Tokyo's nexus with India deepens
By Purnendra Jain
ADELAIDE, Australia - Tokyo-Delhi ties reached a new height this week with the
visit of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Tokyo - his third since he became
prime minister in 2004. During his three-day official visit, Manmohan and
Japanese counterpart Taro Aso issued a joint statement on the advancement of
the strategic and global partnership, but more significantly signed a joint
declaration on security cooperation.
It is remarkable that Tokyo has signed such a declaration with New Delhi with
which it fell out badly only 10 years ago when it condemned India's nuclear
testing in 1998 and imposed severe economic sanctions. The declaration is
hugely significant, as India is only the second country after Australia with
has signed such a declaration outside its security ties with the United States.
This declaration is a comprehensive package emanating from different types of
bilateral cooperation and exchanges in defense and security areas occurring in
the past three to four years. The package reaffirms the two nations' similar
perceptions of the evolving environment in the region and the world at large.
It also extends their common commitment to democracy, open society, human
rights and the rule of law and their role in promoting peace, stability and
development in Asia and beyond.
This is all highly rhetorical and symbolic, but nevertheless important in
charting a new course in the relationship. A number of areas have been
identified where interests and commitments intersect, including the safety of
sea lines of communication, fighting terrorism and pursuing disarmament.
Mechanisms for security cooperation have been spelled out in the declaration
that include consultations between the two foreign offices, meetings and
dialogues at various levels, defense-level cooperation through meetings of
defense ministers, exchange of service chiefs, bilateral and multilateral
exercises and exchange of staff and personnel. The declaration also stipulates
the two countries develop an action plan for further cooperation.
India-Japan security ties began to warm only recently during the Junichiro
Koizumi and Shinzo Abe administrations. But the momentum was lost with the
inauguration of the Yasuo Fukuda administration in 2007, which was less keen on
India and wanted to focus on China and Southeast Asia. The architect of this
declaration is undoubtedly Aso, an India enthusiast, and who in his former
capacity as foreign minister was at the forefront of developing and
strengthening ties with India.
This new development raises several strategic questions. One that stands out
relates to China. Both prime ministers have denied that their rising bilateral
interests have any implications for China. Manmohan commented that cooperation
with Japan would not be "at the cost of any third country, least of all China".
Similarly, Aso observed that "we regard security cooperation with India as very
important ... and we do not have any assumption of a third country as a target
such as China".
While no immediate comments appeared in Chinese media because Beijing is busy
with the 7th Asia-Europe meeting, no matter what Manmohan and Aso might state,
it is certain that Beijing will see in the new declaration a strategic design
to curb its regional influence.
Only a few years ago when a proposal for a quadrilateral framework consisting
of Japan, the United States, Australia and India was advanced, Beijing regarded
it as an attempt to isolate and encircle the mainland within an "arc of
democracy". Given its troubled ties with Tokyo, Beijing has reasons to be
suspicious of Japan's separate security agreement with Australia and now with
While Australia has historically been a staunch ally of the US, India-US ties
have deepened considerably in recent years and most recently through the
signing of the civilian nuclear agreement. New developments in Japan's security
ties with these nations will not be taken lightly in the Chinese strategic
community. Although the quadrilateral process is on the backburner, Japan's
alliance with the United States and its new security ties, no matter how loose,
with Australia and India sends the signal of a new security order in the
How fast the broken lines existing through bilateral and trilateral security
processes between Japan, the US, Australia and India will be joined together
and in what shape and form will largely depend on the priority that the new
administration in Washington will attach to this issue. Additionally, both
India and Japan are heading for general elections. While it seems certain that
there will be a new prime minister in New Delhi next year, the future of Aso
depends on how his party performs at the general election.
Civilian nuclear cooperation
While cooperation in security and defense added a new chapter in the bilateral
relationship, India's desire for civilian nuclear cooperation with Japan
remains unfulfilled. Although Japan reluctantly supported India's case at the
Nuclear Suppliers' Group, Tokyo is hesitant to cooperate with India in the
civilian nuclear area. Japan possesses state-of-the-art technology in the field
and it generates about one-third of its electricity through the existing 55
nuclear power plants. It is well placed to help India meet its much-required
energy needs both through technology and finance.
Despite the US-India civilian nuclear technology agreement and strong support
from the Japanese business community and some strategic thinkers in Japan, the
Japanese government is reluctant to talk about such a deal due to strong
domestic opposition from civic groups and anti-nuclear lobbyists. It is not
difficult to appreciate domestic opposition as hundreds of thousands of
Japanese were victims of nuclear bombings during World War II and some still
suffer the consequences.
The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) acts cautiously and pragmatically
over such controversial issues as nuclear cooperation, especially when its own
political future remains uncertain. A general election is likely to be called
soon in Japan and the LDP's electoral fortune hangs in the balance, although
currently it enjoys a solid majority in the Lower House. That's why Aso
reiterated Japan's long-held position that India become signatory to the
nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban
The Japanese side understands India's position on why it has refused to sign
and ratify these treaties, and the Indian side also acknowledges Japan's
position on the issue. When discussing this matter with his counterpart,
Manmohan stated that India was willing to wait until Japan was ready to take it
(cooperation in civilian nuclear technology) forward.
Economic ties: Mixed signals
While political and strategic ties have strengthened considerably in recent
years, bilateral trade and Japanese investment in India still remain at a
relatively low level, compared to other bilateral trade figures that Japan and
India have achieved with their major partners. Prospects of high growth are not
very strong. Even the two-way trade target of $20 billion annually by 2010
looks unachievable, given that the current level of bilateral trade stands at
about $10 billion. The current global financial turmoil is also likely to slow
down economic activities of both nations.
Furthermore, the much-discussed economic partnership agreement for which
several rounds of negotiations have been carried out in the past two years
could not be brought to a conclusion. The two sides were unable to reach
agreement on how to lower trade barriers to both sides' satisfaction.
Nevertheless the two leaders have agreed to continue working on it, but no
deadline has been set.
The silver lining was an announcement that Japan will provide some 450 billion
yen ($4.6 billion) worth of loans as part of Japan's official development
assistance (ODA) to India to help it build a Mumbai-Delhi freight rail
connection. This is Japan's largest package ever granted to a single project.
Recently India has become Japan's largest overseas aid destination, replacing
China, that long occupied this status.
India was the first recipient of Japan's ODA in 1958, but Japan's shifting
focus on Southeast Asia and later on China took its attention away from India.
This is now changing. In an environment where Japan's aid budget is shrinking -
making Japan the fifth-largest donor in the world today from number one in the
late 1990s, Japan's commitment to fund India's critical infrastructure is as
much an economic decision as strategic and political.
Economically, Japan sees business opportunities in a rising economy that India
symbolizes. Politically and strategically, it is largely a balancing act. Japan
poured billions and billions of dollars into China in the 1980s and 1990s as
part of its ODA that helped develop infrastructure in China. But Japan received
very little kudos for its generosity. On the other hand, India has expressed
great appreciation for such assistance. In the joint declaration issued in
Tokyo, the Indian prime minister acknowledged the assistance of "the Japanese
people for their generous role in India’s development".
Japan-India ties have travelled a somewhat unique trajectory. Conventional
wisdom tells us that strong economic and trade ties lead to greater political
and security ties. This was most definitely the case with Japan's relations
with Australia. Sometimes trade ties develop strongly but political relations
remain fragile, as in the case of Japan and China or Japan and South Korea.
Japan-India economic and trade ties remained static for many years and have
grown slowly in recent years, but the pace of political and strategic relations
has moved much faster than economic ties. Whether or not Japan-India ties "will
be the most important bilateral relationship in the world", as Shinzo Abe once
described, it is most definitely the case that an important new chapter has
been added to the relationship through Manmohan's visit to Tokyo, although much
is required to give substance to declarations and agreements. These will happen
only slowly and gradually, not with a big bang.
Purnendra Jain is a professor in Asian Studies at Australia's Adelaide