Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s three-day visit to Japan to revitalise bilateral strategic ties gained huge attention in the Chinese media. In fact, the ruling Communist Party`s mouthpiece, the People`s Daily, went on to lash out at Japanese politicians by terming them as "petty burglars" on China-related issues. Undoubtedly, Japan wants to counterbalance China’s might, while China seeks a friendly neighbour. Beijing’s growing wariness over strategic ties between the two Asian economic powerhouses is understandable in the wake of Diaoyu Islands dispute and China-India border confrontation.
In an exclusive interview with Kamna Arora of Zeenews.com, Dr Shamshad A Khan, an expert on Japan, discusses Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s recent trip to Tokyo and China’s concerns over India-Japan ties.
Shamshad Ahmed Khan is Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
Kamna: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh`s recent Japan visit continues to rile China. Can it spell trouble for New Delhi apropos of its ties with Beijing?
Dr Khan: Some people in Beijing’s academic and media circles remain over-reactive to India’s ties with Japan. If you approach this issue from the perspective of `security dilemma`, it would seem a bit natural. Some people in New Delhi’s strategic circles also exaggerate the fact that India’s growing ties with Japan are aimed at balancing or containing China. But the fact is that India’s partnership with Japan predates `rise of China`.
India had signed a global partnership agreement with Japan in 2000 itself, when the `rise of China` had not gained traction in the strategic circles. This transformed into a “strategic partnership” in 2006, but it was economics that was dominating the bilateral agenda and it remains so if you monitor from a bird`s eye view the recently-signed joint statement between the two Prime Ministers. Their `security` relationship continues to remain in maritime domain and it was the hijacking of Alondra Rainbow - a Japanese flagship merchant vessel - by the pirates in 1999 and later rescue operation by the Indian Coast Guard that led to a sustained cooperation in maritime field between the two countries.
If you observe closely, Japan’s willingness to forge maritime security cooperation with India is aimed at safeguarding its “economic security” since it depends heavily on the Indian Ocean for its inbound and outbound trade. Therefore, till the relationship remains driven by economics, it is unlikely to spell trouble for Beijing.
Kamna: If I think about China’s concerns, may I ask how real is the strategic cooperation between India and Japan?
Dr Khan: If you read the statements issued by the Indian political leadership, barring a few (which were aimed at political massaging), these suggest that the real intention of India is not to contain China but to engage it. And if you study the Japanese defence policies, you will find that it still has self-imposed legal obstacles in exercising right of “collective self defence” or engaging with any other military power for its defence.
Till Japan continues to maintain this idealist principle, it will have only one option – that is, an internal balancing to keep China away from its maritime boundaries. That is why you see China more alarmed when Japan announces measures to amend the Constitution or to exercise its right to go for “collective self-defence”. In short, it can be said that till Japan eases its self-imposed restrictions in exercising collective self-defence and India changes its intentions, the partnership between the two countries is unlikely to pose any real or even hypothetical threat.
Kamna: How should New Delhi respond to China`s concerns over the close relations between India and Japan?
Dr Khan: India has maintained that it will not be used by one country against another. Very recently, during Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to New Delhi, both the countries made a commitment in their joint statement that India and China recognise each other as partners, not rivals. The Japanese side also believes that India is maintaining a fine balance in its ties with Tokyo and Beijing.
New Delhi should not get carried away by the statements made by the Chinese media which termed both the countries as “petty burglars” or viewed their efforts aimed at “encircling” China. Rather, it should see the more mature response by the Chinese Foreign Ministry which hoped that the neighbouring countries will develop normal state-to-state relations.
Kamna: Are India`s efforts to develop its ties with Japan a part of its "Look East" policy?
Dr Khan: India’s Look East Policy initially was to reinvigorate relationship with ASEAN countries, especially with countries with which it has historical and cultural ties. This policy was extended to South Korea and Japan. However, India’s ties with Japan have prospered in a faster pace as compared to ASEAN countries. It is mainly because summit-level interactions between the Prime Ministers of India and Japan have been institutionalised and both the Prime Ministers have been meeting alternatively in New Delhi and Tokyo almost annually. Both the countries have annual “2+2 dialogue” between the Foreign and Defence Ministries. Now they have announced that they will have an annual maritime dialogue. Naturally, when they sit with some agenda (because of these institutionalised dialogues on a regular basis) and take stock of unfinished tasks, things move faster. This kind of mechanism is lacking with the traditional Look East partners.
Kamna: Can the trade ties between India and Japan help reduce the duo’s dependence on China?
Dr Khan: India has signed Economic Partnership Agreement with Japan, as well as South Korea and Malaysia. The EPAs give them preferential treatment in terms of trade. As a result of these trade pacts, India has slashed the duties on imported items, including machinery products from these countries. With Japan, India has made a commitment to gradually bring down duties and has assured that it will give Japanese investors treatment at par with local investors. This will gradually lead to not only more flow of trade but also Japanese investments in India. As a result, volume of bilateral trade will surge.
The EPA with Japan has already started showing dividends. Trade volume, which was hovering around some USD 12 billion in 2011 before signing of EPA, has surged to USD 18 billion by the end of fiscal 2012. It is likely to grow further as duties on Japanese goods will be gradually reduced in near future.
India has not signed similar agreement with China and even if it plans to do so, it will take a decade to finalise it. By signing EPAs with countries other than China, it seems India is working with a strategy to provide a level-playing field to other economies so that they can compete with China in the Indian market. If the strategy materialises, India would be able to minimise its dependence on China. Much will depend on how other economies respond to the strategy and grab the opportunities provided by the Indian market.