A strategic stopover

Print edition : May 20, 2005

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's visit to India is aimed at reinforcing the strategic relationship that has developed between the two countries, especially in the context of their bid for permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council.

in New Delhi

THE visit of Junichiro Koizumi to India in the last week of April was the first by a Japanese Prime Minster since 2000. The visit of his predecessor, Yoshiro Mori, had put India-Japan relations back on track after the stormy phase following the Pokhran nuclear tests of 1998. Japan had led a vociferous campaign against the tests conducted by India and Pakistan and was quick to apply sanctions. However, within two years Japan's attitude towards India changed dramatically so much so that in the past two years, India has been the biggest recipient of Japanese development assistance aid.

Prime Ministers Junichiro Koizumi and Manmohan Singh at their meeting in New Delhi on April 29.-RAVEENDRAN/AFP

The policies of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government did play a role in influencing Japan's change of attitude. With Beijing still angry at the Bharatiya Janata Party-led NDA government's characterisation of China as a threat to India while listing its reasons for the nuclear tests, New Delhi had diverted its diplomatic efforts to mend ties with Japan, the United States and European countries. Vietnam, which also looks at China as a potential threat, although it has been careful not to articulate such a position publicly, has drawn closer to India. There was talk of the navies of Japan, Vietnam and India cooperating in the South China Sea, making China naturally suspicious of the goings on. Japan still wants India to assume a high-profile role in patrolling the important sea-lanes in the Indian Ocean, especially the Malacca Straits, which is crucial to Japanese trade and oil imports.

India, together with Japan, Brazil and Germany, formed the Group of Four (G-4) to lobby for a permanent seat in an expanded United Nations Security Council. However, in the past two years Sino-Indian relations too have improved considerably. Much of the animosity and the suspicions that characterised relations between the two seem to have evaporated. In fact, the visit of Koizumi comes close on the heels of Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao's visit to India.

China has openly opposed the Japanese bid for a permanent seat in the Security Council. Incidentally, even South Korea has signalled its opposition to Japan's membership of the Council. Some observers believe that India's teaming up with Japan prevents China from endorsing India's Security Council bid openly. The question of Security Council reform and expansion did figure quite prominently during Koizumi's rather hurried visit. He was in the capital for only a day. He made a brief stopover in Islamabad before heading to the Netherlands to thank the Dutch government for protecting Japanese forces in Iraq.

Japan wants the G-4 to strengthen its activities further in the coming months when lobbying for a seat in a restructured Security Council is expected to intensify. "Every candidate for a new Security Council seat has a difficult neighbour," said Japanese Ambassador to India Yasukuni Enoki, in a briefing to the media prior to Koizumi's visit. He also added that all aspirants for a Security Council seat should be "realistic and flexible" on the issue of having a "veto power".

Visiting U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan put the same view across to the Indian government. Annan left New Delhi a day before Koizumi's visit. It is obvious that Japan wants to be in the Security Council with or without the "veto" power. India, on the other hand, insists that it wants a seat at the high table with full "veto" power.

Koizumi's visit also came at a time when diplomatic tensions between China and Japan had exacerbated. In many cities across China, anti-Japan rallies were staged to express anger over the Koizumi government's approval of school textbooks that glossed over Japanese war atrocities (Frontline, May 6). In fact, Koizumi is the first Japanese Prime Minister in the past 20 years to resume visiting the Yasukuni shrine built in honour of Japan's war dead, which is widely seen as a symbol of Japanese militarism. According to Chinese Ambassador to Japan Wang Yi, there was "a gentleman's agreement", 20 years ago that Japanese leaders will stop visiting the controversial shrine. Before coming to New Delhi, Koizumi, while attending the 50th anniversary of the Bandung Summit, publicly apologised for Japanese atrocities during the Second World War but only in general terms. However, there are indications that Koizumi intends to stop his much-hyped annual pilgrimage to the shrine.

KOIZUMI's visit to New Delhi coincided with the highly publicised visit of the Taiwanese Leader of the Opposition from the Kuomintang party, Lien Chan, to China. It is the first visit by a senior Kuomintang leader to the mainland and has been interpreted as the beginning of the reconciliation process between China and influential sections of the political establishment in Taiwan. Significantly, the Japanese government is a strong backer of Taiwan's President Chen Shui-bian, a strong votary of Taiwanese independence.

Japan and Taiwan are the most vocal supporters of the Bush administration's "missile defence" programme. Most analysts believe that the programme, which has the potential to start a nuclear and missile race in outer space, is aimed at China. When the Bush administration first announced its plans to launch the programme, the then Indian External Affairs Minister, Jaswant Singh, supported the move and indicated India's eagerness to be a partner in the venture. External Affairs Minister K. Natwar Singh, soon after taking over, said that the Untied Progressive Alliance (UPA) government would not support the programme. Japan, on the other hand, has been depending on the U.S. military umbrella for protection since 1950.

Japan was among the first countries to support the U.S. invasions of Iraq. Despite a domestic uproar, the Koizumi government, regarded by many as one of the most right-wing in decades, sent a contingent of 1,000 heavily armed troops to Iraq. Many Japanese regard the act as being against Article 9 of Japan's pacifist Constitution, which prohibits deployment of soldiers overseas.

The joint statement issued after the meeting between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Koizumi pledged that both countries "would work as partners against proliferation". Both governments still swear by the goal of achieving a world free of nuclear weapons but have differing perceptions on the ways of achieving it. "While expressing their positions on the approaches towards the shared goal of achieving a world free of nuclear weapons, the two governments affirm they will seek to promote commonalities and identify areas of convergence for mutual cooperation in a constructive manner, contributing to the advancement of overall bilateral relations," the statement said. It stressed that the "global partnership" between the two countries reflects the convergence of their long-term political, economic and strategic interests. Both countries, the statement said, "have responsibility for, and are capable of, responding to global and regional challenges". According to the statement, Asia is emerging as the "leading growth centre of the global economy and exerting an ever-greater influence" on world affairs.

The two sides also talked about furthering cooperation in the area of security. The joint statement talked of the importance of "maritime security". It said that the Indian Coast Guard and the Japanese Coast Guard would "commence efforts" to establish a framework for effective cooperation. The Indian Navy and the Self-Defence Force of Japan have been "instructed to enhance their cooperation". The U.S. and Japan had wanted India to be part of the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), but better sense prevailed in the Indian government. China was suspicious of the PSI, viewing it as a thinly disguised move by the U.S. to isolate it.

Together with the joint statement, the two leaders announced an "eight-fold" initiative to strengthen the "global" partnership between India and Japan. A dialogue on cooperation in the oil and natural gas sector is to start soon. The two countries envisage cooperation in downstream projects and joint investments in third countries. The statement said that they would "work together to launch a new science and technology initiative", which would include substantial cooperation in areas such as biotechnology, nanoscience and technology, Information Techonolgy, communication technology, and robotics.

Japan has said that it will lobby vigorously to see that India gets invited to the East Asia summit to be held in Kuala Lumpur at the end of this year. The two countries are looking at a 10-fold increase in trade from the current $4 billion in he next five years. The bulk of India's exports consist of iron ore, diamonds and shrimps. Sino-Japanese trade, in comparison, is 30 times more than that between India and Japan. Japanese officials are of the view that the laws regarding foreign direct investments in India have to be relaxed further to make them more attractive for Japanese investors.

At a dinner hosted in Koizumi's honour, Manmohan Singh thanked Japan for helping India tide over the 1991 financial crisis. "It was as a result of such friendly support that India was able to emerge from the crisis and to embark subsequently on the path of economic reform that has changed the face of the economy," he said. Manmohan Singh also recalled that India had refused to demand war reparations from Japan and had instead chosen to sign a separate peace treaty with Japan in 1952.

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