March 09, 2014

Japan PM’s India Visit: Strategic Embrace!

Yohannan Chemarapally

SHINZO Abe, the prime minister of Japan, was the chief guest at the Republic Day 2014 celebrations in New Delhi. The honour accorded to the Japanese leader by the Indian government reflects the growing strategic and political ties between New Delhi and Tokyo. Abe is the first Japanese prime minister who has graced the January 26 Republic Day parade. Natsuo Yamaguchi, the leader of the New Komeito Party, an alliance partner of the ruling LDP, who was on a visit to India, said that the presence of the Japanese prime minister as the chief  guest “was a great epic signal” for the strengthening of the partnership between the two countries.




Prior to his arrival in India, Abe had continued with his strong rhetoric against China. Speaking on the sidelines of the Davos conference, Abe said that the two countries were in a “similar situation” like the one that existed between Britain and Germany before the outbreak of World War One. Abe said that the increase in military spending by China was a major source of regional instability. Since Abe assumed the prime minister’s job for a second time more than a year ago, relations between the two countries have soured considerably. Japan has upped the ante in the territorial dispute with China and has been busy drumming up international support for its cause.

Since coming to office, Abe has visited all the Southeast Asian nations. The Philippines and Vietnam have, like India, territorial disputes with China while other Southeast Asian nations like Cambodia and Laos have close relations with China. Japan, however, is wooing these countries diplomatically by offering financial aid and other economic incentives. In Myanmar, where China till recently had an upper hand in business sector, Japanese companies are now bagging the major contracts on offer.

Before coming to India, the Japanese prime minister had made a highly publicised visit to the African continent. Among the countries he visited were Ethiopia, Mozambique and the Ivory Coast. Abe again stirred a controversy by stating that Japan, unlike other countries, will not just extract resources from the continent but would also create jobs, and Japanese newspapers elaborated what exactly their prime minister meant. China, they averred, was unilaterally diverting resources and profits from the African continent without creating jobs. China’s trade with the African continent is seven times more than that of Japan. China’s representative to the African Union (AU), Xie Xiaoyan, reacted by saying that Abe has emerged as “the biggest troublemaker in Asia” and that the Japanese PM’s visit to Africa was “part and parcel of the Contain China policy.”

The Japanese prime minister’s visit to India was preceded by that of his defence minister, Itsunori Onodera, in the first week of January. The Japanese minister met with the Indian defence minister, A K Anthony. The two ministers discussed the ways of further strengthening military cooperation and strategic partnership. The Indian defence minister assured his Japanese counterpart that India supports the Japanese stand on the freedom of navigation in international waters and “the application of global conventions.” The Japanese defence minister, speaking to the Press Trust of India in the context of the recent tensions in the East China Sea, said that “the entire international community will have to send a message to China.” He stressed on the importance of India, Japan and the US coming together “to send a common message to the Chinese side.”




Prime minister Abe has long been arguing for stronger bilateral ties between the two countries. In his 2007 book, Towards a Beautiful Country: My Vision for Japan, Abe visualised a bilateral relationship with India that could in a decade “overtake Japan-US and Japan-China ties.” The defence and strategic relationship between Washington and Tokyo continues to remain as strong as ever. China and Japan, the second and third biggest economies of the world have business and trade ties worth over 334 billion dollars annually. On the other hand, India’s trade with Japan amounts to less than 18 billion dollars. In 2011, India and Japan had signed a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) under which tariffs were slashed for more than 8000 products. Trade volume figures for 2014 are projected at 25 billion dollars.

Abe’s three day visit to India was part of the concerted effort to further consolidate the strategic ties between the two countries. The Japanese emperor, Akihito, was in India in late 2013. The first ever visit by the Japanese emperor to India was then described as a highly symbolic watershed in relations by many Japanese media commentators. Since Abe’s return to power, Japan has been going out of the way to lock India into a tight diplomatic and security embrace. A joint statement issued after a meeting the Japanese prime minister had with his Indian counterpart, Manmohan Singh, reaffirmed the resolve of both the countries to “further deepen the strategic and global partnership.” The Indian prime minister said that Japan was at the “heart of India’s Look East Policy.”

The goal of this policy is to make India an important player in the region. To offset the growing Chinese influence in the region, Japan and the US are trying to get countries like India to partner with them and take a more assertive stance in the territorial disputes they have with China. The Obama administration’s “pivot to the East” is part of the game plan to isolate China strategically. Abe is one of the most vocal supporters of Washington’s militaristic aims in the region.   

After Abe’s meeting with the Indian PM, Japan announced two billion dollars in loans. Most of the loan will be for Delhi Metro. Japan has agreed to give Bullet train technology to India. India has now given Japan the privilege to invest in strategically sensitive areas in the northeast which include the state of Arunachal Pradesh, which is still considered a disputed territory by China. China had objected some years back to funding from the Asian Development Bank for a hydroelectric project in that state. Japanese companies are not being allowed to invest in other parts of the northeast by the Indian government. India’s northeast will thus be playing an important role in connecting the South Asia with the Southeast and East Asia. Japanese business will be able to use this corridor to further consolidate its links with neighbouring states like Myanmar.    




Many important agreements were signed during the Abe visit. They include the holding of trilateral naval exercises involving Indian, US and Japanese navies. The last quadrilateral naval exercise that had included the Australian navy held in 2006 had led to protests from Beijing. In early December, the Indian Navy and the Japan Maritime Defence Force held their first joint exercises off the coast of Malabar. This was followed by joint coast guard exercises in the Arabian Sea in January. Official reaction from Beijing to the Japanese PM’s visit to India has been muted though the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson noted “the development of defence cooperation between both countries.” The official expressed the hope that this development would be “conducive to the peace, security and stability of the whole region.”

Both the Indian and Japanese prime ministers, in their joint statement, emphasised the importance of ensuring the freedom of navigation and the peaceful solution of conflicts. This is being interpreted as support to Japan’s position on China’s ADIZ (air defence zone). The joint statement “underscored the importance of freedom of over flight and civil aviation safety.” China had taken care to officially notify India that it was not affected by the ADIZ. India has always been careful to emphasise that all the disputes China is having with its neighbours should be peacefully resolved through dialogue. 

Indian and Japanese officials will now meet in March for talks regarding the purchase of the US-2 amphibious planes. Japan wants India to buy and then jointly manufacture the short take-off and landing military dual use planes. If the deal fructifies, it will be for the first time that Japan will be breaking its self-imposed 47 years old embargo on arms exports. According to reports, India is not too happy with the pricing. From available indications, despite the eagerness of the Japanese side to clinch a deal, there is reticence on the Indian side. The two sides also agreed that the national security agencies of the two countries will meet on a regular basis. Japan has recently decided to set up its own national security agency. There already exists a regular two plus two dialogue involving the foreign secretaries and defence secretaries of the two countries.

Importantly, India and Japan will continue talks on civil nuclear cooperation. India is keen to buy Japanese nuclear reactors. The two sides have agreed for an “early conclusion” of the nuclear deal. There are some difficult issues related to nuclear testing and the right to reprocess spent fuel, to be resolved. Japan wants India to give an assurance that it will not break its moratorium on nuclear testing. New Delhi has so far refused to do so. Many political parties in Japan, including the New Komeito Party which is part of the government, have reservations on the sale of nuclear technology to a non-signatory of the NPT like India. Anti-nuclear feelings still run deep in a country that was subjected to a nuclear holocaust. On the right to reprocess the spent fuel, New Delhi wants a blanket approval from Tokyo under the IAEA supervision. The Fukushima nuclear disaster has also influenced many Japanese politicians in taking an anti-nuclear stance generally and against trading in nuclear technology.

(Also see Yohannan Chemarapally, Japan: Back to Militarism!, People’s Democracy, February 10-16, 2014.)