India,Japan and the grand bargain

A security relationship cannot be a one-way street

Written by David Brewster | Published: June 4, 2013 3:01 am

A security relationship cannot be a one-way street

As India extends its strategic reach into East Asia and the Pacific,Japan will be one of its most important relationships. But building a meaningful partnership will require changes in the way both India and Japan do things.

Both India and Japan have high expectations of the relationship. During his visit to Tokyo last week,Prime Minister Manmohan Singh argued that Japan was a “natural and indispensable partner.” A few months ago,Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called for a strategy in which India,Japan,the United States and Australia formed a “diamond” to safeguard the maritime commons stretching from the Indian Ocean Region to the western Pacific.

These are grand words. But it will take work on both sides to give them substance. In building its relationship with India,Japan is making some major changes to its traditional strategic posture.

The first big leap is in Japan’s nuclear policy. Abe has given his strong support to renewed negotiations for an agreement on the sale of nuclear technology to India. He also gave Japan’s support for India to become a full member of international export control regimes,including the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Abe understands the symbolic and practical importance of a nuclear deal with India,especially after Australia lifted its ban on uranium exports to India in 2011.

Currently,Japan bans the supply of nuclear technology to India because it has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) or the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). In practice,this not only prevents Japanese companies from working in India but also makes it difficult for major US suppliers,such as Westinghouse and General Electric,which are owned by or in joint ventures with Japanese companies and rely upon Japanese technology. Access to this technology is therefore an important factor for the development of India’s nuclear power industry. Japanese nuclear suppliers also see it as a big commercial opportunity.

But the issue remains highly controversial in Japan and previous attempts to overturn the ban have been stymied by formidable bureaucratic and political opposition. Indeed,Abe has been forced to reiterate his desire for India to sign the CTBT,if not the NPT. But there is a good chance that after the elections in the Japanese Upper House in July,Abe may have the political strength to push through an agreement with India,although it may take some time to finalise. This would represent a major conceptual change in Japan’s nuclear non-proliferation posture and its reliance on international treaties. There could be wider implications than just making an exception for India.

Japan’s second big leap is the proposed sale of some 15 Japanese-designed US-2 amphibious planes,apparently to be used for maritime search and rescue. Although Japanese policy means that the planes will be sold under the fig leaf that they are for “civilian” use,the military significance of the deal is clear. It will be Japan’s first sale of complete military products since it eased its decades-long ban on military exports in 2011. Like its nuclear non-proliferation policy,the ban on military exports has been a key plank in Japan’s pacifist stance since the end of World War II. Breaking this taboo represents a big change in Japan’s pacifist policies,and potentially even a step towards Abe’s goal of amending Japan’s pacifist constitution.

But if India wants to be seen as an active and reliable security partner to Japan,it too will need to rethink some of its own longstanding policies and approaches. For one thing,Japan is deeply embedded in the US security sphere and that is not going to change any time soon. India will need to come to terms with all the consequences that flow from working with close US allies. This will require changes in the way it does things.

A partnership with Japan may also force New Delhi to re-examine its low-profile approach to security issues in northeast Asia. Tokyo is likely to expect greater Indian support on a range of issues,including its difficult relationships with China and North Korea. Despite improved relationships with Tokyo,India’s responses to North Korea’s provocations are still often muted. This reflects India’s traditions of non-alignment and possibly a view that northeast Asia falls beyond India’s strategic sphere. But Delhi may need to move beyond these limitations if it is to be seen as a credible strategic partner in the Pacific.

Despite many weaknesses in the relationship — especially on the economic front — the India-Japan relationship has developed remarkably over the last five years. Indeed,the potential exists for a “grand bargain” between India and Japan as major regional powers in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Mutual concerns about China are clearly a major factor. But for Delhi,it is not just about China. A close security relationship with a Japan,either embedded in the US security sphere or,as some in Delhi dream,loosened from it,would enhance India’s influence and potentially help in India’s objective of seeing the development of a multi-polar region. But a real partnership will also involve changes in the way India does things.

Brewster,author of ‘India as an Asia Pacific Power’ and ‘India’s Ocean: The Story of India’s Bid for Regional Leadership’,is with the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre,Canberra,Australia

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