed upon in early January. The idea was, of course, in the air even earlier. The formula, with its arithmetical architecture, is very simple indeed: the Defence and Foreign Ministers of Japan, arrayed on its side as 2, will hold periodic talks with the Defence and External Affairs Ministers of India, arrayed on its side as the other 2.

Such a 2+2 Dialogue between any two countries is considered to be the diplomatic index of a truly special or near-special relationship between them.

2+2 dialogue

Asked about the fate of the Japan-India 2+2 Dialogue formula, without reference to the recent Kitazawa-Antony meeting, Kazuo Kodama, a top Japanese official, told this correspondent that the idea is active, not dormant. The two countries have already agreed to begin such a process at the sub-Cabinet level or at the level of senior officials.

Japan regularly holds 2+2 Dialogue with the U.S. and Australia. These talks, at the ministerial level in each case, are held on altogether different political tracks. While Japan does not look upon India as being in the same category of partners at this stage, significant in itself is the reality that Tokyo and New Delhi are seeking such a format of dialogue.

In a different but related sphere, India figures alongside Australia in Japan's calculus of security cooperation. Tokyo already has somewhat similar security-related agreements, basically declarations, with both Canberra and New Delhi. These do not, obviously, measure up as the equivalents of the U.S.-Japan military alliance. However, the Kitazawa-Antony dialogue shows that Tokyo and New Delhi are gravitating towards each other almost the same way in which Japan and Australia have. This, surely, is the perception on the Japanese side, while the political spin in the Indian officialdom is not very clear.

In a sense, the political label of a strategic partnership between any two countries, with or without the so-called add-on of a global dimension in such a partnership, is now in some kind of inflationary use (in the words of a north-east Asian diplomat).

However, it is the emptiness of such an inflationary use that India and South Korea are now seeking to avoid in their escalating engagement in the diplomatic domain. India's Secretary (East), Latha Reddy, and her South Korean counterparts recently held the first-ever meeting in the upgraded category of foreign policy and security dialogue.

The meeting in Seoul covered issues of trade, with particular reference to the India-South Korea Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement that came into effect in January, besides the conventional aspects of security-related engagement.

Political ties between New Delhi and Seoul have been warming up in the context of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak's travel to India as its Republic Day guest this year. In particular, Seoul has been evincing considerable interest in promoting ties with India in the civil nuclear sector. And, interestingly, the South Korean Ministry of Education, Science and Technology presented, in April, a citation to a senior Indian diplomat, C. Rajasekhar, for his role in the promotion of cooperation between the two countries in the atomic energy sector.

On yet another political track in the Asia-Pacific region, India figures in the new efforts of ASEAN to create a new forum of ASEAN+8 nations. This will consist of all the 10 ASEAN member-states, plus China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, New Zealand, the U.S. and Russia. It is in this context that the regular talks between New Delhi and ASEAN, coordinated on the Indian side by Latha Reddy and Ambassador Biren Nanda, among others, acquire a new sense of urgency.

The ASEAN+8 forum, not yet given a formal name, is significant for the inclusion of not only the U.S. but also Russia as key players of the geopolitical East Asian region. In a recent conversation with this correspondent, former ASEAN Secretary-General Rodolfo C. Severino emphasised the new importance of Russia, already a key player in the multilateral talks on Korean denuclearisation, besides the more conventional relevance of the U.S., to East Asia.

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