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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While parsing the Japanese media and official pronouncements, it would be good to bear in mind the concepts of Tatemae and Honne … that is, the distinction between facade and true feelings. While Japanese officials, diplomats and media may constantly call for India to disarm, that is their Tatemae; a continuation of policy so as not to relinquish the heavy stick of morality, which Japan uses wisely to protect and keep alive its stance against nuclear proliferation, as it is the only actual victim of nuclear attack to date. Its Honne position, the policy it actually would rather follow would be to go nuclear itself, to counter what it believes to be very real threats from China and North Korea. But it does not do so because it would inconvenience many cherished Tatemaes … viz. the Self-Defence force and the pacific image of Japan internationally post WWII. But Japan knows, that the inherent tension between the Tatemaes and the Honnes, will cause it to replace old Tatemaes with new Tatemaes … hence a few Honnes or realistic policy changes will have to be made. And vis a vis China it is doing so, by entering into a new security arrangement with India. It is calling it a co-operation … another Tatemae, when in actuality it is a tacit approval of India’s nuclear and geo-strategic positions. It is also a bait to switch India’s ambivalence to concrete participation in the Arc of Democracies. Like everything, the Japanese like to play diplomacy too … gradually, while savoring each moment with a sip of sake. It is like a game of Go with China.

Posted by ravi kumar | Report as abusive

Though Japan makes this big noise about strategic ties with India, its actions doesn’t speak that well. Look at Japan’s trade with India and their slow approach in promoting investments in India compared to China. It’s half hearted approach should change. Japanese mindset should change. It was a great disaster and painful that Japan had to be a only Nuclar victim for historical reasons, they can not keep living in the same old world now. The have to come out and be a part of the current world order by supporting India’s civil nuclear initiative. World understands that it is a very sensitive issue for Japanese but they can not keep harping on the same for ever. They should also respect India’s responsible attitue towards Niclear proliferation.

Posted by Suresh, CA, USA | Report as abusive

Its in Japan’s interest that they have a solid economic and strategic relationship with India. As they stand to gain together. India and Japan are two of the biggest democracies in Asia. Therefore, its natural that Japan build stronger partnership with India. Clearly a new world security architecture is developing and its up to Japan to recognise it and take early stance to strengthen it. It must recognise India’s peaceful and non-proliferation records. The old cold war dogmas have to be given way to the new realities. No relationship can be strong if its not backed up by a strong economic relationship. Japan invested billions of dollars in China but not much in India. The resultant strong dictators in China are threatening and dictating to Japan. Democracies always co-exist without going to war. Hence Japan should invest heavily in India thereby strengthening Japan’s Asian dominance.

Posted by Andrew | Report as abusive

USA is provider of security needs of both Japan as well as Australia. For economic survival, Japan is dependent upon Australian resources and USA markets, indirectly acting as a middle man with its technical prowess. Both Australia and Japan simply cannot be out of American leash. India can provide the needed Naval forces and geographical attributes whereby an effective deterrent could be maintained in order to gaurd shipping lines of trade. So, there are compelling reasons why India was admitted into the nuclear fold, signed pacts with the USA. I bet a similar arrangement would be signed with Australia soon.

What India should do is to bargain infrastructural needs as a trade of with an assurance of provision of naval forces on its part to this four way tie up. There in lies the way forward which would be mutually supportive. At the same time, China will have to be dealt with diplomatically all along. Quite possibly, China will continue to keep friendly with India if only because of its food import needs. There is no other way around it.

Kanwal Chopra

Posted by kanwal chopra | Report as abusive

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