It is useful to remember that way back in 2006 U.S. President George Bush and Shinzo Abe, then in his first term as Japanese prime minister, each in their own way achieved far-reaching changes in their respective ties with India. While George Bush helped end the nuclear apartheid against India, Abe unambiguously declared (in 2007) that “a strong India is in the best interest of Japan and a strong Japan is in the best interest of India.”
Since then, after the initial euphoria, India-U.S. ties have plummeted perhaps to their lowest level in the past two decades, not least because of the recent Khobragade affair. The relationship between India and Japan, on the other hand, has found new momentum in the past couple of years. It is no surprise to find that Shinzo Abe is at the helm in Tokyo again.
Abe’s visit to New Delhi as Chief Guest for India’s Republic Day Parade on January 26 will in fact cap a series of high-level visits by Japanese leaders over the past few months. This included the historic visit of Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko to India in December 2013. They were returning to the country 53 years after their 1960 trip as the Crown Prince and Princess of Japan. Their symbolic visit apart, the fact is that during the last five years, bilateral trade has increased 80 per cent; currently it is at 18 billion dollars. Although this is nowhere near the India-China bilateral trade figure, which is now inching towards 100 billion dollars, Japan and India have set a goal of $25 billion this year. It must also be remembered that in recent decades, Japan has quietly extended financial and technical support to several infrastructure projects in India, helping to build metro railway systems and industrial corridors, dedicated freight corridors, highways, bridges and power plants.
Now the two countries are finding new avenues of cooperation. Last week Japan’s Defense Minister Itsonuri Onodera spent four days in India exploring and finalizing various ways to take the fledgling defense cooperation between New Delhi and Tokyo to the next level. Onodera and his Indian Defence Minister AK Antony said at the end of their meeting in New Delhi that India and Japan will “further consolidate and strengthen their strategic and global partnership in the defense arena through measures ranging from regular joint combat exercises and military exchanges to cooperation in anti-piracy, maritime security and counter-terrorism.”
As a first follow up India and Japan will hold their third “2 plus 2” Dialogue and fourth Defense Policy Dialogue in New Delhi later this year, along with the third bilateral exercise between the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force and Indian Navy to be held in Japanese waters. Two plus two is a dialogue involving both foreign and defense ministry officials. On January 14, a small exercise involving Coast Guard ships from India and Japan was in fact held in the Arabian Sea.
Joint exercises apart, India and Japan are expanding their defense ties in other ways. For instance, the two sides will also conduct “expert exchanges” in counter-terrorism, humanitarian assistance/disaster relief between the Indian Army and Japan Ground Self Defense Force. The possibility of conducting staff talks between Japan Air Self-Defense Force and Indian Air Force as well as professional exchanges of test-pilots, flight safety experts and others is also in the offing.
Unstated in the future road map is the aim to achieve convergence in security matters to counter an increasingly belligerent China bent on asserting itself in long-standing issues with not just India and Japan but with other smaller nations in Asia as well. New Delhi, inherently leery of becoming part of any alliance or bloc, is hoping to create enough synergy with Tokyo and other ASEAN nations to deter China. The rising profile of the Indo-Japanese relationship is certainly an outcome of the collective unease in Asia over what many think is China’s rambunctious behavior.
With tensions exacerbating in the South China Sea and East China Sea, it is natural that all those affected by a rising China would strive to build a “strategic deterrence” against the rapidly expanding PLA Navy. Further efforts to stitch together pan-Asia security architecture to keep China in check may be in the offing given that the U.S. has showed a reluctance to take China on directly, despite its much-discussed pivot or rebalance to Asia. The recent standoff over China’s decision to unilaterally enforce an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea, including the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, appeared to show the limits of U.S. intervention.
In fact, Asian nations may be better off finding their own solutions to the regional disputes. Individually they may not be able to stand up to China’s bullying but together there is a chance to keep China in check. India and Japan, along with South Korea, may have to take the lead in this respect. Nothing rattles China more than other nations “ganging up” on it. It is worth recalling what happened during Exercise Malabar, 2007. Normally a bilateral naval exercise between India and U.S., that year, for the first and last time, it also involved the Singaporean, Australian and Japanese navies. Beijing, sensing an anti-China naval platform in the making, promptly issued a demarche to all five participants. Since then, Exercise Malabar has reverted to being a bilateral venture.
Those days of humoring China may now be over, at least judging by the way Abe has been reshaping Japan’s foreign and defense policies in recent months. A new document, prepared by a group of experts that Abe had appointed, has suggested Japan “strengthen its own capabilities and expand its own roles” by bolstering its antimissile defenses and its ability to defend the freedom of navigation in its surrounding seas, a reference to the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands dispute with China. As Japan beefs up its defenses against China, both New Delhi and Tokyo seem to have decided to reenergize their relationship to ensure a strategic balance in Asia. India inviting Abe as Chief Guest for the Republic Day Parade – an honor normally reserved for its closest allies – is a clear signal that Asia’s two biggest democracies may be ready to work together in containing if not confronting China in the years to come.
Nitin Gokahle is Security & Strategic Affairs Editor with Indian broadcaster NDTV.