CHELLANEY: Asia’s natural allies

India and Japan build bonds to undergird mutual stability

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At a time when the specter of a power imbalance looms large in Asia, the just-concluded visit of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda of Japan to India cemented a fast-growing relationship between two natural allies. The path has been opened to adding concrete strategic content to their ties, including by building close naval collaboration.

The balance of power in Asia will be determined by events principally in two regions: East Asia and the Indian Ocean. Japan and India thus have an important role to play to advance peace and stability and help safeguard vital sea lanes in the wider Indo-Pacific region, marked by the confluence of the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

Asia’s booming economies are bound by sea, and maritime democracies such as Japan and India must work together to help build a stable, liberal, rules-based order in Asia. As Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told the East Asia Summit meeting in Bali in November, Asia’s continued rise is not automatically assured but “dependent on the evolution of a cooperative architecture.”

Just as 97 percent of India’s international trade by volume is conducted by sea, almost all of Japan’s international trade is ocean-borne. As energy-poor countries heavily dependent on oil imports from the Persian Gulf region, the two are seriously concerned by mercantilist efforts to assert control over energy supplies and transport routes.

The maintenance of a peaceful and lawful maritime domain, including unimpeded freedom of navigation, is thus critical to their security and economic well-being.

In this light, Japan and India have already agreed to start holding joint naval exercises during the new year. This is just one sign that they now wish to graduate from emphasizing shared values to seeking to protect shared interests jointly.

Today, the fastest-growing bilateral relation-ship in Asia is between India and Japan. Since they unveiled a “strategic and global partnership” in 2006, their political and economic engagement has deepened remarkably.

Their growing congruence of strategic inter-ests led to the 2008 Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation, a significant milestone in building Asian power stability. A constellation of Asian states linked by strategic cooperation and sharing common interests has become critical to ensuring equilibrium at a time when the ongoing power shifts are accentuating Asia’s security challenges.

The joint declaration was modeled on Japan’s 2007 defense-cooperation accord with Australia  the only country with which Tokyo has a security-cooperation declaration. Japan, of course, is tied to the United States militarily since 1951 by a treaty. The India-Japan security agreement, in turn, spawned a similar India-Australian accord in 2009.

A free-trade accord between Japan and India entered into force just five months ago. By covering more than 90 percent of the trade as well as a wide range of services, rules of origin, investment, intellectual property rights, customs rules and other related issues, the agreement promises to significantly boost bilateral trade, which remains small in comparison with Japan’s and India’s trade with China. India is already beginning to emerge as a favored destination in Asia for Japanese foreign direct investment.

In response to China’s use of its monopoly on rare earths production to punitively cut off such exports to Japan during the fall of 2010, Japan and India have agreed to the joint development of rare earths, which are vital for a wide range of green energy technologies and military applications. Deng Xiaoping remarked in 1992 that while “the Middle East has oil, China has rare earth minerals,” implying that Beijing could leverage international supply of rare earths the way the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries has sought to do so with oil.

Today, the level and frequency of India-Japan official engagement is extraordinary. Mr. Noda’s New Delhi visit was part of a bilateral commit-ment to hold an annual summit meeting of the prime ministers.

More importantly, Japan and India now have a series of annual minister-to-minister dialogues: a strategic dialogue between their foreign ministers; a defense dialogue between their defense ministers; a policy dialogue between India’s commerce and industry minister and Japan’s minister of economy, trade and industry; and separate ministerial-level energy and economic dialogues.

Supporting these high-level discussions is another set of talks, including a two-plus-two dialogue led jointly by India’s foreign and defense secretaries and their Japanese vice-ministerial counterparts, a maritime security dialogue, a comprehensive security dialogue, and military-to-military talks involving regular exchange visits of the chiefs of staff.

To top it off, Japan, India and the United States have initiated a trilateral strategic dialogue, whose first meeting was held in Washington on Dec. 19. Getting the U.S. on board can only bolster the convergences of all three partners and boost India-Japan cooperation.

Bilaterally, Japan and India need to strengthen their still-fledgling strategic cooperation by embracing two ideas, both of which demand a subtle shift in Japanese thinking and policy.

One is to build interoperability between their naval forces. These forces  along with other friendly navies  can undergird peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region. As former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe put it in a recent speech in New Delhi, the aim should be that “sooner rather than later, Japan’s navy and the Indian navy are seamlessly interconnected.” Presently, Japan has naval interoperability only with U.S. forces.

Another idea is for the two countries to co-develop defense systems. India and Japan have missile-defense cooperation with Israel and the United States. There is no reason why they should not work together on missile defense and on other technologies for mutual security. Their defense cooperation must be comprehensive and not be limited to strategic dialogue, maritime cooperation and occasional naval exercises.

There is no ban on weapon exports in Japan’s U.S.-imposed constitution, only a long-standing Cabinet decision, which in any event has just been relaxed. That decision, in fact, related to weapons, not technologies.

Japan and India should remember that the most stable economic partnerships in the world, including the Atlantic community and the Japan-U.S. partnership, have been built on the bedrock of security collaboration. Economic ties that lack the support of strategic partnerships tend to be less stable and even volatile, as is apparent from Japan’s and India’s economic relationships with China.

Through close strategic collaboration, Japan and India must lead the effort to build freedom, prosperity and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.

Brahma Chellaney is professor at the independent Center for Policy Research in New Delhi and the author of “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India, and Japan” (HarperCollins, 2010).

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