Shinzo Abe wants not only to revive Japan’s economic profile in Asia but also assume more defence responsibilities and play a more active role in shaping new Asian security architecture
Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave a grand welcome to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Gandhinagar during his September 13/14 visit to India. The political intention behind this was to highlight the importance India attaches to relations with Japan as well as to show esteem for the Japanese leader as a key promoter of India-Japan strategic ties, including within his concept of Indo-Pacific security. The welcome accorded to Abe far exceeded that given to Chinese President Xi Jinping, which also carries a diplomatic message in the context of the current state of India-China and Japan-China ties.
Both, India and Japan, have problems with China on territorial issues and on Beijing’s muscle-flexing. Japan has long been China’s rival in the western pacific; now India is seen as China’s potential rival in Asia. China’s hegemonic ambitions in Asia are becoming increasingly apparent. If China succeeded in its quest for dominating Asia, it would be at the cost of India and Japan, and neither country would accept that situation. So far Japan has relied on the US for its security but with Obama failing to oppose China’s expansionism in the South China Sea and Trump questioning the assumptions underlying the US-Japan alliance and creating uncertainty about the future course of US foreign policy, Abe has tried to widen his security options by reaching out to India, which alone in Asia, by virtue of its size, growing economic strength and substantial military capabilities, can check China’s ambitions. Therefore, while the alliance with the US remains the anchor of Ja-pan’s security policies, Tokyo is enlarging its security base by drawing closer to India. That India itself has drawn closer to the US strategically with growing convergence on maritime security issues has helped. Modi and Obama forge a Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean Regions, the sub-text of which was the security implications of the expansion of China’s navy and Beijing’s maritime ambitions as expressed in its 2015 White Paper on its new blue water maritime strategy. Under Trump, during Modi’s visit to the US in June 2017, the US has re-affirmed that a close partnership between US and India “as responsible stewards in the Indo-Pacific region” is central to peace and stability in the region.
Enhancing Military Capabilities
The joint statement issued on the occasion of Abe’s visit shows how far Japan has travelled in shedding its post-war defence-related inhibitions. The push for this has come from Abe who wants not only to revive Japan’s economic profile in Asia but also assume more defence responsibilities and play a more active role in shaping new Asian security architecture. In all this India is seen as a valuable partner. While Japan’s neighbours, including China, would have concerns about Japan’s higher military profile because of the memories of the Second World War, India has no such concerns and would welcome a militarily stronger Japan.
With India the structures of an enhanced defence relationship have been put in place. The joint statement notes that India and Japan have now an annual Defence Ministerial Dialogue, the National Security Advisers’ dialogue, the “2+2” Dialogue, the Defence Policy Dialogue and Service-to-Service staff talks. The first Defence Industry Forum was held in Tokyo on September 5. The India-US Malabar exercises have now become trilateral with the inclusion of Japan. Specialised cooperation between the Indian Navy and Japan Maritime
Self-Defence Force includes anti- submarine warfare and maritime domain awareness in the Indo-Pacific region. The possibility of joint field exercises between Indian Army and Japan’s Ground Self-Defence Force in 2018 and reciprocal visits by air assets to each other’s country are being considered. In the area of defence equipment and technology, surveillance and unmanned system technologies are being looked and technical discussion for future research collaboration in the area of Unmanned Ground Vehicles and Robotics are envis-aged. No decision on the purchase of Japan’s US-2 amphibian aircraft was announced during the visit. The Japanese are keen to make the sale but the aircraft is apparently very costly. If an understanding were reached that this sale would be part of a large package on transfer of advanced and dual use technologies and a precursor to the establishment of an indigenous defence electronic base in India with Japanese participation, then the outlook on the deal could become very different. Despite the progress being made on defence related co-operation, one should not underestimate the political resistance within Japan to enter into a robust defence relationship with India. A lot will depend on change of public sentiment in Japan on constitutional restrictions on Japan’s defence policies, the development of the overall relationship with India, the evolution of China’s threat to Japan, the domestic political strength of Abe and so on.
The Indo-Pacific region being the canvas on which India-Japan ties are being traced, and with shared concerns about China’s conduct in the East China and South China Seas, the joint statement mentions respect for sovereignty and international law-notably the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)—in the Indo-Pacific region, resolution of differences through dia-logue and without resorting to the threat or use of force, as well as freedom of navigation and overflight. The South China Sea was not mentioned specifically in the joint statement and this has been interpreted by some Indian commentators as a concession to China’s sensitivities. In reality, not much should be made of this omission as the reference to UNCLOS and the
Indo-Pacific region covers the East China and South China Seas. In the context of ASEAN-China discussions in August on the framework of a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, flagging the issue specifically again might not have been considered necessary.
A clear synergy is being sought to be established between our Act East Policy and Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy, including through enhancing maritime security co-
operation, improving connectivity in the wider Indo-Pacific region and strengthening cooperation with ASEAN. In the area of connectivity, the joint statement exposes the shortcomings of China’s Belt and Road Initiative by underlining the importance of all countries ensuring the development and use of connectivity infrastructure in an open, transparent and non-exclusive manner based on international standards and responsible debt financing practices, while ensuring respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, the rule of law, and the
environment. The importance of “quality infrastructure” which, among others ensures alignment with local economic and development strategies, safety, resilience, social and environmental impacts, and job creation as well as capacity building for the local communities is mentioned as another indirect critique of China’s approach. A somewhat simi-lar formulation figured in the Modi-Trump joint statement and, most recently, in the trilateral meeting of the India, US and Japanese Foreign Ministers at New York on the margins of the UNGA session. These statements on the BRI will no doubt be noted by countries being allured to join President Xi’s pet project. The reference in the joint statement to the importance of holding accountable all parties that have supported North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes points a finger at both China and Pakistan. The joint statement also endorses trilateral co-operation with the US and Australia, and this could be a precursor to reviving the Quad format comprising of US, India, Japan and Australia.
Japan had earlier expressed willingness to assist in developing the infrastructure in the North-East. The joint statement mentions India-Japan cooperation in developing this region as part, again, of developing synergies between India’s Act East policy and Japan’s Free and Open Indo Pacific Strategy. The Chinese foreign office has objected to this part of the joint statement, gratuitously referring to the unsettled India-Tibet border and advising third parties not to interfere (and this despite Japan having clarified on an earlier occasion that Arunachal Pradesh is not covered in these developments plans). China, as usual, is guilty of blatant double standards as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and China’s physical presence in PoJK contradicts the logic of its own position with regard to Arunachal Pradesh.
Zero Tolerance on Terrorism
Japan has hitherto been cautious about formulations on terrorism that unmistakably targeted Pakistan. This time the wording of the paragraph on terrorism is much more robust than before, with Japan joining the call to halt cross border movement of terrorists, which points a finger at Pakistan more directly. The joint statement also includes a reference to Pakistan-based terrorist groups such as LeT and JeM. In view of Trump’s castigation of Pakistan on its terrorist complicities in his Afghanistan speech and the BRICS declaration mentioning LeT and JeM, Japan had no reason to hold back as before. This reinforces the signal on terrorism that Pakistan is receiving internationally. As against this, the joint statement contains a strong para on North Korea’s disruptive nuclear and missile policies that threaten international peace and stability.
On the economic front Modi and Abe launched the Mumbai-Ahmedabad High Speed Rail project and associated facilities. They also welcomed the progress on the Western Dedicated Freight Corridor (DFC) and the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DMIC), as well as Japanese cooperation for smart city projects in Ahmedabad, Chennai and Varanasi. They welcomed too the start of the first four Japan-India Institutes for Manufacturing in the States of Gujarat, Karnataka, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu in 2017, under the Manufacturing Skill Transfer Promotion Program. The historically highest ever amount of ODA loan provided by Japan in the last two consecutive years was noted. The entry into force of the India-Japan civil nuclear agreement for which Abe has been the driving force was viewed with satisfaction. We have to see if this generates civil nuclear business for Japan and in what manner. India’s IT sector has so far failed to enter the Japanese market, as only 2 per cent of its global business is with Japan. The joint statement notes the MoU between the National NASSCOM and IoT Acceleration Consortium (ITAC) of Japan to promote cooperation in this sector. A subject of concern is the decline in India-Japan trade from $ 18.61 billion in 2012-13 to $ 13.48 billion in 2016-17, though Japanese investments in India have increased. This could be because of the global
situation and a general decline in India’s exports for some quarters now. One hopes that this unsatisfactory situation will get addressed as India-Japan relations receive a fillip after Abe’s visit.
(The writer is former foreign secretary)