China's Rise Leads India and Japan to Wary Embrace

By Harsh Pant

Weeks after Japanese Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko were in India for one of their rare overseas visits, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe joined India's 65th Republic Day celebrations to commemorate the Indian constitution that came into force in 1950. Together these visits not only underscore the growing centrality of India in Japanese foreign policy but also demonstrate subtle shifts in the Asian strategic landscape. This is a time when Beijing's aggressive posturing on territorial issues is creating regional demand for greater strategic equilibrium. While China's disputes with its neighbors in the East and South China seas have garnered increasing global attention, China has also been busy been challenging India along land borders and in the waters of the Indian Ocean.

Tensions between Beijing and Tokyo over disputed islands in the East China Sea reflect growing major power rivalry in Asia. Indian foreign policy is gearing up to manage this major power dynamic in Asia, making the region central to its strategic calculus. In the name of non-alignment, India for far too long tried to avoid US allies in East Asia. But the changing geopolitical realities are now forcing Delhi to acknowledge significant convergence between its own regional interests and that of longstanding US allies such as Japan and South Korea.

Days before Abe's visit, South Korean President Park Geun-hye was in India on a state visit, providing opportunity to New Delhi and Seoul to impart new dynamism to their bilateral relations and underscoring the success of India's Look East Policy. Signaling intent to take India-South Korea ties to new heights, the Indian environment ministry approved a proposed 12 million-tons-per-year steel plant in Odisha by South Korea's POSCO just before the visit - a proposal that had been stuck for more than eight years due to delays on various clearances and land acquisition. The first phase of the plant is likely to be commissioned in 2018. Nine pacts were signed during the visit including the Agreement on the Protection of Classified Military Information, revision of the existing Double Taxation Avoidance Convention, an agreement on annual interactions between the two national security structures, launch of a Cyber Affairs Dialogue, collaboration in peaceful uses of space technology, and a tourist-visa-on-arrival facility in India for South Korean nationals.

But the Indo-Japanese bonhomie is drawing more widespread interest. Rising tensions between Japan and China are shaking the foundations of Asian geopolitics as Abe has gone ahead with a single-minded determination to restore Japanese pre-eminence in the Asian security order. Faced with a growing Chinese challenge and Tokyo's increasing marginalization, he has increased the defense budget, reshaped national security structures and processes, reformulated Japan's national security strategy, and undertaken vigorous diplomatic initiatives to strengthen old alliances and reach out to new partners. Abe's commitment to building a robust partnership with India remains unmatched.

In a veiled criticism of China's recent moves regarding its territorial disputes with Japan and declaration of an Air Defence Identification Zone, or ADIZ, the joint statement issued at the end of Abe's visit "underscored the importance of freedom of over-flight and civil aviation safety in accordance with the recognized principles of international law and the relevant standards and recommended practices of the international civil aviation organization." The two nations reiterated their commitment "to the freedom of navigation, unimpeded commerce and peaceful settlement of disputes based on the principles of international law." Both are conducting annual naval exercises, and India has invited Japan to participate in the Malabar exercise later this year with the United States. The coastguards of the two nations also staged joint maneuvers in the Arabian Sea in January, and the air forces of the two nations will also collaborate. In a significant move, Japan has offered to sell its US-2 amphibious aircraft to India - which if approved would be the first military sale by Japan since World War II. The two nations have decided to conduct regular dialogues between the Japanese and Indian national security councils.

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Harsh V. Pant teaches at King's College, London. © 2014 The Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale

(AP Photo)

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