Last week, the fourth symposium of the government of Japan and the Confederation of Indian Industry-sponsored “Japan-India Strategic Partnership in the era of Asian Regional Integration” took place in New Delhi.
The title of the symposium would make it seem as one of those boring events which are all too common in the month of March. The subtext that ran through the discussions was the emerging, or to be more precise, the desired, trilateral relationship with the United States, Japan and India.
Make no mistake, this is serious stuff, if only because Japan is deadly serious about it.
Twenty years ago, when I first visited Japan, the entire focus of Japanese security policy was the Soviet Union; five years later during another visit, the focus became somewhat diffused. But early last year, when I visited Boeicho, the Japan Defence Agency, the potential adversary was clearer—China. Since Beijing is a major economic partner, and Japan cannot contemplate becoming a nuclear weapons power, the concerns are not expressed in an adversarial fashion. So the real meat in the symposium was the discussion on security issues.
Japanese scholar Yoshihide Soeya bluntly put forward the new Japanese perspective: “The need to simultaneously engage China, and hedge against its rise.” What we are witnessing in relation to Japan and India is a bit of that hedging process through which Japanese foreign institutional investment and foreign direct investment have been flowing into India, and Japanese official interest has increased exponentially. This has been accompanied by an emphasis on the need for countries that share values like “freedom and democracy” to cooperate. The Japanese economic revival has been accompanied by a political assertiveness in its participation in regional economic groupings—the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean), Asean+3, Asean+3+3, and the East Asia Summit.
Indian-American scholar Ashley Tellis, who also spoke at the symposium, put forward the American view that a trilateral India-Japan-US linkage would be a major factor in stabilizing the region. In addition it would provide the three a means of not only furthering their economic interests, but also protecting themselves against the threats of the day—terrorism, weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and insecure sea lanes of communications. He saw this trilateral as a prototype of new arrangements which could help evolve a larger security architecture for Asia. He was clear, however, that this trilateral grouping was “not a device to containChina” though he conceded that its presence could help shape the emerging Chinese world view. Neither did he see it as a substitute for existing alliances such as that between the US and Japan.
The chairman of the National Security Council’s advisory board, M.K. Rasgotra, made it clear that India was unlikely to participate in any alliance system anyway, though he did stress the importance of the US role in Asia. Rasgotra, a former foreign secretary, emphasized the need for political, economic and military “equilibrium in Asia”. A balance of power by any other name, to paraphrase the bard, “would smell as sweet”.
The issue really is whether or not New Delhi is willing to be part of the security architecture that is being mooted—one that links it to Tokyo and Washington. India and Japan have had a Track II strategic dialogue going on for a while, and later this month this will get an official boost when it becomes a foreign minister-led process. At this stage, as Yoshihide points out, New Delhi cannot avoid asking the hard questions about the nature of the US-Japan alliance and what role it sees for itself in their world view.
In mid-April, the Indian and Japanese navies will join the US in naval exercises scheduled to be held near the major US naval base at Yokosuka. But these are being describedas routine by Indian officials. But they do contain some straws in the wind.
The Japan-US-India “alliance” is seen as a concert of like-minded states which swear by democracy, secular valuesand the free market economy. The churning process we are witnessing in Asia is not only occasioned by the rise of China, but the slow and steady political reassertion of Japan, catalyzed by the North Korean nuclear test and Beijing’s political hostility. The other powers—Russia or the US—are adjusting to these developments. India’s rise remains, in Rasgotra’s words, somewhat “half-hearted”, but time and tide, to paraphrase another old saying, do not wait either man, or nations.