Here's an analysis of mine on Prime Minister Abe's visit to India as the Guest of Honour at this year's Republic Day function on January 26, 2014. Japan has been clearly the flavour of the season as far as India is concerned. Japanese defence minister Itsunori Onodera was in New Delhi few weeks before that for consultations with his counterpart on how to strengthen and coordinate relations between the two sides in the security arena. In one of their rare visits, the Japanese Emperor and Empress were in Delhi in December.
With both India and Japan acknowledging the need to strengthen bilateral defence and security ties, a major chunk of the attention is likely to be on maritime security and anti-piracy efforts. While these are by no means unimportant facets of bilateral cooperation, more significant will be the role of India and Japan in shaping the Asian strategic order. Both the countries have a common and shared perspective on the Asian framework, even as it is an emerging one.
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Having said that, Defence Minister Onodera's visit focused on some of the tactical and policy issues for enhancing the level and pace of India-Japan bilateral cooperation. Cooperation between the two navies has been an on-going affair, but what has been low on the radar until now have been the links between the air forces of the two sides. This was given some emphasis during the recent visit with the two sides agreeing to encourage more staff exchanges and coordinate the possibility of staff talks between the Indian Air Force and the Japan Air Self Defence Forces as well as exchanges of test-pilots, professional exchanges in the field of flight safety and between two transport squadrons of the two air forces. Also agreed upon was promotion of exchanges on UN Peace Keeping operations between various Japanese agencies (such as the Japan Peacekeeping Training and Research Centre, Joint Staff College (JPC), Central Readiness Force of Japan Ground Self Defence Forces and the Indian Army's Centre for UN Peacekeeping (CUNPK), and expert-level engagements on humanitarian assistance, disaster relief and counter-terrorism between Indian Army and Japan Ground Self Defence Force. On the naval front, there were agreements on joint exercises between the Indian Navy and the Japan Maritime Self Defence Forces on a regular basis (with the Indian Navy to visit Japan this year). Some of the other aspects that were decided during Onodera's visit included visit to Japan by India's defence minister later this year and a decision to undertake high-level visits on an annual basis, conducting of the third 2+2 dialogue and the fourth Defence Policy Dialogue (Defence Secretary level).
While a rising China factor is undoubtedly an important consideration for both India and Japan as they strengthen their cooperation, the two have been careful not to invite Chinese wrath and thus have not made a mention of China in any of their statements. However, as mentioned above, there are any number of areas including freedom of navigation, anti-piracy, uninterrupted commerce, safe energy corridors and an inclusive Asian strategic framework that are becoming important to both India and Japan.
One of the key areas of potential cooperation is an arms trade relationship between the two sides. Japan's lifting of a historic ban on export of arms under the policy guidelines issued in December 2011 has provided abundant opportunities for India and Japan to strengthen defence cooperation. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's decision is something that came about with a lot of prodding from Japanese industry, which have been keen on getting its share of the growing defence market pie. Given that Japan is a sophisticated naval power in the region with advanced technologies and weapon systems, the reversal of the ban will make it free to enter into agreements for joint production and co-development of systems with their select partners. Obviously, the decision has had its share of domestic criticism in Japan, with many viewing it as Tokyo potentially moving away from its post second world war pacifist posture.
As for India, even prior to the decision by Prime Minister Noda on lifting the ban, there was a Japanese proposal to sell New Delhi a multi-role amphibious aircraft, the US2, suitable for SAR (Search and Rescue) operations. The aircraft is significant for both the Indian Navy and the Coast Guard to undertake humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations in addition to more important search and rescue missions. A Joint Working Group (JWG) was put in place in May last year to work out the modalities of cooperation and the possible induction by the Indian Navy. The JWG is also studying the possibility of joint production, operation and training on the US-2i aircraft. Despite the Japanese inclination and the Indian interest, the deal has not been signed yet. Discussions on this were expected to be stepped up, with hopes that a deal would be announced during Prime Minister Abe's visit, but this now seems unlikely. Sources now suggest that the second meeting of the JWG will take place in Japan this year and no decision is likely beforehand.
Meanwhile, there are other systems and platforms on the offer list, including electronic warfare equipment and patrol vessels among others. Given India's general aversion to buying defence items off the shelf, Japan has gone the extra mile offering India the option of establishing joint ventures with Indian partners, both in the public and private sector. However, the Indian reaction so far has been subdued.
India has to get much more long-term and strategic in its defence diplomacy. While Tokyo made its intentions clear and official, New Delhi's reaction has been less than forthcoming. On the US-2, India responded to Japan's offer to supply the aircraft by asking the Japanese company to follow the usual route of tenders. Accordingly, in response to the Indian Navy's Request for Information (RFI), there are three companies in the fray - Japan's ShinMaywa, Canada's Bombardier and Russia's Beriev. While open tendering and transparent processes are to be encouraged, this is not how strategic ties are built. Japan's offer of the US-2 was a strategic message that India missed, just as it did earlier with the MMRCA decision.
Even as the alliance relationship with the US is key to Japan, Tokyo has understood and acknowledged the need to strengthen relations with India and other like-minded democracies. The idea of an 'arc of democracies' has been a pet theme of Prime Minister Abe. The quadrilateral initiative among India, Japan, Australia and the US was also an initiative to forge closer security ties among these countries. A diamond initiative was talked about by Abe during his campaign days last year.
What do all these mean for India-Japan relations and the larger Asian strategic framework? Japan's interest in defence trade with India is not entirely driven by commercial angles. While commercial factors are an incentive, a closer strategic partnership with Asian neighbours has become an important priority for Japan. In addition to the general concerns over the rise of China, Tokyo also has unresolved border and territorial issues with China. In the current context, the simultaneous rise of three powers - India, Japan and China - is a perfect design for conflict and rivalry. It does not help that China has had prior disputes with both Japan and India.
Both Tokyo and New Delhi want to create a stabler Asian order by redefining partnerships in the region. Can India and Japan take the lead in this regard and form a concert of nations that would bring about balance of power in the Asia-Pacific? The role of small and medium powers such as Taiwan, Vietnam, Philippines, and South Korea is significant. India and Japan have to be able to offer stable options to an aggressive China.