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India-Japan imbroglio: the missing link

When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was the guest of honor on the Republic Day last month in New Delhi, India has clearly and carefully chosen Japan to form an active strategic partner. It might sound a bit passé these days to refer to such diplomatic jargon as something extraordinary. However, for India, the rising global power, this is a respectable gesture given to the world's third economic power which also shares so many liberal values of democracy, freedom and rule of law.

One frequently asked question is: Can India and Japan form their own pivots that would provide security and stability for the Indo-Pacific region? To answer this question, one has to return to the big airplane metaphor advanced by former prime minister of Singapore, Goh Chok Tong, back in 2003 when the region was relatively peaceful with major Asian economies - China, Japan, South Korea - working together to build up East Asian community and its economic dynamic. There was no serious threat environment.

Goh likened Asean as the airplane's fuselage being lift by two powerful wings - China and India. As such, Asean's economic well beings would hinge on these two countries comprising two huge markets and workforces. Asean was also confidence that as the in-between region linking East Asia and South Asia, it would be able to synergize both regions. Now with Japan joining India on the same wing. Can Asean keep the balance?

At the time, nobody would think that the tension in East Asia would reach such an intractable stage as we are witnessing today, indicating the region's increased volatility as key contesting powers becoming more assertive by the days. At this juncture, relations among the three Asian dialogue partners are not as accommodating as before. For instance, China and South Korea are not on talking terms with Japan because of their historical legacies and overlapping territorial claims. The future of East Asian Century is now in jeopardy.

Fears are wide spreading that the bold version of East Asia could be broken down to smithereens as the three Asian economic giants are not working in tandem any more. If the enmity does not change in the foreseeable future, it will impact on the region's economic well-beings.

During his second trip to India as prime minister, Abe succeeded in adding India into its new strategies in promoting peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region. The substantive agreements, especially on security cooperation, showed the Japan-India ties are moving to a new level. India is no longer the benign power it once was with more forwarding looking and willingness to commit to the regional security in the near and longer terms. By themselves, Japan and India would not be able to accomplish much, their cooperation need to be part and parcel of Asean-led regional architectures. They both need fresh thinking to build trust and cooperation with Asean including matching resource and strategy.

Japan and India are key dialogue partners of Asean and their relations follow more and less similar patterns and emphasizes. They share similar features such as trade and economic cooperation and only in recent months their ties have becoming more strategic and security-oriented. India, together with China, was the first two major powers to accede to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in 2003, while Japan's accession came three years later.

By adopting the regional code of conduct, India and Japan could have further strengthen its overall security cooperation with Asean as a whole in the past decade - something which China has excelled in doing. Both countries should have paid more attention to Asean-led regional institutions over the past decade. Instead, they go after individual Asean members.

Understandably, India has been cautious in approaching Asean. After a long period of animosity over the Cambodian conflict, India was admitted as a sectoral dialogue partner along with Pakistan in 1992. Four years later, it was upgraded to a full dialogue partner indicating the importance Asean placed on India and its potential. The summit last December to commemorate 20th Asean-India ties further deepened their strategic ties. As a blue navy nation, India also wants to work on maritime security with Asean. With expanded economy, India wants to a major player of Asean connectivity.

Like India, Japan prefers approaching individual Asean countries. Asean perceived Japan as a collaborator of the US global strategy essentially due to the US-Japan alliance that has served as the foundation of regional security and stability for the past six decades. Now Japan is more proactive in response to shifts of global power politics. Tokyo seeks to craft out more specific strategies to bolstering its national defense relying more on regional players such as India, Asean and Australia, instead of depending solely on the US. This approach is still a work in progress

Of late, Asean has detected positive changes in the two countries' trade negotiations - more engagements and flexibilities - as seen in the third round of Regional Comprehensive Economic Cooperation in Kuala Lumpur last month. More integrated regional economy is crucial to the ongoing efforts of building new regional architectures. This new trend will impact on the strategic landscape in the Indo-Pacific which Asean remains the core.


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