India-Japan relations kicked off 2014 on a positive note. On Monday, India and Japan resolved to strengthen their strategic and global partnership, which was formally established in 2006, with the addition of a series of new accords on defense cooperation. Indian Defense Minister A.K. Antony met his Japanese counterpart Itsunori Onodera in New Delhi and the two ministers agreed to increase bilateral cooperation in the field of maritime security, counter-terrorism, and anti-piracy operations.
While both Japanese and Indian diplomats are careful not to mention China in their official statements following important bilateral interactions, the rise of China has precipitated greater security cooperation between the two countries. India has other matters pending with Japan on the defense front: Japan is expected to export its ShinMaywa US-2 amphibious aircraft to India. The US-2 is used by the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Forces in patrol operation and Japan has been pitching the aircraft to India for a while now. According to The Hindu, India chose not to prioritize the purchase ahead of Onodera’s trip to New Delhi. The US-2 sale is likely something that Prime Minister Abe will broach with his counterpart Manmohan Singh when he visits India later this month. Already this week the two defense ministers agreed to expand mil-to-mil relations among their air forces.
The ministers concluded their talks by resolving to continue their discussions on regional and global security affairs in the context of their upcoming “two-plus-two” dialogue, which will allow both the defense and foreign ministers of each country to speak in tandem on matters of international security and economic cooperation. Japan’s willingness to export defense equipment to India emphasizes its interest in security cooperation – Japan relaxed a 1967 ban on defense commerce (then intended to showcase Japan’s commitment to pacifism) in part to do business with India.
Alongside Onodera’s meeting with Antony, a group of Japanese parliamentarians toured India as well. According to The Hindu, the Chief Representative of the New Komeito Party Natsuo Yamaguchi lobbied India to address “areas of concern” for Japan such as nuclear non-proliferation, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), and nuclear safety. In a meeting with Indian Vice President Hamid Ansari, Yamaguchi urged India to pursue a more eco-friendly development strategy. The New Komeito Party is a coalition ally of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Japan and India enjoy warm relations along all axes with the exception of a pending civil nuclear cooperation deal.
As I’ve written before for The Diplomat, India and Japan differ on key points in their approaches to nuclear weapons and nuclear energy, resulting in a bilateral impasse on the issue. Ever since Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori visited India in 2000, normalizing relations after Japan participated in international sanctions against India following its 1998 nuclear tests, Japanese prime ministers, parliamentarians, and diplomats have intermittently lobbied India to sign the CTBT among other nuclear risk-reduction measures. Since the two declared a strategic global partnership, the issue has been somewhat put aside in favor of a more pragmatic approach to the partnership, based around economic relations and, more recently, security cooperation. Indian negotiators have expressed optimism that Shinzo Abe’s return to the helm as Japan’s prime minister since last year could galvanize the stalled civil nuclear cooperation. Abe is a well-known Indophile and is eager to develop a robust bilateral partnership between Japan and India.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will be the chief guest at India’s Republic Day celebrations in New Delhi on January 26. Abe pursued expanded ties with India during his first time as prime minister, when he proposed that India, Japan, Australia and the United States pursue a “quadrilateral initiative” to ensure Asia’s status quo security architecture endures in the 21st century – a move that China perceived as a Japanese attempt to forge an “Asian NATO” aimed at containing China. Most recently, Abe was in India in December. The same month, Japan’s Emperor and Empress visited India in a visit intended to bolster symbolic ties.
India and Japan could be in for a critical year in 2014 as far as the expansion of their strategic partnership is concerned. While the two countries have been strategically converging slowly over the past decade, both sides have been concerned that an accelerated expansion of the relationship could exacerbate tensions with China. India, additionally, is particularly averse to any sort of bilateral situation that might hint at an alliance. Shinzo Abe’s makes no secret of his interest in India, and as long as he remains at the top in Japan, India-Japan relations should continue to flourish. His upcoming visit in late-January should set the tone for this important Asian bilateral relationship in 2014.