New Delhi: Japan and India moved to expand air force ties before Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visits New Delhi in a few weeks, bolstering relations two months after China declared an air-defence identification zone in a disputed area.

Japan’s defence minister Itsunori Onodera and his Indian counterpart A.K. Antony discussed starting talks between air force officials while reaffirming plans to conduct regular naval exercises, according to an Indian government statement on Monday. Asia’s second- and third-largest economies may also conduct pilot exchanges, it said.

“Both sides know that China stands between them and that they’d be smart to make sure they’re on the same page with each other now and in the future," said C. Uday Bhaskar, an analyst with the New Delhi-based National Maritime Foundation who spent 37 years in the Indian Navy. “They’re taking steps, small steps, but if there’s an inclusion of the air force now, then you’re seeing growth in this relationship."

Japan and India, which both have territorial disputes with China, are increasing ties as tensions escalate in Northeast Asia. China and South Korea rejected Abe’s call for talks on Monday after his visit to a war shrine last week drew an angry response from both countries.

Abe’s trip to India will be the first by a Japanese leader since 2011, when the countries agreed to boost security ties in the face of China’s growing assertiveness. Last month, Japanese Emperor Akihito visited India for the first time in five decades, and the nations’ navies conducted bilateral training exercises for the second time in as many years.

$50 billion

The countries last month also increased financial ties, with India approving an increase in the bilateral currency swap arrangement between the Reserve Bank of India and the Bank of Japan to $50 billion from $15 billion.

The ministers decided to strengthen India-Japan defense consultation and cooperation, including those related to maritime security, the government said in Monday’s statement. Indian naval vessels will visit Japan to conduct exercises this year, it said.

China in November unnerved its neighbours by declaring an air defense identification zone in the East China Sea that overlaps with Japan’s zone and includes uninhabited islands claimed by both nations. China’s move unjustly infringes on freedom of flight over the high seas, Abe told reporters on 14 December following a Tokyo summit with the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Abe’s 26 December visit to a shrine that honors wartime leaders—the first by a sitting prime minister since 2006—further exacerbated relations with Asia’s biggest economy. Abe’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine had closed the door to dialogue with China because he disregarded the opposition of the Chinese people, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in Beijing on Monday.

An April military standoff between China and India marked the most serious incident between the nuclear-armed neighbours in a quarter of a century on the Himalayan border where the world’s most-populous countries fought a brief war in 1962. Bloomberg