Features | Security | South Asia

India Comes Calling on Japan

Japan and India are set to boost military and economic ties. But even without a rising China, the two would surely have found each other.

Indian External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna was in Tokyo this weekend, and his message was clear – New Delhi has an eye on closer relations with Japan.

During a meeting with his Japanese counterpart, Koichiro Gemba, the two Asian powers appeared to agree on a couple of key points. One is that the United States will be joining Japan and India in a structured, trilateral partnership. But perhaps more interesting than this was the suggestion of greater military co-operation between Asia’s second and third largest economies.

The details of the latter, which will include joint training exercises between Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force and the Indian Navy, will be thrashed out in the near future, including during Indian Defense Minister A.K. Antony’s visit to Japan this week. But even though the specifics aren’t yet clear, these meetings are likely to be viewed with some trepidation by policy makers in Beijing.

Yet there was more to the Krishna-Gemba talks than the tantalizing prospect of closer military co-operation. The two sides have also agreed to work together on developing the rare earth metals vital to Japan’s high tech industries, a resource India possesses in abundance. This agreement will be particularly welcome by the Japanese, as it offers the prospect of being less dependent on China, which demonstrated through its halting of rare earth exports last year that it isn’t afraid to use the metals as a diplomatic tool.

The Japanese government has reportedly removed seven Indian entities, including Indian Rare Earths Limited, from its list of banned entities for high tech co-operation. This will not only eventually result in substantial supplies of rare earths being shipped from India to Japan, but is likely to foster the rapid growth in high tech trade between the two nations.

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The other issue big issue is a civilian nuclear cooperation agreement that India and Japan have been negotiating since last year. Straws in the wind suggest that the proposed Japan-India civilian nuclear cooperation agreement has been derailed by events at Fukushima in March, and although the issue came up between Krishna and Gemba, there was no breakthrough.

“I also discussed with Foreign Minister Gemba the status of civil nuclear cooperation between our countries. As you are aware, we have had three rounds of negotiations on this subject,” the Hindu reported Krishna as telling reporters. “After my discussions today, I am optimistic on this score.”

Gemba, for his part, said the two sides had agreed to push forward the nuclear deal negotiations, although he added, “I also asked for his (Krishna’s) understanding about the strong feelings held by Japan on nuclear arms reduction and nonproliferation because of its experience as a victim of atomic bombing.”

A symbolic highlight of Krishna’s visit was the holding of the 5th annual Japan-India Strategic Dialogue, co-chaired by the two foreign ministers. Under the rubric of the Strategic Dialogue, the two sides not only reviewed all aspects of their bilateral strategic partnership, but also flagged up issues that need to be prioritized.

This partnership is expected to be bolstered whenAntony meets his Japanese counterpart, Defense Minister Yasuo Ichikawa, on Wednesday. Discussions are set to cover a range of issues, according to a statement by India’s Defense Ministry, including maritime security, piracy in the Gulf of Aden, terrorism, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief and co-operation over U.N. Peacekeeping operations.

Antony certainly seems to be the right man to be raising these issues. The defense minister’s stature within the Indian government and ruling Congress party has grown significantly since he hosted Ichikawa’s predecessor in New Delhi last April, with his new status cemented by Congress President Sonia Gandhi to lead the government in the absence of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Warmer ties between India and Japan have been given a nudge by the United States, which has been eyeing China’s increasingly assertive posture over the past year or so. But while Washington has grown more wary about Chinese regional diplomacy, Beijing will be watching with interest as Japan and India join hands in what has for long been its own diplomatic backyard – Africa.

The two countries have already started their dialogue on Africa with solid backing from the United States. Washington has been encouraging New Delhi and Tokyo to be pro-active in Africa, and the two have already held two rounds of Africa dialogue, with the inaugural talks held in Tokyo last October.

Broader economic cooperation between the two countries, meanwhile, is driven by the Special Economic Partnership Initiative (SEPI) launched last year. SEPI oversees a number of what the Indian Consulate General describes as ‘strategically important, high-visibility flagship projects’ such as the Western Corridor of the Dedicated Freight Corridor and the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor. Japan has pledged substantial funds and technical help for both projects under its official development assistance program, and appears committed to its ODA for India, despite the dire fiscal circumstances it finds itself in.  

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Ultimately, Japan and India appear natural allies – their diplomatic ideologies are broadly similar and they are both wary about the potential disruption of a rising China. But as much as addressing such external concerns, both stand to benefit internally from closer ties as well. An aging Japan is desperate for new markets, which a youthful India could provide. India, for its part, needs Japanese know-how for infrastructure projects.

China’s rise might have given them a nudge, but Japan and India would surely have done well to find each other anyway.