NEW DELHI -- At a time when China's economic, diplomatic and military rise casts the shadow of a power disequilibrium over Asia, the just-concluded visit of Japanese prime minister Yoshihiko Noda to India cemented a fast-growing relationship between two natural allies. Now the task for Japan and India is to add concrete strategic content to their ties.
Asia's emerging balance of power will be determined principally by events in East Asia and the Indian Ocean. Japan and India thus have an important role to play in preserving stability and helping to safeguard vital sea-lanes in the wider Indo-Pacific region -- a region defined not only by the confluence of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, but also by its significance for world trade and energy supplies.
Asia's booming economies are coastal, so maritime democracies like Japan and India must work together to help build a stable, liberal, rules-based order in Asia. As Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said at the East Asia Summit (EAS) meeting in Bali last month, Asia's continued rise is not automatically assured and is “dependent on the evolution of a cooperative architecture.”
Japan and India -- as energy-poor countries heavily reliant on oil imports from the Persian Gulf -- are seriously concerned by mercantilist efforts to assert control over energy supplies and the transport routes for them. So the maintenance of a peaceful and lawful maritime domain, including unimpeded freedom of navigation, is critical to their security and economic wellbeing. That is why they have agreed to start holding joint naval and air exercises from 2012 -- just one sign of a shift from emphasizing shared values to seeking to protect shared interests.
Indeed, despite their messy domestic politics and endemic scandals, India and Japan have the fastest-growing bilateral relationship in Asia today. Since they unveiled a “strategic and global partnership” in 2006, their political and economic engagement has deepened remarkably.
A growing congruence of strategic interests led to their 2008 Joint Declaration on Security cooperation, a significant milestone in building a stable Asian order, in which a constellation of states linked by common interests has become critical to ensuring equilibrium at a time when ongoing power shifts accentuate security challenges.
The joint declaration was modeled on Japan's 2007 defense-cooperation accord with Australia -- the only other country with which Japan, a US military ally, has a security-cooperation arrangement. The India-Japan security declaration, in turn, spawned a similar Indian-Australian accord in 2009.
A free-trade agreement between Japan and India, formally known as the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA), entered into force in August. And, in response to China's punitive use of its monopoly on rare-earths production to cut off such exports to Japan during the fall of 2010, Japan and India have agreed to joint development of rare earths, which are vital for a wide range of green-energy technologies and military applications.
Today, the level and frequency of official bilateral engagement is extraordinary. Noda's visit to New Delhi was part of a commitment by the two countries to hold an annual summit, attended by their prime ministers.
More important, Japan and India now conduct several annual ministerial dialogues: a strategic dialogue between their foreign ministers; a security dialogue between their defense ministers; a policy dialogue between India's commerce and industry minister and Japan's minister of economy, trade and industry; and separate ministerial-level energy and economic dialogues.
And, to top it off, Japan, India and the US initiated a trilateral strategic dialogue in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 19. Getting the US on board can only bolster India-Japan cooperation. As Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba said recently, “Japan and the US are deepening a strategic relationship with India,” and the trilateral dialogue is “a specific example of collaboration” among the three leading Asia-Pacific democracies. Such collaboration is likely to become quadrilateral with Australia's inclusion.
Japan and India need to strengthen their still-fledgling strategic cooperation by embracing two ideas, both of which demand a subtle shift in Japanese thinking and policy. One is to build interoperability between their formidable naval forces, which, in cooperation with other friendly navies, can undergird peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region. As former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe put it in a recent speech in New Delhi, the aim should be that “sooner rather than later, Japan's navy and the Indian navy are seamlessly interconnected.” Currently, Japan has naval interoperability only with US forces.
The second idea is to co-develop defense systems. India and Japan have missile-defense cooperation with Israel and the US, respectively. There is no reason why they should not work together on missile defense and other technologies for mutual security. Their defense cooperation must be comprehensive and not be limited to strategic dialogue, maritime cooperation, and occasional naval exercises.
There is no ban on weapon exports in Japan's US-imposed Constitution, only a longstanding government decision, which in any case has been loosened. In fact, the original decision related to weapons, not technologies.
The most-stable economic partnerships in the world, including the Atlantic community and the Japan-US partnership, have been built on the bedrock of security collaboration. Economic ties that lack the underpinning of strategic partnerships tend to be less stable and even volatile, as is apparent from the economic relationships that India and Japan have with China. Through close strategic collaboration, Japan and India must lead the effort to build freedom, prosperity and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.
*Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at the Center for Policy Research, is the author of “Water: Asia's New Battleground.” © Project Syndicate 2011