Strategic embrace

Print edition : March 07, 2014

President Pranab Mukherjee with chief guest Shinzo Abe at the 65th Republic Day parade in New Delhi. Photo: PTI

Japan steps up its diplomatic cooperation with India as part of its “contain China” policy, being pursued since Shinzo Abe became the Prime Minister.

JAPANESE Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was the chief guest at the 2014 Republic Day celebrations in New Delhi. The honour accorded to him by the Indian government reflects the growing strategic and political ties between New Delhi and Tokyo. Abe is the first Japanese Prime Minister to grace the Republic Day parade. Natsuo Yamaguchi, the leader of the New Komeito Party, an alliance partner of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), who was on a visit to India, said that the presence of Abe as the chief guest “was a great epic signal” for the strengthening of the partnership between the two countries.

Before his arrival in India, Abe had continued with his strong rhetoric against China. Speaking on the sidelines of the Davos Conference, Abe said that Japan and China were in a situation similar to the one that existed between Britain and Germany before the outbreak of the First World War. He said that the increase in military spending by China was a major source of regional instability. Since Abe assumed the Prime Minister’s office for the second time more than a year ago, relations between the two countries have soured considerably. Japan has upped the ante in the territorial dispute with China and has been busy drumming up international support for its cause.

Since assuming office, Abe has visited all South-East Asian nations. The Philippines and Vietnam, like India, have territorial disputes with China, but other South-East Asian nations, like Cambodia and Laos, have close relations with China. Japan, however, is wooing these countries diplomatically by offering financial aid and other economic incentives. In Myanmar, where China had the upper hand in the business sector until recently, Japanese companies are now bagging the major contracts on offer.

Before coming to India, the Japanese Prime Minister had made a highly publicised visit to the African continent. Among the countries he visited were Ethiopia, Mozambique and Ivory Coast. Abe again stirred up a controversy by stating that Japan, unlike other countries, would not just extract resources from the continent but would also create jobs. Japanese newspapers elaborated on what exactly their Prime Minster meant. China, they averred, was diverting resources and profits from the African continent without creating jobs. China’s trade with the African continent is seven times more than that of Japan. China’s representative to the African Union (A.U.), Xie Xiaoyan, reacted by saying that Abe had emerged as “the biggest troublemaker in Asia” and that his visit to Africa was “part and parcel of the Contain China policy”.

The Japanese Prime Minister’s visit to India was preceded by that of his Defence Minister, Itsunori Onodera, in the first week of January. The Minister met with Defence Minister A.K. Antony. The two Ministers discussed ways to strengthen military cooperation and strategic partnership. The Indian Defence Minister assured his Japanese counterpart that India supported the Japanese stand on freedom of navigation in international waters and “the application of global conventions”. Onodera, speaking to the Press Trust of India on the recent tensions in the East China Sea, said that “the entire international community will have to send a message to China”. He stressed the importance of India, Japan and the United States coming together “to send a common message to the Chinese side”.

Abe has long been arguing for stronger bilateral ties between Japan and India. In his 2007 book Towards a Beautiful Country: My Vision for Japan, Abe visualises a bilateral relationship with India that can, in a decade, “overtake Japan-U.S. and Japan-China ties”. China and Japan, the second and third biggest economies of the world, have business and trade ties worth over $334 billion annually. India’s trade with Japan is less than $18 billion annually. In 2011, India and Japan signed a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA), under which tariffs were slashed for more than 8,000 products. Trade volume figures for 2014 are projected at $25 billion.

Abe’s three-day visit to India was part of a concerted effort to further consolidate the strategic ties between the two countries. Emperor Akihito was in India in late 2013. The first ever visit by a Japanese Emperor to India has been described as highly symbolic by many Japanese media commentators. Since Abe’s return to power, Japan has been going out of its way to lock India in a tight diplomatic and security embrace. A joint statement issued after the Indian and Japanese Prime Ministers met reaffirmed the resolve of both the countries to “further deepen the strategic and global partnership”. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said that Japan was at the “heart of India’s Look East Policy”, the goal of which was to make India an important player in the region. To offset the growing Chinese influence in the region, Japan and the U.S. are trying to get countries like India to partner with them and take a more assertive stance in the territorial disputes they have with China. The Obama administration’s “pivot to the East” is part of a game plan to isolate China strategically.

After Abe’s meeting with Manmohan Singh, Japan announced $2 billion in loans to India. Most of the money will be for the Delhi Metro. Japan has also agreed to give bullet train technology to India. India has now given Japan the privilege of investing in strategically sensitive areas in the north-eastern region, which includes the State of Arunachal Pradesh, which is considered disputed territory by China. China had objected some years back to funding from the Asian Development Bank for a hydroelectric project in that State. Chinese companies are not being allowed to invest in other parts of the north-eastern region by the Indian government. India’s north-eastern region will be playing an important role in connecting South Asia with South-East and East Asia. Japanese businesses will be able to use this corridor to further consolidate their links with neighbouring states such as Myanmar.

Many important agreements were signed during the Abe visit. They include the holding of trilateral naval exercises involving the Indian, U.S. and Japanese navies. The last quadrilateral naval exercise, held in 2006, had included the Australian navy and had led to protests from Beijing. In early December, the Indian Navy and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force held their first joint exercises off the coast of Malabar. This was followed by joint coast guard exercises in the Arabian Sea in January.

Official reaction from Beijing to the Japanese Prime Minister’s visit to India has been muted though the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson noted “the development of defence cooperation between both countries”. The official expressed the hope that this development would be “conducive to the peace, security and stability of the whole region”.

Support for Japan’s position

The Indian and Japanese Prime Ministers, in their joint statement, emphasised the importance of ensuring freedom of navigation and the peaceful resolution of conflicts. This is being interpreted as supporting Japan’s position on China’s Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ). Indian and Japanese officials will meet in March for talks regarding the purchase of US-2 amphibious planes. Japan wants India to buy and then jointly manufacture the short take-off-and-landing military dual-use planes. If the deal fructifies, it will be for the first time that Japan will be breaking its self-imposed 47-year-old embargo on arms exports.

According to reports, however, India is not too happy with the pricing. From available indications, despite the eagerness of the Japanese side to clinch a deal, there is reticence on the Indian side. The two sides also agreed that the national security agencies (NSA) of the two countries would meet on a regular basis. Japan has recently decided to set up its own NSA. There already exists a regular framework for dialogue involving the Foreign and Defence Secretaries of the two countries.

Importantly, India and Japan will continue the talks on civil nuclear cooperation. India is keen to buy Japanese nuclear reactors. The two sides have agreed to an “early conclusion” of the nuclear deal. There are some difficult issues relating to nuclear testing and the right to reprocess spent fuel to be resolved. Japan wants India to give an assurance that it will not break its voluntary moratorium on nuclear testing. New Delhi has so far refused to do so.

Many political parties in Japan, including the New Komeito Party, have reservations about the sale of nuclear technology to a non-signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty like India. Anti-nuclear feelings still run deep in the country. On the right to reprocess spent fuel, New Delhi wants a blanket approval from Tokyo under the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) supervision. The Fukushima nuclear disaster has influenced many Japanese politicians to take an anti-nuclear stance generally and against trading in nuclear technology.

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