Japan, India sign landmark security agreement on October 22, 2008

Toward Asian power equilibrium

Brahma Chellaney
The Hindu newspaper, November 1, 2008 

Last week’s Indo-Japanese security accord is momentous, with Tokyo and New Delhi having concluded such an agreement with only one other country each Australia and the U.S., respectively. Its significance actually parallels the 2005 Indo-U.S. defence framework accord. But while the latter seeks to mould India into America’s junior partner, the former is between equals to help contribute to Asian power stability.

The India-Japan security agreement signed last week marks a significant milestone in building Asian power equilibrium. A constellation of Asian states linked by strategic cooperation and sharing common interests is becoming critical to instituting power stability at a time when major shifts in economic and political power are accentuating Asia’s security challenges.

What Tokyo and New Delhi have signed is a framework agreement, to be followed up with “an action plan with specific measures to advance security cooperation” in particular areas, ranging from sea-lane safety and defence collaboration to disaster management and counterterrorism. How momentous this accord is can be seen from the fact that Japan has such a security agreement with only one other country — Australia.

Tokyo, of course, has been tied to the United States militarily since 1951 through a treaty that was designed to meet American demands that U.S. troops remain stationed in Japan even after the end of the American occupation of Japan. Today, that treaty — revised in 1960 — is the linchpin of the American forward-military deployment strategy in the Asian theatre.

The Indo-Japanese security agreement, signed during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit, is actually modelled on the March 2007 Japan-Australia defence accord. Both are in the form of a joint declaration on security cooperation. And both, while recognising a common commitment to democracy, freedom, human rights and the rule of law, obligate the two sides to work together to build not just bilateral defence cooperation but also security in the Asia-Pacific.

But unlike distant Australia with its relatively benign security environment, India and Japan are China’s next-door neighbours and worry that Beijing’s accumulating power could fashion a Sino-centric Asia. Canberra, quite the opposite, wishes to balance its relations with Tokyo and Beijing, and loves to cite the new reality that, for the first time, Australia’s largest trading partner (China) is no longer the same as its main security anchor (the U.S.).

But there is nothing unique about this situation. It is a testament to Beijing’s rising global economic clout that China is also Japan’s largest trade partner now and is poised to similarly become India’s in a couple of years. On the other hand, two of India’s most-important bilateral relationships — with Russia and Japan — suffer from hideously low trade volumes.

Trade in today’s market-driven world is not constrained by political differences — unless political barriers have been erected, as the U.S. has done against Cuba and Burma, for example. In fact, as world history testifies, booming trade is not a guarantee of moderation and restraint between states. The new global fault lines show that that it was a mistake to believe that greater economic interdependence by itself would improve international geopolitics. Better politics is as important as better economics.

Canberra has consciously sought to downplay its defence accord with Tokyo to the extent that, nearly a year after Prime Minister Kevin Rudd took office, a visitor seeking to access the text of that agreement on the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) website is greeted by this message: “Sorry, the page you asked for has been temporarily removed from the site — Following the recent Australian federal election, the content of this page is under review until further notice.” Indeed, Mr. Rudd’s Labour Party, while in opposition ranks, had openly cast doubt on the diplomatic utility of that agreement.

In that light, it is no surprise that beyond their similarly structured format, including the mirrored requirement for a follow-up action plan, the Japanese-Australian and Indo-Japanese agreements carry different strategic import. The one between Tokyo and New Delhi is plainly designed to contribute to building Asian power equilibrium. The Indo-Japanese partnership, as the two Prime Ministers said in their separate joint statement, forms an “essential pillar for the future architecture” of security in the Asia-Pacific.

By contrast, the Australian-Japanese agreement carries little potential to become an abiding element of a future Asian-Pacific security architecture, given the two parties’ contrasting strategic motivations and Canberra’s attempts from the outset to package it as a functional arrangement devoid of geopolitical aims. Tellingly, the push for that accord had come from the then Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the architect of the Quadrilateral Initiative. And it was Mr. Rudd who this year pulled the plug on that initiative, founded on the concept of democratic peace.

The significance of the Indo-Japanese agreement truly parallels the 2005 Indo-U.S. defence framework accord, which signalled a major transformation of the once-estranged relationship between the world’s most populous and most powerful democracies. Both those agreements focus on counterterrorism, disaster response, safety of sea-lanes of communications, non-proliferation, bilateral and multilateral military exercises, peace operations, and defence dialogue and cooperation. But the former has not only been signed at a higher level — prime ministerial — but also comes with a key element: “policy coordination on regional affairs in the Asia-Pacific region and on long-term strategic and global issues.”

This is an agreement between equals on enhancing mutual security. By contrast, the U.S.-India defence agreement, with its emphasis on U.S. arms sales, force interoperability and intelligence sharing, aims to build India as a new junior partner (or spoke) in a web of interlocking bilateral arrangements meshing with America’s hub-and-spoke alliance system, designed to undergird U.S. interests.

It is, however, doubtful that the U.S., despite the defence accord and the subsequent nuclear deal, would succeed in roping in India as a new ally in a patron-client framework. In a fast-changing world characterised by a qualitative reordering of power — with even Tokyo and Berlin seeking to discreetly reclaim their foreign policy autonomy — U.S. policymakers are unlikely to be able to mould India into a new Japan or Germany to America, notwithstanding the help from Indian neocons.

In keeping with its long-standing preference for strategic independence, India is likely to retain the option to forge different partnerships with varied players to pursue a variety of interests in diverse settings. That means that from being nonaligned, India is likely to become multialigned. The security agreement with Japan — still the world’s second largest economic powerhouse after the U.S. — jibes well with India’s desire to pursue omnidirectional cooperation for mutual benefit with key players.

Japan and India indeed are natural allies, with no negative historical legacy and no conflict of strategic interest. Rather, they share common goals to build stability and institutionalised cooperation in Asia and to make the 20th century international institutions and rules more suitable for the 21st century world. They are establishing a “strategic and global partnership” that is driven, as their new agreement states, “by converging long-term political, economic and strategic interests, aspirations and concerns.”

Such is the fast-developing nature of this relationship that the two, besides holding a yearly summit meeting, have instituted multiple strategic dialogues involving their Foreign and Defence Ministers and national security advisers, as well as “service-to-service exchanges including bilateral and multilateral exercises.” After all, the balance of power in Asia will be determined by events as much in the Indian Ocean rim as in East Asia. The Indian and Japanese space agencies are also to cooperate as part of capacity-building efforts in disaster management.

It will be simplistic to see such cooperation one-dimensionally, as aimed at countervailing China’s growing might. Beijing itself is pursuing a range of bilateral and multilateral initiatives in Asia to underpin its strategic objectives and help shape Asian security trends — from weapon sales to countries stretching from Iran to Indonesia and port building projects in the Indian Ocean rim, to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and north-south strategic corridors through Pakistan and Burma.

Given China’s territorial size, population (a fifth of the human race) and economic dynamism, few can question or grudge its right to be a world power. In fact, such is its sense of where it wishes to go that China cannot be dissuaded from the notion that it is destined to emerge, in the words of the then President Jiang Zemin, as “a world power second to none.”

Against that background, why begrudge the efforts of Asia’s two largest and most established democracies to work together to avert an Asian power disequilibrium? Never before in history have China, India and Japan been all strong at the same time. Today, they need to find ways to reconcile their interests in Asia so that they can peacefully coexist and prosper. But there can be no denying that these three leading Asian powers and the U.S. have different playbooks: the U.S. wants a unipolar world but a multipolar Asia; China seeks a multipolar world but a unipolar Asia; and India and Japan desire a multipolar Asia and multipolar world.

(Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, is the author, most recently, of Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.)

© Copyright 2000 – 2008 The Hindu

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