Amidst rising tensions between China and Japan over the Senkaku islands in the East China Sea, the visit of the Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe to New Delhi from 25th to 27th January, 2014 was watched with great interest not only in the Chinese strategic circles but also in the entire Asia Pacific region as India holds the key to the new power balance in the area.
Strategic analysts are assessing the possibilities of whether Abe’s visit will be a game changer in the chess board of Indo-Pacific region or end in a draw. However much depends on China’s stance towards India and whether the commitments expressed in the joint Singh-Abe communiqué will remain a mere rhetorical statement.
If the visit is to turn into a game changer both India and Japan will have to show guts and play while projecting their soft and hard power jointly to deter China from flexing its muscle in the East and South China Sea.
Both India and Japan have domestic and national compulsions which will most likely prevent both the countries from raising stake. If the Indo-Japan partnership intends to take on the Chinese economic and military might in the region Japan will have to shed its inward looking defence posture and India will have to confront the Chinese aggressive designs forcefully.
If it so happens, powers like USA, Europe and Australia will be so happy to assist. The three countries India, Japan and USA are already engaged in trilateral dialogue and discussing the repercussions of Chinese Air Defence Zone in East China Sea and claim over most parts of South China Sea. In fact when the four countries India, Australia, Japan and USA along with Singapore joined a multilateral naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal in 2007 and later when Australia proposed a quadrilateral alliance the dragon’s warning forced not only India but other partners to develop cold feet.
Since then the placid waters of Pacific sea has turned turbulent and Japan now sees the urgent need of sea faring with India. USA is also executing its Rebalancing Asia policy earlier known as Pivot to Asia to counter China, in which India was described as lynchpin.
The Japanese have also come out with new strategic doctrine placing emphasis on close defence cooperation with India. All of them want India to join the bandwagon. By inviting Japan also to join the bilateral Malabar naval exercise with USA, India has definitely conveyed a subtle message to China that the three naval powers are coming together. But observers do not expect it go beyond show of strength.
Last year when the Chinese Prime Minister Li Ke Qiang visited India in May, the Indian Prime Minister visited Tokyo only ten days later to reaffirm strategic partnership with Japan but when he paid late September visit to Beijing, the Chinese leadership went out of the way to please the Indian Prime Minister. It is obvious both China and Japan wants to keep India on their side.
Shinzo Abe’s visit came only a month after the landmark visit of the Emperor and the Empress of Japan. Now the Japanese PM have shown an extraordinary diplomatic primacy with India by taking an unprecedented gesture of remaining absent from the first day of the Japanese Diet which began its session the day he left for India.
There was tremendous domestic pressure on Abe to be present on the first day of the Diet session but he gave priority to the relations with India and accepted the invite to be the Chief Guest at the Republic Day parade, held annually on 26th January, which showcases India’s military might. India also took due care to respect the sentiments of the Japanese people by withdrawing the ICBM category Agni-5 missiles from the parade.
The display of Agni and Prithvi missiles had been a regular feature of the Republic Day parade, which projects India’s nuclear deterrence capability, but India quietly withdrew those missiles, which might have embarrassed the Japanese Prime Minister and the Government.
This conveys that India has shown sensitivity to Japanese sentiments on nuclear issues and in response India would like the Japanese government to enter into civil nuclear cooperation with India. The Japanese PM promised during his visit that the two sides are negotiating over the issue.
India needs Japan at this critical juncture of economic development and also needs a partner country in South China Sea to side with India in case of a crisis, which is likely to be provoked by China, by threatening Indian commercial activities in the South China Sea which are underway in collaboration with Vietnam. However at the same time India cannot antagonize the Chinese because of the US$ 70 billion trade and the simmering tension over the 4000 kms long unresolved borders and territorial issues.
Before Abe’s visit to India the Japanese officials hoped India to support Japan against Chinese aggressive behavior in East China Sea. But India had remained non committal. However, in the Joint Statement issued after the Abe-Singh talks, India in a very significant shift in its attitude towards the Sino-Japanese dispute vaguely supported Japan, which in fact is India’s concern also.
Without naming China the Joint Statement said in very obvious reference to the dispute, “two Prime Ministers reiterated the commitment of Japan and India to the freedom of navigation, unimpeded commerce and peaceful settlement of disputes based on the principles of international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)”.
The Joint Statement also indirectly referred to the Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) and said, “two Prime Ministers underscored the importance of freedom of over flight and civil aviation safety in accordance with the recognized principles of international law and the relevant standards and recommended practices of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).”
The issue of over flight and freedom of navigation in the high seas also bothers India because of high density of maritime trade traffic from India towards the Pacific region. Indian strategists are worried that in future if the maritime and air movement over the South China Sea are largely controlled by China, India will have to succumb to the Chinese dictates.
Hence, India will naturally seek close consultations with the Japanese who will also be affected by the Chinese control of the Sea. This is why both the countries are emphasizing on the freedom of navigation in the high seas and has decided to enter into an institutionalized arrangement of dialogue at the level of National Security Advisors.
Both the countries are already engaged in defence policy dialogue and 2+2 dialogue at the level of foreign and defence ministers and the NSA level dialogue should give content to the consensus arrived at the 2+2 dialogue. Following these talks the two countries have already decided to hold regular bilateral naval exercises in each other’s waters.
Japan has twisted its defence export policy to allow the sale of amphibious sea planes to India. India now waits for Japanese green signal to enter into a full-fledged civil nuclear cooperation, on which hangs the fate of other bilateral nuclear cooperation agreements with countries like USA, France etc. The Civil nuclear cooperation will prove to be a litmus test for Indo-Japanese strategic partnership and will in fact propel the relations towards the level of an alliance in the Asia Pacific region.
Japan has already committed huge investment in India’s infrastructure development and also has decided to venture in India’s turbulent North East from where China has proposed to create an economic corridor from Bangladesh to India via Myanmar to Kunming in China.
If this is executed on the ground, both China and Japan will find themselves competing for an economic space in the North Eastern States of India. This presents wonderful opportunity for India to lure China and Japan to compete in India for economic advantages for their own people, but strategic tensions over far off South and East China Sea will cast a shadow on these grand economic moves of strategic nature.
India will definitely try to play its cards well to derive advantages from the bid to woo India and protect its economic and strategic interests.