India, Japan in security pact; a new architecture for Asia?

October 25, 2008

While much of the media attention during Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Japan this week was focused on a free trade deal the two sides failed to agree on, another pact that could have even greater consequences for the region was quietly pushed through.

This was a security cooperation agreement under which India and  Japan, once on opposite sides of the Cold War, will hold military exercises, police the Indian Ocean and conduct military-to-military exchanges on fighting terrorism.

It doesn’t sound very grand, but its significance lies in the fact that pacifist Japan has such a security pact with only two other countries – the United States and Australia.

And it comes in the same month that India and the United States closed a nuclear cooperation deal that won New Delhi a place on the world’s nuclear high table, ending three decades of isolation following its first nuclear tests in 1974.

And finally if you remember that India, the United States, Japan , Australia and Singapore held naval exercises last year off the Arabian Sea, you begin to see the outlines of a new security architecture  for Asia, which according to some has the containment of China written all over it.

Call it what you will – a league of democracies perhaps – but the idea of some of the most powerful navies in Asian seas exercising together points to a dramatic shift of  alliances, one that would have raised an eyebrow not just in Beijing and Islamabad, but other regional capitals such as Jakarta and Bangkok.

A  January 2008 report by the U.S. Congressional Research Service on the emerging security architecture in Asia involving India, the United States, Japan and Australia refers to the opportunities inherent in such a partnership but also to the limits of it as well as concern among those nations kept out of it. A PDF of the report is available here.

Singh and his Japanese counterpart Taro Aso were at pains to stress their security pact wasn’t aimed at anyone, least of all China. “We regard security cooperation with India as very important … and we do not have any assumption of a third country as a target such as China, Aso said.

Singh was even more direct, saying India’s security and economic cooperation with Japan would not be at the “cost of any third country, least of all China”.

Indeed, there is plenty that binds both countries to China. Trade between India and China, as Singh told his hosts, had grown in the past year by an amount greater than the whole trade with Japan.

And then Japan, the only country to have suffered a nuclear attack, hasn’t yet fully overcome its sense of outrage over the Indian nuclear tests in 1998, which triggered nuclear tests by Pakistan.

An India-Japan nuclear cooperation deal, along the lines agreed with the United States, seems some distance away, given lingering reservations in Japan. Tokyo, as the The Mainichi commented, must continue to urge New Delhi to fully renounce nuclear testing. 

So where does this all leave China and “all weather ally” Pakistan ?  Should they be worrying about this new concert of democracies on their doorstep or is it just one more element in a fast-changing world that is getting harder to predict?

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