How belligerent China, North Korea are pushing India, Japan into a gritty bonhomie

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to New Delhi comes at a time of immense geopolitical churn. India and China have just withdrawn after a 70-day faceoff over a disputed plateau in Doklam, Bhutan. The climbdown was preceded by some of the shrillest war rhetoric from Beijing in nearly three decades and some of the most level-headed diplomatic manoeuvring by New Delhi with tacit Japanese support. Tokyo didn’t exactly disguise where its sympathies lay-an August 17 statement by the Japanese envoy to New Delhi, Kenji Hiramatsu, urging “all parties not to resort to unilateral attempts to change the status quo by force”, drew a sharp rebuke from Beijing.

Prime minister Abe, of course, faces infinitely greater security threats. North Korea first lobbed a nuclear-capable missile over northern Japan on August 29 and on September 3, tested a hydrogen bomb with a yield over five times that of the weapon dropped over Nagasaki in 1945. North Korea’s new capability dramatically imperils the security of non-nuclear East Asian states like Japan and South Korea. “We would like to change North Korea’s policies in close cooperation with India,” Abe was quoted by Japanese media as saying during a September 5 meeting with Union minister Arun Jaitley in Tokyo. Jaitley noted with concern the proliferation of nuclear weapons and missiles through Asia.

Nuclear weapons and missiles are common to the convergence of a two-front security threat that India and Japan are seeing through the Pyongyang-Beijing-Islamabad axis. While India faces a two-front situation with Pakistan and China, Japan has an unpredictable North Korea and China. If Japanese diplomats are studying New Delhi’s responses to Doklam, it is because in recent years, China has become increasingly assertive in territorial disputes, such as over Senkaku Islands in East China Sea, and conti-nues to test Japan’s defences. Japanese fighter jets scrambled over 800 times to intercept Chinese fighter aircraft intruding its airspace over the past year. An increasingly insular United States, under President Donald Trump, has heightened Japanese insecurity.

Japan has for long been a latent nuclear power, not exercising the option because of its deep pacifism. G. Parthasarathy, former Indian ambassador to Pakistan, says India should fully back Japan’s attempt to develop nuclear weapons as it would check China’s belligerence. “One of the reasons for China’s arrogance is that it feels India has nuclear weapon states both to its east and west,” he says. “We would have a more realistic behaviour from them if they face a similar situation on their borders.”

In November last year, PMs Modi and Abe announced the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC). It is widely seen as an attempt to provide an alternative to Beijing’s Belt and Road initiative, which New Delhi has boycotted. AAGC calls for the two countries to develop quality infrastructure in Africa and digital connectivity to link the two continents. It is primarily a maritime route linking Jamnagar with Djibouti, Madurai with Zanzibar and Kolkata with Sittwe. Worried over China’s widening global footprint, especially through Asia and Africa, Japan and India have common security interests. Both countries have a robust institutional dialogue mechanism, an annual bilateral summit between the two PMs and defence ministers, besides the annual Indo-US Malabar exercises that were expanded in 2015 to include the Japanese navy. “Japan has always been concerned about the security of their sea lanes of communication,” says Admiral Arun Prakash, former chief of the naval staff. “With China bearing down on them and the United States ambivalent, their best bet on the maritime front at least is to team up with India.”

In April 2014, the Abe government allowed its industries to export arms. It triggered off optimism in New Delhi, which looked to Japan not only for defence hardware but also high technology inputs into stalled programmes like an indigenous fighter jet engine. “Japan had a lot of defence technologies and India, of course, has great use for these technologies because we are attempting to have local manufacturing,” Jaitley said during a visit to Tokyo in May this year. That optimism hasn’t been backed by any sales of military hardware, technology or joint ventures. A 2013 offer from Japan to sell a dozen US-2I amphibious aircraft for the Indian navy has figured in joint statements. But defence ministry officials are believed to have raised objections over price-$2.8 billion or Rs 16,800 crore-and the limited indigenous options under Make in India.

Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which makes the Soryu-class submarines, was one of six global firms the Indian navy sought proposals from to build a new line of Project 75I diesel-electric submarines. The nearly $8.3 billion project will be executed by an Indian private sector shipyard under the defence ministry’s strategic partnerships programme. Mitsubishi has not tied up with any Indian defence firm, one of the prerequisites for strategic partnerships, so it’s unclear if they would be in the reckoning for the contract. Only a government-to-government deal bypassing India’s lengthy defence acquisition norms could ensure India buys any defence hardware from Japan.

PM Abe’s visit signals a sense of urgency to the security relationship because of domestic and external factors, says Rupakjyoti Borah, visiting fellow at the National University of Singapore. “Both Modi and Abe face elections in 2018 and 2019 respectively. Externally, they face a deteriorating security environment,” says Borah. Another set of two-front challenges that would hopefully propel them to take the security relationship forward.

By: India Story

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