The Bi-lateral Table
- The inclusive term ‘Indo-Pacific’ now found official endorsement by both Delhi and Tokyo.
- After years of reluctance on Tokyo’s part, there may be tangible movement in nuclear energy domain.
- Tokyo is grappling with a more recent challenge of Fukushima and the relevance of nuclear power for Japan.
- The maritime or naval focus is unambiguous and different trilaterals have been identified in the joint statement.
The joint statement released by India and Japan on December 12, during the visit of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to New Delhi, is a remarkable document and exudes a degree of strategic resolve by two of Asia’s most important yet reticent democracies. This kind of assertion in the security and geo-strategic domain is uncharacteristic of Tokyo and Delhi, and may be ascribed to the kind of personal political determination that the two principals – Mr Abe and Indian PM Narendra Modi bring to the bi-lateral table.
The first part of the document reveals a commendable degree of strategic clarity about the manner in which the two nations perceive themselves and the synergy that their bi-lateral relationship can generate.
Invoking their common Buddhist heritage and other cultural affinities, as also their political pedigree, the vision contour is bold and unambiguous. It notes: “India and Japan, two of the largest and oldest democracies in Asia having a high degree of congruence of political, economic and strategic interests, view each other as partners that have responsibility for and are capable of responding to global and regional challenges.” Wow !
‘Indo-Pacific’ Subsumes the Earlier Term ‘Asia-Pacific’
And very swiftly, the very next paragraph identifies the contour of this shared ‘responsibility.’ “ The two Prime Ministers reiterated their unwavering commitment to realise a peaceful, open, equitable, stable and rule-based order in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond. India and Japan uphold the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity; peaceful settlement of disputes; democracy, human rights and the rule of law; open global trade regime; and freedom of navigation and overflight. They pledged to work for peace, security and development of the Indo-Pacific region toward 2025 underpinned by these principles.”
The inclusive term ‘Indo-Pacific’ that some quarters in India have been advocating has now found official endorsement by both Delhi and Tokyo. It subsumes the earlier term Asia-Pacific that seemed to dwell only the Asian seaboard of the Pacific and the new phrase links the two oceans together – the Indian and the Pacific, thereby according it a natural maritime resonance. The geographic swathe is imposing and is the equivalent of the critical global maritime silk route linking the hydro-carbon rich Persian Gulf through the Indian Ocean to the Malacca strait and extending through the South China Sea all the way to the northern reaches of Japan.
India and Japan have in the past decade tentatively mooted the possibility of greater maritime cooperation, but this remained a stunted initiative given Tokyo’s reticence to assertively move forward and there was a near mirror image in Delhi. Domestic political compulsions were inhibiting and it took the resolve of the Abe-Modi combine to imbue the bi-lateral relationship with a definitive degree of strategic and security related content.
The long-pending nuclear engagement has also been identified and there is adequate indication to suggest that finally – after years of reluctance on Tokyo’s part, there may be tangible movement in this domain. The opening section of the joint statement notes, in a cautious manner, that both sides “also reached an agreement for cooperation in the peaceful use of nuclear energy, with the final deal to be signed after technical details are finalised.”
Japan’s Hiroshima-Nagasaki Cross
It is evident that there are some more wrinkles that need to be harmonised (one imagines the Indian nuclear liability legislation for instance), but the symbolism of this consensus to move ahead is potentially very significant. Japan has for long lived with its Hiroshima-Nagasaki cross, which is that of being the only nation to have been subjected to the nuclear holocaust punishment and the concomitant commitment to forsaking nuclear weapons and embracing nuclear disarmament on one hand; and yet the realpolitik compulsion on the other, that forced Tokyo to accept the protection of the US nuclear umbrella soon after Japan regained its modified political autonomy after World War II.
There is an instructive correspondence with the Indian position on the nuclear issue wherein Delhi, since the days of Mahatma Gandhi, has been a staunch advocate of global nuclear disarmament and the spirit of normative nuclear non-proliferation. Yet India has remained outside the discriminatory NPT regime and also found it necessary to reluctantly acquire this apocalyptic capability. Hence, squaring this circle has been an abiding challenge in the Delhi-Tokyo dialogue and it appears that some adroit resolution is on the horizon.
Tokyo is also grappling with a more recent challenge – that of Fukushima and the relevance of nuclear power for Japan. The energy option apart, the domestic Japanese nuclear industry has been on the defensive since the Fukushima disaster of March 2011 and India is a potentially lucrative market for the long term. The issue is complex and has many layers of policy relevance for both countries, but the core distillate is that the nuclear issue is too big and critical to be left suspended in a socio-political cul-de-sac. PM-s Abe and Modi have brought a commendable degree of clarity about the long term objectives for both nations and the institutional engagement will hopefully commence soon.
Maritime Focus is Unambiguous
The maritime or naval focus is unambiguous and different trilaterals have been identified wherein India and Japan will also engage with other nations. The joint statement makes explicit reference to; “Japan’s participation in the India-US Malabar Exercises on a regular basis, as it would help create stronger capabilities to deal with maritime challenges in the Indo-Pacific region.”
The strategic sub-text is unambiguous and the geo-political implications could be definitive – if implemented in a determined manner over the next decade. Asia will not remain uni-polar and Beijing will have to take cognizance of the new strategic resolve that Delhi and Tokyo have just outlined.
Can democracies dither and falter ? Of course, YES, but what if they prevail ?
(The writer is a leading expert on strategic affairs. He is currently Director, Society for Policy Studies.)