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Act East Asia Forum A New Era Of India-Japan Partnership

By Subrata Majumder

Transregional economic partnership, defence and security have become pre-eminent in the new era of India- Japan cooperation. The debut of transregional economic partnership was made during the visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Japan in November 2016 when both countries mandated for a joint partnership for the development of Asia- Africa connectivity. The race for transregional cooperation got impetus with the subsequent visit of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Ahmedabad in September this year, when the joint partnership was extended to India’s Act Asia policy, with a new name ‘Act East Asia Forum’. The partnership will seek development of North East and promote connectivity with the neighbouring countries of Bangladesh, Myanmar and beyond. The joint partnership will have further strength as it will have opportunities to be embedded in the Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor initiative, which was launched by USA to exercise its assertiveness in Asia Pacific,

The conceptualisation of Indo-Pacific corridor can be traced back in the ‘US rebalancing’ and ‘Pivot to Asia Strategy” in 2011 under the Obama administration. In 2013 under the “USA – India Strategic Dialogue“, Secretary John Kerry declared that USA was “cooperating to realize the potential of Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor, which can spur development and investment as well as trade and transit between the dynamic South and South East Asia”. Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor was hailed as the ‘New Silk Road’, which would connect India with South Asia, South East Asia and East Asia through Myanmar.

Taking a leaf from USA’s realization of Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor’s potent to US rebalancing and Asia pivot policy, academic and policy strategists considered that the Act Asia policy should not be restricted to trade and investment only, but also to increasing political clout by joining hands with USA and Japan. It has already been manifested in the regular and intensive naval exercises in Malabar maritime drills.

The concept of Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor is relatively new. But it offers ample opportunities to establish a vital link between North East and South and South East Asia, predicated as the New Silk Road. This will complement India’s connectivity initiatives in Bangladesh, Myanmar and beyond.

Japan committed 38.6 billion yen (approximately US $350 million) to establish India- Japan Act East Forum to enhance connectivity and promote development projects in North East.

Unlike Look East, which was ASEAN-centric with India in the hegemony, Act East Asia Forum transcends to wider perspectivesin Asia Pacific region, extending from Japan to countries in South Pacific. Act East Asia Forum is not confined to economic engagement only, but extends to defence and security ties, unlike Look East, strategic analysts read between the lines.

Of late, India is in an exercise for Asia-Pacific outreach. The intention was manifested in its defence cooperation with Vietnam. India committed a line of credit of US $500 million for procurement of defence equipment and implementation of India-Vietnam defence relations of May 2015, underpinning India’s major role in in South East Asia, with an eye to counterbalance China’s dominance in South China sea. India is also said to have discussed supply of Akash – a surface to air missile to Vietnam.

To increase its clout in Asia – Pacific, India was seeking to internationalise the South China Sea (SCS) dispute. The United Nation Convention Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) ruling against China’s claim for its sovereignty in the South China Sea dwarfed Beijing’s power in the region. It was a shot in the arm for India. “It was for the first time that an international verdict rebutted one of the various claims of China. This would be important for India,“ according to China analyst Claude Arpi

Following suit, India’s fast growing relations with Japan in defence and security are known to be central to the Act Asia policy. In a way, defence and security relations have become the mainstay of the new face of Indo-Japan strategic relation. The joint exercises under an India-Japan–USA plank in Malabar maritime exhibit an upsurge in the India-Japan defence and security relations. India and Japan are regularly holding annual defence ministerial dialogues for US -2 amphibious and US -2 ShinMaywa aircrafts and have considered inclusion of Anti-Submarine Warfare training to expand the cooperation.

With disinclination of the Trump administration in Asia- Pacific region in the new US foreign policy, tough challenges were made to India and Japan for their outreach in Indo- Pacific region. Until Obama administration, USA’s Asia Pivot was a great strength to India and Japan to rebalance power equation in the region.

Nevertheless, in a surprise move, Trump administration revived the New Silk Road and Indo – Pacific Economic Corridor projects in its maiden budget in May 2017. It outlined the two projects and considered budgetary support with focusses on Afghanistan and Indo – Pacific Economic Corridor linking South Asia and South East Asia

Former foreign secretary Kunwal Sibal upped the ante for India–Japan relations in defence and security cooperation in the wake of Trump’s dwarfing the Obama’s Asia Pivot policy. He said “a US withdrawal from the region would mark the end of USA’s pre-eminent power, and t to hedge against it, India needs to deepen the relations with Japan”.

Though North East, the heartland of Congress political power in the east, was peripheral in terms of economic development during UPA and was never considered the bedrock for connectivity to South Asia and South East Asia. The region, comprising 8 states, translates unique opportunities for its vital role in connectivity because of its geographical locations. After BJP’s debut in Assam and Manipur and return in Arunachal Pradesh in 2016 and trepidation of China’s assertiveness for political and economic clout, Act East Asia Forum can act as a new initiative of India-Japan partnership for the development of the region as well as pose a counterbalance to the power game in the region after resuscitation of Trump administration’s relook at USA’s foreign policy. To this end, the Japanese loan and joint partnership will prove a big support to Act Asia policy. (IPA Service)

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