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A yen for closer ties

The emerging power disequilibrium in Asia makes an India-Japan partnership critical to promote peace and stability, writes Brahma Chellaney.

india Updated: Aug 09, 2007 00:39 IST

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, weakened by a mortifying defeat in upper-house elections, will address the Indian Parliament later this month. This is an honour that US President George W. Bush and Chinese President Hu Jintao did not get during visits to India last year. India and Japan are Asia’s largest and most-developed democracies, and the honour for Abe flows from the recognition that a strategic partnership between the two countries is critical to the Asian power equilibrium.

Indeed, Japan has never had a head of government so interested in forging close ties with India as Abe. Even before he became PM last September, Abe had identified India as a pivotal partner for Japan in a book he published two months earlier. In Towards A Beautiful Country, Abe devotes three pages to describing how Japan could advance its “national interests by strengthening our ties with India”. He says: “It will not be a surprise if in another decade, Japan-India relations overtake Japan-US and Japan-China ties.”

It is Abe who helped expand the Australia-Japan-US Trilateral Security Dialogue to include India in a separate Quadrilateral Initiative, founded on the concept of democratic peace. Abe’s predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, was instrumental in frustrating Chinese opposition and getting India into the East Asia Summit (EAS) initiative, which is to fashion the proposed East Asian Community (EAC). Such initiatives help India to play an important role far beyond its region.

Abe’s domestic failings, however, have led to his party’s record losses in the recent elections, undermining his leadership and putting a question mark on his political survival. Abe’s ascension as PM had symbolised not only the generational change in Japanese politics, but also the rise of an assertive new Japan.

Abe retains a comfortable majority in the lower house, but the upper-house losses could encumber the leitmotifs of his nationalist agenda, including the proposed revision of the unique ‘peace constitution’ that the US imposed on a defeated Japan to tame a historically warrior nation. Unlike India’s frequently amended Constitution, Japan has not amended its Constitution even once. Yet, Japanese voters have signalled that they care more about the economy than about Abe’s idea to create a ‘beautiful Japan’ on the resurrected traditions of the Taika Reform (645 AD) and Meiji Restoration (1868).

As democracies, India and Japan are going to be buffeted by domestic politics. But their democratic traditions, along with a striking convergence of strategic interests in Asia and beyond, make them natural allies. Both seek UN Security Council reforms and both wish to avert a unipolar Asia. In fact, few countries face such implacably hostile neighbours as India and Japan do.

In an Asia characterised by a qualitative reordering of power, the direction of the India-Japan relationship is set towards closer engagement. There is neither any negative historical legacy nor any

outstanding political issue. Public perceptions in each country about the other State are very positive. Many Japanese are still grateful for Justice Radha Binod Pal’s role in delivering a dissenting judgment at the 1946 Tokyo Trial, and commemorative plaque in his honour has been erected at the entrance to the Yashukan Museum, next to the controversial Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo.

On the 62nd anniversary of the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan appears poised for strategic doctrinal change. It remains the world’s largest economic powerhouse after the US, with an economy still much larger than China’s, but with only a tenth of the population. As Asia’s first economic-success story, Japan has always inspired other Asian States. Now, with the emergence of new economic tigers and the ascent of China and India, Asia collectively is bouncing back from nearly two centuries of decline.

Asian security will be greatly shaped by the relations between China, India and Japan, and their ties to the US. Booming trade alone won’t guarantee security. China is Japan’s largest trade partner, but that has not prevented Beijing from aggressively playing the history card against Tokyo. China is India’s fastest-growing trade partner, but that has not stopped it from publicly hardening its stance on the territorial disputes.

To maintain the peaceful environment that promotes security and economic growth, Asia’s three main powers must build stable political relations. A strong Japan, a strong China and a strong India need to find ways to reconcile their interests in Asia so that they can peacefully coexist and prosper. Never before in history have all three been strong at the same time.

In this distinct strategic triangle, if China were A, and India and Japan were B and C, the sum of B plus C will always be greater than A. That is why India and Japan are bound to become close strategic buddies, even as they attempt to ensure that their relations with Beijing do not sour. But while Japan seeks more space on the world stage, only to be hemmed in by its security dependency on Washington, India fancies closer ties with the US as a way to playing a bigger global role.

For India, a strategic and economic partnership with Japan dovetails with its vision of a dynamic, multipolar Asia. That is why the August 2000 agreement during PM Yoshiro Mori’s visit to develop a ‘Global Partnership of the 21st Century’ has been expanded with the term, ‘strategic’. This new ‘Strategic and Global Partnership’, as Manmohan Singh and Abe agreed last December, is to be centred on “closer political and diplomatic coordination on bilateral, regional, multilateral and global issues, comprehensive economic engagement, stronger defence relations, greater technological cooperation” and “a quantum increase” in other contacts.

The incorporation of real security content is intended, as the two PMs admitted, “to reinforce the strategic orientation of the partnership”. Defence ties are now developing with ease. All the three Japanese service chiefs visited India last year. With Japan dispatching more naval ships to the Indian Ocean in support of ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’, India and Japan can conduct naval exercises at short notice. After last year’s joint exercises, Indian naval ships visited Japan’s Yokosuka base less than four months ago, holding trilateral manoeuvres with Japanese and US forces.

Asia’s sharpening energy geopolitics also buttresses the partnership between India and Japan, both heavily dependent on oil imports by sea from the Gulf region. Indo-Japanese strategic collaboration is being necessitated by mercantilist efforts to assert control over energy supplies and transport routes, as well as by strategic plans to assemble a “string of pearls” in the form of listening posts and special naval-access arrangements along vital sea-lanes. If India is to ensure that an adversarial power does not exercise undue influence over regional waterways, it needs not only to guard the ‘gates’ to the Indian Ocean, but also to join hands with the much-larger Japanese navy, Asia’s most powerful.

Given that the balance of power in Asia will be determined by events as much in the Indian Ocean rim as in East Asia, India and Japan have to work together to promote peace and stability, protect critical sea-lanes and stem the incipient Asian power disequilibrium.