NEW DELHI: This Monday, and then again on Monday the 30th, Japanese and Indian officials will meet to impart momentum to what is arguably New Delhi’s most important partnership in Asia, but one that has consistently underperformed.
These meetings seek to take forward a relationship that has the economic and military weight to balance China, and which enjoys broad political acceptance within both countries. For decades, the two sides remained aloof, first due to the Cold War, and then because of Japan’s reflexive opposition to India’s nuclear quest. In 2000, however, with China rising, the two established a ‘Global Partnership’ and upgraded that to a ‘Strategic and Global Partnership’ during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s path-breaking meetings in 2006 with his Japanese counterpart, Shinzo Abe.
Tomorrow, Tokyo will host the second India-Japan-US trilateral dialogue, the first such meeting after Washington announced its strategic shift to the Asia-Pacific in January 12. Officials say the participants will share their perceptions on China; discuss the regional security architecture, particularly maritime security; and the prospects for co-operating in keeping open sea lanes of communications in the face of Chinese claims.
Officials say they will also discuss ways of cooperating in the East Asia Summit, an increasingly powerful regional body. In 2005, Japan had lobbied successfully for including India in the East Asia Summit. Last year, the US (and Russia) also joined the summit for the first time.
Meanwhile, defence is emerging as an important area of India-Japan cooperation, with Tokyo exploring ways of working around a pacifist constitution, Article 9 of which prohibits Japan from maintaining a military and for settling disputes through force. Japan’s military exists as a “self defence force (SDF)”, of which soldiers, sailors and airmen are “members.” But Tokyo felt vulnerable after 2005, when Beijing was suspected of engineering violent anti-Japan riots across China, to signal its disapproval of any move to grant Japan permanent membership in the UN Security Council.
“That convinced Tokyo that China actively harboured a strong historical grievance. There are three drivers of Tokyo’s decisive turn towards New Delhi: India’s economic rise; India’s growing ties with the US; and Japan’s fear of a rising China,” says Hemant Kumar Singh, formerly India’s ambassador to Japan and now a professor with ICRIER.
With Japan’s defence spending traditionally capped at one per cent of its GDP (it is still more than India’s defence budget) India is emerging as a key partner for Tokyo. The two countries signed a ‘Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation,’ in 2008 and there are regular meetings and joint exercises between the two militaries. With Tokyo realising that its small military does not buy enough equipment to justify the development of expensive defence systems, Japan is formulating guidelines for joint collaboration in defence technologies, a major shift given its sensitivities.
“India could benefit enormously from defence technology cooperation with Japan,” acknowledge MoD sources. “But, so far, we have not started thinking about what we could cooperate on.”
What could be on the cards, though, is India’s first-ever aircraft procurement from Japan. The Indian Navy is evaluating the Shinmaywa US-2 amphibious aircraft; a short take-off and landing (STOL) amphibious aircraft that can take off from either land or from water with 18 tonnes of load. Its range of 4,700 kilometres reaches across vast tracts of ocean, performing multiple tasks: humanitarian aid, disaster relief, search and rescue, as well as military logistical activities.
The second meeting, on April 30 in New Delhi, is a Ministerial Level Economic Dialogue’. Conceived in 2010, during the PM’s visit to Japan, this brings together cabinet ministers from both sides who holding economic portfolios, such as finance, commerce, industry, infrastructure and environment, in order to impart “strategic and long-term policy orientation to their bilateral economic engagement… and to coordinate economic issues of cross-cutting nature, including infrastructure development and financing.”
This ministerial dialogue complements the India-Japan Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, which came into force last August.
On the anvil are the Western Dedicated Freight Corridor; the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor and cooperation in clean energy initiatives, particularly the Regional Energy Efficiency Centre.