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Friendly and secure - Αn India-Japan partnership is a strategy directed against China

Kanwal Sibal
The prime minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, received a grandiose reception in Gujarat during his September 13-14 visit. This would not have been possible in Delhi where the protocol and ceremonies for visiting foreign leaders are set and any significant departure creates a troublesome precedent for the future. Shifting the visit to Gujarat allowed the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, to display special regard for Abe and solidify their personal chemistry. Modi gave a much grander welcome to the Japanese leader than to the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, at Gandhinagar, conveying a diplomatic signal, especially in the context of the current state of India-China relations and the China factor in the evolving India-Japan ties.
The three biggest powers in Asia are China, Japan and India. Both New Delhi and Tokyo have problems with Beijing's territorial claims and its military muscle flexing. Both would have a shared interest in curbing China's increasingly apparent hegemonic ambitions. Japan has so far relied exclusively on its alliance with the United States of America to manage the China threat. Although it still considers this alliance as the anchor of its security policies, the unwillingness or the inability of the US to sufficiently restrain China's disruptive conduct in the East China and South China Seas both under Barack Obama and under Donald Trump has no doubt led leaders like Abe to explore the option of widening the base of the country's security by strengthening strategic ties with a country like India, Asia's second largest and a growing economic and military power with an independent capacity to impede China's sway over Asia. Under Abe, Japan has begun visualizing India as a security partner for developing a regional security architecture for Asia.
Abe's reaching out to India is consistent with his aspiration to revive Japan's effaced regional role, for which, in addition to using the economic tools at his disposal, he is trying to widen the country's military role in a big political and psychological departure from the past. His active promotion of the Indo-Pacific concept which, by linking the security of the western Pacific to that of the Indian Ocean, presupposes a Japanese role in the Indian Ocean in conjunction with India, a country that geographically dominates the sea lanes of communication in the Indian Ocean and is equipped with a strong and growing navy. But this enhanced Japanese role in the Indian Ocean remains underpinned by US naval strength in the Indo-Pacific region, which explains why Japan has wanted to join the India-US Malabar exercises and make them trilateral in scope. Improved India-US strategic understandings as represented by the Obama-Modi Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Regions, reiterated in substance in the joint statement issued with India on the occasion of Modi's US visit in June, have, in turn, opened the political space for Abe to build security ties with India.
India and Japan have now an annual defence ministerial dialogue, the national security advisers' dialogue, the "2+2" dialogue, the defence policy dialogue and service-to-service staff talks. The first defence industry forum was held in Tokyo on September 5. Maritime security cooperation has expanded in scale and complexity. The Indian navy and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force are engaged in specialized cooperation that includes anti-submarine warfare and maritime domain awareness in the Indo-Pacific region. The possibility of joint field exercises between the Indian army and Japan's Ground Self-Defense Force in 2018, and reciprocal visits by air assets to each other's country, are being considered. Cooperation on defence equipment and technology includes the surveillance and unmanned system technologies and commencement of the technical discussion for future research collaboration in the area of Unmanned Ground Vehicles and Robotics. The sale to India of Japan's US-2 amphibian aircraft could not be clinched during Abe's visit and discussions will continue. If this costly acquisition paves the way for an assured transfer of advanced and dual-use defence technologies to India and assists in building an indigenous defence electronic base, for instance, that would no doubt facilitate decision making. However, one should not ignore the long standing internal resistance in Japan to any major expansion of its defence role. This has constitutional implications and relations with India do not as yet occupy centre space in Japanese foreign policy.
China's shadow is visible in other parts of the Modi-Abe joint statement too. Respect for sovereignty and international law - notably the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea - in the Indo-Pacific region, the resolution of differences through dialogue and without resorting to the threat or use of force, freedom of navigation and overflight find mention. So does strengthening a rule-based order for which the intention is to align Japan's Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy with India's Act East Policy, including through enhancing maritime security cooperation, improving connectivity in the wider Indo-Pacific region and strengthening cooperation with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. In the area of connectivity, the joint statement takes an implicit swipe at China's Belt and Road Initiative by underlining the importance of all countries ensuring the development and use of connectivity infrastructure in an open, transparent and non-exclusive manner based on international standards and responsible debt financing practices, while ensuring respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, the rule of law, and the environment. The importance of "quality infrastructure" which, among others, ensures alignment with local economic and development strategies, safety, resilience, social and environmental impacts, and job creation as well as capacity building for the local communities is mentioned as an indirect critique of China's approach. The reference in the joint statement to the importance of holding accountable all parties that have supported North Korea's nuclear and missile programmes points a finger at both China and Pakistan.
The joint statement mentions India-Japan cooperation in developing India's North Eastern Region as part of developing synergies between India's Act East policy and Japan's Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy, noting in this context the setting up of the India-Japan Act East Forum. It is surprising that the Chinese foreign office has objected to this part of the joint statement, gratuitously referring to the unsettled India-Tibet border and advising third parties not to interfere (and this in spite of Japan having clarified on an earlier occasion that Arunachal Pradesh is not covered in these developments plans). By suggesting that any Japanese involvement in the Northeast is objectionable China is, as usual, guilty of double standards as it rejects India's objection to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and China's physical presence in Pakistan occupied Kashmir.
In evaluating the China factor in India-Japan relations, the reality of the massive Japan-China trade relationship should be recognized, which at $279 billion dwarfs that of India-China at $71 billion, not to mention the decline in India-Japan trade from $18.61 billion in 2012-13 to $13.48 billion in 2016-17. Because of its huge economic stakes in China and compulsions of neighbourhood, Tokyo will endeavour to keep its differences with Beijing under control. One way of doing that would be to signal the build-up of a coalition of interests in partnership with India to challenge China's expansionism and hegemonic ambitions, which is a strategy that suits India too.

The author is former foreign secretary of India sibalkanwal@gmail.com

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