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India, Japan say new security ties not directed against China

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Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with his Japanese counterpart, Taro Aso, at a joint press conference at the latter’s residence in Tokyo on Wednesday.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with his Japanese counterpart, Taro Aso, at a joint press conference at the latter’s residence in Tokyo on Wednesday.

Siddharth Varadarajan

Joint declaration creates framework for closer political, military interaction

Tokyo: On a day that saw India and Japan sign a declaration on security cooperation and assert that their partnership would be “an essential pillar for the future architecture of the region,” it was left to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to introduce a harsh dose of reality by reminding an elite gathering of Japanese and Indian businessmen that the increase in India’s bilateral trade with China in the past one year alone is more than the whole of India’s total trade with Japan.

That one statistic was not intended to minimise the importance India attaches to its “strategic and global partnership” with Japan, Indian officials said, but merely to drive home the point that India was not going to allow its ties with Tokyo to affect its relations with Beijing. Indeed, in a press conference at the residence of Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso on Wednesday evening, Dr. Singh sought to emphasise that India’s economic relations and security cooperation with Japan would not be “at the cost of any third country, least of all China.”

Though the security declaration largely contains elements like joint exercises, disaster management and counter-terrorism which figure in Indian agreements with many countries, what is likely to raise eyebrows around Asia is the fact that Japan considers India so crucial to its strategic calculus that it is only the third country — after the United States and Australia — with which it has signed such a document. And that India appears to have picked Japan as its most important partner for the task of fashioning the political and security dimensions of Asia’s emerging institutional structure.

Like Japan’s agreements with the U.S. and Australia, the “common commitment” of India and Japan to “democracy, open society, human rights and the rule of law” is foregrounded again, though the scope of security cooperation envisaged is far less than Tokyo’s military alliance-driven arrangements with Washington and Canberra. Terrorism, piracy and non-proliferation are covered but there is no reference in the Indo-Japan text to the “new security challenges and threats” referred to in the Japan-Australia agreement — a code phrase for the rise of China.

Mindful of the symbolism, however, Mr. Aso, who is also the intellectual author of the growing security-centric dimension to Japanese foreign policy, sought to play down any suggestion that Tokyo was still pursuing his earlier idea of trilateral or even quadrilateral military cooperation in Asia. Asked whether the Japan-India joint declaration could serve as the framework for an eventual security framework involving the U.S. with China as the special object of concern, he said: “We regard security cooperation with India as very important ... There was a mention of China — and we do not have any assumption of a third country as a target such as China.”

In terms of its contents, the new security declaration essentially builds on the existing momentum in defence ties while seeking to gradually widen the ambit with a view to influencing the nature of Asia’s emerging security architecture. Among the elements of cooperation listed are “policy coordination on regional affairs in the Asia-Pacific region,” “bilateral cooperation within multilateral frameworks in Asia, in particular the East Asia Summit, Asean Regional Forum and the ReCAAP process” against piracy in South-East Asia.

The mechanisms of cooperation include regular foreign office consultations, and defence ministry and armed forces interactions, including “bilateral and multilateral exercises.”

While bilateral exercises are routine, some multilateral exercises have been controversial, like the 2007 Malabar war games at sea involving ships from India, Japan, Australia, the U.S. and Singapore. Both China and Russia conveyed their concerns at the time, saying Asia should avoid “exclusive” groupings.

As the Foreign Minister in the Shinzo Abe government, Mr. Aso had advocated a trilateral security dialogue involving Japan, India and the U.S., an idea South Block was lukewarm to. However, a Track-II interaction involving the former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State, Richard Armitage, the Confederation of Indian Industry and the Japan Institute of International Affairs issued a document in Tokyo this week urging a deepening of Indo-Japan security ties as a stepping stone for working closely with the U.S. towards fashioning “an open and inclusive regional framework in Asia that advances our shared norms and strengthens cooperation on new challenges.”

While acknowledging that the form the security declaration took was new as far as Indian foreign policy was concerned, Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon told reporters here that this was more a product of Japan’s long-standing reluctance to cooperate in matters other than economic with India. “I wouldn’t say the ideas [in the declaration] are new,” Mr. Menon said, when asked about the significance of the document. “We have 24 counter-terrorism joint working groups, for example, and military exercises with several states. But the format is new because of the particularity of Japan.” He said political and security cooperation was now the “second leg” of the bilateral relationship. And he made it clear India still believed the first leg, economic cooperation, had yet to realise its full potential.

Japan was committing more than $4 billion at this time of global uncertainty to the Delhi-Mumbai freight and industrial corridors, he said, and the number of Japanese companies involved in India had grown dramatically.

While defending the security declaration as one which gave India the opportunity to build on what it was already doing, senior officials concede that the document is largely the product of Mr. Aso’s exertions. Indeed, one official said the erstwhile Yasuo Fukuda government would probably not have considered the security agreement a priority, perhaps because of greater sensitivity over not wanting to send the wrong signals to Beijing and the rest of Asia.

But Mr. Menon emphasised that India did not believe any of its relations were exclusive. He said that at the lunch with Japanese and Indian businessmen, for example, Prime Minister Singh had spoken of India and Japan as part of an ‘arc of prosperity’ that could come up with an “Asian response” to the global financial crisis. “But this is a conversation we will have later this week in Beijing as well, during the Asia-Europe Meeting, with other countries.”

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