Limitations of the “Natural Partners”

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Photo: PTI
Manmohan Singh with the Japanese PM Shinzo Abe. Photo: PTI

The Indian PM’s remarks during his recent visit to Tokyo where he termed Japan as a “natural partner” for “stability and peace” in the Asia-Pacific region has been blown out of proportion by both the Indian and Chinese media. The statement is viewed as India’s willingness to partner with Japan to balance out its equation with China. This form of interpretation or misinterpretation is quite natural, given the fact that both the countries share territorial dispute with China and the issue has flared up recently among those who watch Japan from outside.

However, one must not ignore that Japan, with which India has enhanced its strategic partnership, has some inherent legal impediments in the use of force. Japan’s constitution, especially the war renouncing clause of Article 9 forbids the country to “use force” in settling international disputes. Moreover, the pacifist ideals, drawn from the constitution, impede Japanese Self Defense Forces to go for a “collective self defense” or engage with any military power for purposes other than self defense. Present Japanese establishment led by Shinzo Abe is trying to get rid of this hurdle by re-interpreting the legal document. Abe faces opposition not only from the pacifist lobbies within the country, but also from its ally in the cabinet – the New Komeito Party supported by lay Buddhist organisation – Sokagakkai. There is less chance that the prime minister will get rid of this hurdle imposed on its Defence Forces soon. Therefore, it is unlikely that Japan would collaborate with India, in case India faces a real aggression from China, or India would collaborate with Japan in a similar situation.  In the present circumstance, both India and Japan have only one option to counter China – an “internal balancing” by increasing its capabilities through defence modernisation.

Manmohan Singh’s statement that he gave in a selected gathering of Japanese parliamentarians was in the context of securing “shared interest in maritime security” and the challenges that both countries face towards “energy security.” China was nowhere in the picture. The statement was qualified by yet another statement given by the PM. “There are strong synergies between our economies, which need an open, rule based international trading system to prosper,” he said.

It is well established that India and Japan have entered into maritime security cooperation and have stated that they would be holding an annual bilateral naval exercise. This is yet again viewed as a measure to check China’s naval expansion. However, the fact remains that it is linked to their “economic security” as much of their inbound and outbound trade passes through sea lanes. The triggering factor of India-Japan maritime cooperation was the hijacking of a Japanese flagship merchant vessel in 1999 by pirates that was rescued by the Indian Coast Guard. Japan for the first time realised India’s importance of keeping the sea lanes open which is its economic lifeline. Gradually, the maritime cooperation has evolved to an annual maritime dialogue between the two countries. Now Japan would be providing its amphibious US-2 search and rescue aircrafts that can land in sea as well. However, Japan would remove war fighting equipment to abide by its ‘idealist principles’ that bans the country from selling arms and arms related technologies. It is yet to be seen whether the deal would materialise or fizzle out. At the moment, it is a business deal and India has to pay $108 million for each aircraft. But it has sent a political message to China for sure.

India’s maritime cooperation with Japan is at times compared with China’s “string of pearls” strategy of naval expansion in the Indian Ocean and its close proximity to India. If we think that Japan will provide basing facilities to keep Chinese in check, we are ignoring the fact that the present US-Japan Security Treaty does not allow basing facility to any third party. Japan would not gamble to hamper the US-Japan Security ties.

What Manmohan Singh said in Tokyo is not new. In fact, it was a modified version of Shinzo Abe’s “Democratic Security Diamond”, which he mooted just before assuming Prime Ministership for the second term. Abe envisaged a strategy whereby “Australia, India, Japan, the US state of Hawai form a diamond to safeguard maritime commons stretching from Indian Ocean to the Western Pacific.” Manmohan Singh has talked about securing the global commons, but without naming Australia and the United States.

Much credence has been given to the “2+2” dialogue between India and Japan at the Defence and Foreign Ministry level. It is compared with similar dialogues Japan has with the US and Australia, and the impression that India, Japan and Australia are connected with a kind of a “networking alliance” through these dialogues. However, the reality is different. In India-Japan 2+2 dialogue, interaction takes place at level of the Japanese Vice-Defense Minister and India’s Defence Secretary, as well as the level of Vice-Minister of Japanese Minstry of Foreign Affairs and Secretary of the MEA. Thus, India-Japan 2+2 strategic dialogues remains at a lower level. To realise the so called “Indo-Pacific” cooperation, present mechanism needs to be elevated to Defence Ministerial and Foreign Ministerial levels. Also, India has to forge a similar cooperation with US and Australia that seems unlikely in the near future.

One more aspect that should be looked into carefully is that India has maintained it would not allow itself to be used by one country against the other. Recently, during Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to New Delhi, both the countries made a joint statement that India and China recognises each other as partners and not as rivals. The Japanese believe that India is maintaining a fine balance in its ties with Tokyo and Beijing.

Given the internal compulsions that both the countries have, India and Japan have limited options in balancing out their equation with China. They can come together to moderate Chinese behaviour in the international forum. Both India and Japan adhere to “freedom of navigation” and unimpeded commerce based on principles of international law. China however has a different view on this. Both India and Japan can join on the international forum and impress upon China to abide by international laws including laws on high seas and other global commons.

Shamshad A Khan is a Researcher at IDSA

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