January 31, 2016

Abe's visit: Solidifying Trilateral US-Japan-India Axis

Yohannan Chemarapally

THE Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has become a frequent visitor to India, was in the Indian capital yet again, in the second week of December. This is his third visit to India since taking over as prime minister. Abe had struck a good personal rapport with the former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Japan and India have grown extremely close during the ten years of UPA rule. New Delhi's tilt towards the anti-China alliance led by the United States and Japan alliance had started during the UPA rule. Now the tilt has become more pronounced after Narendra Modi and the BJP came to power. The mutual admiration and back slapping between Modi and Abe were on public display. Both the leaders participated in a quasi religious ceremony on the banks of the Ganga in Varanasi. Modi has described his Japanese counterpart as “a phenomenal leader”. Both Abe and Modi evidently share the same world view. Both these leaders want to establish closer military ties with the West and view China as an emerging world power that has to be counter-balanced. Abe has declared that the India Japan relationship is the “most important bilateral relationship” in the world. At their summit meeting in Tokyo in 2014, both the leaders had agreed to elevate bilateral relations “to a special strategic and global partnership”. During the course of the Japanese prime minister's three day visit, the two governments signed some important agreements that could have an impact on the future course of Indian foreign policy. New Delhi has come out openly on the side of the US and Japan on the dispute with China over the South China Sea. “In view of the critical importance of the sea lanes of communications in the South China Sea for regional energy security and trade and commerce which underpins continued peace and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific region, the two prime ministers called upon all states in the region to avoid unilateral actions that could lead to tension in the region”, the joint statement issued during the visit of the Japanese prime minister stated. This is the first time that the South China Sea has been mentioned in the joint statement. In the previous two join statements issued during bilateral talks in 2015, the South China Sea dispute did not figure in the text. The Indian foreign secretary, S Jaishankar talking to the media said that the latest joint statement reflected the concerns of the two countries. “South China Sea is of concern to us as both countries have important energy stakes there – important and unilateral actions should be avoided”, the Indian foreign secretary said. Tokyo has no territorial disputes with Beijing in the South China Sea. China had objected to India prospecting for oil and gas in an area off the coast of Vietnam. The Chinese side has been insisting that there has never been a danger to international navigation or civilian over-flights in the South China Sea but it considers naval vessels and military aircraft traveling through the area as a violation of its sovereignty. Beijing accuses Washington of trying to instigate an international crisis in the region. Beijing, supported by many countries in the region, says that the territorial disputes could be easily resolved through negotiations between the affected parties. China has been repeatedly asserting that there is no need for outside powers to get involved in the dispute. Speaking to the media after the visit of the Japanese prime minister to India, the spokesman of the Chinese foreign ministry expressed the hope that countries outside the region “respect the efforts of regional countries in maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea, instead of doing the opposite”. During the Abe visit, it was announced that Japan will now regularly participate in the bi-annual “Malabar” military exercises “to help create stronger capabilities to deal with maritime challenges in the Indo-Pacific region”. Previously the Malabar exercises had involved only the American and Indian navies. India had participated in quadrilateral military exercises in the Bay of Bengal in 2006 with the US, Japanese and Australian navies. But after strong protests from China which viewed the exercises as part of the Washington orchestrated maneuvers to form a military alliance to isolate it in the Asia-Pacific region, India had till recently chosen to stay away. Now with Japan also becoming a trilateral dialogue partner with India and the United States, China has reasons to suspect that India too has become a partner of the Obama administration's much publicised military “pivot to the East”. The American ambassador to India, Richard Verma recently said that the navies of the US, India and Japan “are already interoperable” after Japan had participated as “a guest” in the complex Malabar exercises held in October, 2015. The Chinese foreign ministry spokesman was also critical of India's decision to invite Japanese participation in the annual Malabar military exercises. “As for Japan's participation in the relevant military exercises, China's position is very clear. Relevant countries should not provoke confrontation and create tensions in the region”, he said. According to Michael Klugman, an American expert on East Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, Modi and Abe are “telegraphing a striking message, even at the risk of roiling China”. As the Japan Times noted, the agreements signed during the Abe visit brings India further into the American military orbit. It also said that the defense agreements were aimed “at containing China's expansion in regional waters”. Abe's visit to India took place after he had successfully amended Japan's pacifist constitution. Japan is no longer circumscribed by constitution from either going to war or selling lethal armaments to third countries. Japan sees India as a big market for some of its sophisticated military weaponry. An MoU has been signed between the two countries during the Abe visit for the possible purchase of ShinMaywa US-2 military Sea Planes. The deal, if it fructifies, will be worth more than US$1.2 billion. It will also be the first Japanese military sales in fifty years. Japan has agreed to the transfer of defense equipment and technology. There has been a lot of criticism domestically in Japan and by countries like China on the amendment of the pacifist constitution by Abe's right wing LDP government. Abe has been unapologetic about Japanese war crimes and has not hidden his ambition to once again make Japan a military power to reckon with in the region. An important achievement from the Indian standpoint during the Japanese prime minister's visit was the memorandum of understanding (MoU) on nuclear cooperation between the two countries. Japan has agreed in principle to sign a civil nuclear cooperation agreement with India despite New Delhi being a non-signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Public opinion in Japan, particularly after the 2011 Fukushima disaster, does not trust the government on nuclear issues. Due to pressure from peace groups, the Japanese government had been so far stalling on a nuclear deal with India. Now, the Japanese seem to be on the verge of operationalising it. There are indications that the Indian government will okay the sea plane deal only after Tokyo formally inks the civil nuclear cooperation deal. Japan will partner the United States in the construction of civilian nuclear reactors in India. The deal will provide a breakthrough for companies like Westinghouse Electric Co. and General Electric Co. to sell equipment to India. Both these companies are either controlled or owned by Japanese business. Soon after the proposed India-Japan nuclear deal was announced, there were protests outside the Japanese prime minister's office in Tokyo. Hiroshi Shimizu, secretary general of the Hiroshima Prefectural Confederation of A-Bomb Sufferers Organisation told a Japanese news paper that his group is against nuclear cooperation with India. “We are not sure that India, for some reason, will seek to divert the technology for nuclear weapons”, said Shimizu. “This move is intolerable for atomic bomb survivors because it goes against the government's position to seek the abolition of nuclear weapons”. Nagasaki's mayor, Tomihisa Taue, said that the decision of the Japanese government was “extremely regrettable”, now that the survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear attacks were against the civil nuclear pact with India. “I strongly urge the Japanese government to fulfill its responsibility as a country subjected to nuclear weapons”, the Nagasaki Mayor said. The other agreement during the Abe visit that created a buzz was the US$15 billion deal to help build India's first high speed rail link between Mumbai and Ahmedabad. While making the announcement, Abe compared Modi's leadership to the high speed “Shinkazen” train. “Prime Minister Modi's economic policies are like Shinkazen, high speed, safe and reliable while carrying many people along”, Abe said. Abe is no doubt aware that more and more people in India are now questioning the leadership style of Modi as well as the need for a Shinkazen train in the country. The high speed train will be used by the rich, while the need of the hour is to improve the dilapidated infrastructure of the Indian railways for the benefit of the common man. Despite all the hype, economic relations between the two countries are yet to fully take off. Both India and Japan have much stronger economic ties with China. Japanese investors, despite frosty relations between Tokyo and Beijing, still prefer to invest in mainland China. India accounts for only one percent of Japan's imports. Japan is now planning to set aside US$12.4 billion for investments and financing of projects in India. During the Japanese prime minister's visit, it was announced that Tokyo will be funding road building projects in India's northeast, including in the “disputed” state of Arunachal Pradesh. India seems to have turned its back on China's “One Belt, One Road” blueprint for the economic integration of Eurasia. Almost all South and Central Asian countries have signed up for the “One Belt, One Road” initiative. India however prefers to align with Japan and the US in the region.