On December 27, the day after Shinzo Abe was elected for a second time as Prime Minister of Japan, his policy op-ed on shaping the Indo-Pacific was published under the title, “Asia’s Democratic Security Diamond”. In this piece, Abe heralded the importance of “freedom of navigation” for trading nations in Asia such as Japan, Korea, Australia and India. He also took the opportunity to build on earlier campaign rhetoric to criticize China for its alleged increasingly assertive posture in the East and South China Seas, noting that the latter is slowly becoming “Lake Beijing”.
Abe’s proposed solution to the current maritime disputes was based on three pillars: 1) reinvigorating the U.S.-Japan alliance; 2) a reintroduction of the UK and France to Asia’s international security realm; and 3) bolstering international cooperation between key democracies in the Indo-Pacific, such as India and Australia. Nearly six months after the “security diamond” was released, the first pillar has been solidified through Abe’s recent charm offensive to Washington, while the second pillar seems a bit too nostalgic and overly sanguine (despite an upcoming visit by the French president).
The third pillar – focused on stronger strategic ties with India and a policy advocated during Abe’s first term – should be graded incomplete. This is not due to a lack of effort from Tokyo. Japan has been aggressively pursuing stronger ties with India on two main fronts: bilateral engagement and trilateral cooperation alongside the United States. On the bilateral side, Japan has successfully wooed India by suggesting it wants to resume cooperation on nuclear energy trade, huge investments in India’s tech sector and the successful ratification of the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement in 2011. Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida underscored these efforts by recently announcing that Tokyo intends to contribute nearly US$700 million in loans to support India’s Mumbai Metro Rail project.
Security cooperation is heating up too with combined anti-piracy patrols around the Horn of Africa (in tandem with China), cooperation between coast guards, shared practices on disaster management, and maritime security and cyber dialogues along with counterterrorism efforts. Japan and India also continue to have defense dialogues and have agreed in principle to a second round of joint naval exercises between the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Forces and the Indian navy.
These efforts between Tokyo and New Delhi are continuing to gain steam as evidenced by the increasing level and frequency of meetings between senior officials over the past few months. Japan and India concluded their seventh Foreign Minister’s summit in late March, which paved the way for Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s three-day state visit to Japan this week. While the length of the trip should not been exaggerated as a diplomatic spear aimed at China, it also should not be dismissed as lacking symbolism. Certainly, its significance has not been lost on Beijing. The trilateral side with the U.S. remains a bit more muddied. In early May, senior representatives from the U.S., Japan and India met in Washington for their fourth trilateral dialogue, with all sides agreeing to a perfunctory follow up meeting this fall in Tokyo. The U.S.-Japan-India trilateral dialogue is still in a nascent state with the first meeting only having been convened in 2011, ostensibly as an alternative and complement to “big multilateral” efforts such as the East Asian Summit. The U.S. State Department released a cryptic statement on the outcomes of the meetings, and after the meeting this month only revealed that “discussions focused on the prospect of greater Indo-Pacific commercial connectivity and regional and maritime security, and cooperation in multilateral fora.”
One of the key elements here for Japan is maritime security and it has been lobbying hard across the continent, from Ulan Bator to New Delhi, for support against perceived efforts by China to unilaterally change the status quo over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea. India similarly has had clashes with Beijing over maritime security issues and – while not a direct party to the South China Sea dispute – has cautioned China on ignoring international law. Earlier this month, Indian Defense Minister AK Antony seemed to stress this stance when noting that “India has commercial interests and though it is not a party to the dispute, it believes that disputes should be settled as per UN laws.” This is an argument that continues to roil China as it insists that such disputes should be resolved through bilateral negotiation with the specific claimants.
There is no question that China is a focal point for Tokyo in this dialogue. At the conclusion of the third session this past March, the Japanese Institute of International Affairs, which co-hosted the event, reported the outcome of discussions on Beijing as follows: “The expansion of China’s influence and national power both politically and economically is the most important development in the Indo-Pacific security environment in recent years, presenting both opportunities and challenges to the region as a whole. The Dialogue participants considered it possible that China’s military build-up and assertive behavior could heighten tensions over regional maritime disputes in particular and produce seriously adverse effects.”
But while India’s statements may align with Japan on maritime security and China’s rise, there is also a not-so tacit game of hedging going on that New Delhi has perfected over the years. India has its own territorial row with China and has interest in balancing Chinese influence in the region. Despite this, New Delhi’s engagement with Tokyo should not be wrongly construed as a desire to join an alliance or take sides against Beijing on external disputes. Rather India is most likely looking to leverage its relationship with Japan to procure an optimal position vis-à-vis China. Moreover, the more resources China is forced to devote to Eastern Asia the less it will have available to challenge India on its overland borders or project power in the Indian Ocean, which ultimately remain India’s primary concerns.