Stanly Johny

A scribe by sheer accident, Stanly Johny is a PhD in international relations from JNU, and keeps an eye wide open for politics, and the other for almost everything else under the sun.

Stanly Johny

The trilateral puzzle

STANLY JOHNY | Updated on February 07, 2014

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh welcomes Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe during the Republic Day parade in the Capital — Ramesh Sharma

Is joining issue with Japan in its territorial disputes with China, which is India’s bigger neighbour, a wise strategic move for New Delhi?

As expected, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s India visit late last month was a reassertion of the bonhomie between the two countries. Both Abe and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh held talks on a number crucial issues, including financial cooperation, economic development and nuclear energy. While the Japanese leader announced a loan of 200 billion yen ($2 billion) for infrastructure projects in India, Singh described Japan as the “heart” of India’s look-east policy.

However, the most important message both leaders sent to the outside world was perhaps India was ready to back Japan in its territorial disputes with China. The joint statement issued on Saturday said the “two prime ministers underscored the importance of freedom of overflight and civil aviation safety in accordance with the recognised principles of international law…” In plain language it doesn’t offer any clue. A look at the recent tensions between Japan and China would put it in perspective.

Both nations claim the islands in East China Sea known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China. Tensions rose to a new high in November last year, when China declared a new air-defence identification zone, demanding that all aircraft flying in the region obey its rules. Japan reacted by framing a national security doctrine which signalled a deviation from its post-war pacifist security approach. Moreover, Abe raised many eyebrows last week in Davos, Switzerland, when he compared relations between China and Japan today with those between Britain and Germany before World War I.

Japan’s strategy to counter the rising Chinese influence in the region is to form a broader united front against China. And it expects India to play a crucial role in this front. America, which is now “pivoting” its focus to Asia from West Asia, is backing this plan. The recent strengthening of military cooperation between India and Japan should be seen in this context. Both nations conducted their first bilateral naval exercise in the waters off Chennai in December. Earlier this month, the two countries' coast guards staged joint drills in the Arabian Sea.

To be sure, India has its own set of problems with China, but it was so far treading cautiously in its engagement with the giant neighbour. Though the China-Japan tensions were rising in the recent past, India had not taken any public position one the matter, which gave it enough room for diplomatic manoeuvring with both countries. India could have pitched for higher economic cooperation, even stronger defence ties, with Japan without joining issue with it in its territorial disputes with another country. But that caution seems to be missing in the joint statement.

Published on February 07, 2014

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