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India-Japan relations: Decoding the elephant in the room

By Rup Narayan Das
September 08, 2014 17:06 IST
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Narendra Modi and Shonzo AbeAlthough the India-Japan relationship has its own driving forces in terms of robust economic ties and shared values, China is the elephant in the room in the strategic parleys between the two countries, says Rup Narayan Das.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi completed a successful visit to Japan and Chinese President Xi Jinping will be visiting India within a few days. It is worthwhile to analyse how the triangular relations among the three are playing out.

Although the India-Japan relationship has its own driving forces in terms of robust economic ties and shared values, China is the elephant in the room in the strategic parleys between the two countries. The current Japanese leadership has been very proactive in attempting to forge a strategic partnership and to deepen the defence and security relationship with India, seeking to manage the rising profile of China.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been most active in this regard. India has, however, been very circumspect in deference to Chinese sensitivity. India and Japan signed the joint statement towards Japan-India Strategic and Global Partnership in 2006, when Abe was the prime minister. Later, the two countries signed the Joint Statement Vision for Japan-Indian Strategic and Global Partnership in October, 2010.                                 

China’s strategy has been to dissuade India from partnering with Japan to oppose China. Thus, its stance on India-Japan strategic partnership has been very conciliatory, while at the same time being critical of Japan. For example, when former  Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Japan in October last year, after the incursion of the PLA into the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control in the in Depsang in Ladakh region on April 15 last year, and described Japan as India’s “indispensable and natural ally,” an article in the Global Times said, “…Unlike Sino-Japanese disputes over the Diaoyu islands in which Japan is determined to escalate the situation, Sino-Indian border issues generally been peaceful and stable since the first round of border talks in 2003, which did not solve the whole issue but showed a mutual willingness to talk.”

Mentioning the skewed nature of Sino-Indian bilateral trade in favour of China, which has been an issue of concern to India, the article further said, “Some might quote stagnating bilateral economic ties for gloomy future relations, but economic ties are never the determining factor on bilateral political relations. Japan and China have strong economic ties, but these cannot prevent their political distrust and worsening relations.”

The Chinese message to Japan is very clear: Sino-Indian relations will remain good in spite of the border dispute and ballooning trade deficit, as long as India does not side with Japan in its dispute with China.

It may also be noted in this context that in order to preempt any kind of Indian support to Japan, within few days of its declaration of an Air Defence Identification Zone, Beijing  made it clear that there was “no question” of it establishing a similar zone near its border with India. India maintained a studied silence on China’s ADIZ during the visit of Japanese Emperor Akihito. Of course, the visit of the Japanese emperor by its very nature was symbolic.

Given the degree of security distrust between Japan and China, and being conscious of Chinese wariness, New Delhi has been sensitive to Chinese anxieties, and has sought to avoid being seen as teaming up with Japan to balance China. But if the signals of strategic depth and security and defence cooperation between India and Japan are decoded, China-oriented intent comes through loud and clear in terms such as “maritime cooperation,” “freedom of navigation” and “sea-lines of communication.”

The Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation between India and Japan signed in 2008 is the only such document that India has ever signed with any other country. It recognises “that a strong and prosperous India is in the interests of Japan and that a strong and prosperous Japan is in the interests of India” .It then adds that “India and Japan share common interests in the safety of sea lines of communications.” Regarding the mechanisms of maritime cooperation, it says, “The two Coast Guards will continue to promote cooperation to ensure maritime safety, maritime security and protect the marine environment through joint exercises and meetings between the two Coast Guards.”

It is true that the bulk of the trade of Japan and that of India are sea borne. Also energy security entails safety of sea lines of communications. But maritime cooperation is omnibus, and it signals more than what meets the eyes. Although India has not directly articulated that China poses threat to the freedom of navigation in the South-China Sea, its endorsement for freedom of navigation and Sea Lines of Communications has riled China.

What brings India and Japan together is not only the convergence of democracy and complementarity of economic interests, but also the congruence of security and strategic concerns in the context of rising profile of China. Japan’s adversarial relationship with China, and India’s security dilemma with China, provides glue to defence and security cooperation between India and Japan.

India, however, is not inclined to forge any security policy that targets a specific country.

The China factor in India-Japan relations, however, should not be read exclusively in strategic terms, as it used to be during the ‘Cold War’ period. After the end of Cold War the idioms of geo-politics have changed; now it is more about engagement than containment. The process of globalisation has galvanised the synergy of mutual economic interdependence more than ever before. This needs to be recognised by the strategic community in their analyses of complexity of bilateral and multilateral relations between and among nation states.

Containment has almost lost its salience. It is rather economic interest and the rising nationalism of the three countries -- India, China, and Japan -- that is going to resonate in the bilateral relations between and among the three countries. The spat over Senkaku island was also an aspect of the manifestation of the rising nationalism fueled by the political leadership.

The relationship between India and China is entering into a very delicate phase, which needs to be handled very thoughtfully, imaginatively and deftly. The fact that the row over such disputes acquired prominence during the leadership transition in China and the elections in Japan and that it didn’t precipitate into a major crisis and got diffused underscore the nationalism factor, suggests that the leaders of the three countries have the maturity and the sagacity to rise to the occasion and mitigate a crisis situation.

Image: Narendra Modi with Shinzo Abe in Tokyo

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