There’s certain symmetry in INS Vikramaditya’s imminent assumption of the flagship role in the Indian Navy, the launch in Japan of the Izumo, quaintly described as a “flat-top destroyer”, and the Japanese Emperor Akihito’s second state visit to this country.
Shinzo Abe made Japan’s strategic interest plain in 2010 in an address to the Indian parliament entitled “Confluence of Two Seas” — the Indian Ocean and the East Sea, and the intertwining of the maritime destinies of the two states. These separated expanses of water permit India and Japan to work together to stretch China militarily at its extremities. A similar coupling of Japan and the United States, sealed by a treaty relationship, has made the latter a fixture in the Far Eastern power balance and security architecture post-1945. From the Japanese perspective, America has been and is the security anchor. However, in the future Tokyo apprehends that the burgeoning economic and trade relationship will result in a faltering American will to protect Japanese interests, such as in the dispute over the Senkaku/Diayou Island chain. It is for that inevitable day when the US economic interests in China will dictate American strategic choices that Abe — the most nationalistic and strategic-minded of post-War prime ministers — has been trying to prepare his country for. Whence, the importance now being accorded India by Tokyo.
Actually, India is in a situation analogous to Japan’s. From the Nineties when P V Narasimha Rao initiated the opening to the West in the guise of globalising the economy, the United States has become more central to Indian policymakers, and India’s foreign, and even domestic, policies. Thus, home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde, instead of ordering a targeted intelligence operation to take out Dawood Ibrahim, who is hiding in plain sight in Karachi, by whatever means and at any cost, had no qualms indicating he had approached the US Federal Bureau of Investigation to corral this transnational criminal and terrorism funder. The Congress party-led coalition government, in like vein, rather than mount a concerted effort for a counter-cyber operation, readily admitted that US agencies had cyber-penetrated the Indian system and, in effect, advised that because the country can do nothing to prevent such cyber offensives, it may be best to accept it as a fact of life — a variant of the Central Bureau of Investigation director Ranjit Sinha’s counsel to women experiencing rape, to lie back and enjoy it. And, starting with the nuclear deal, prime minister Manmohan Singh suggested by indirection that India’s strategic security deficit against China will be made up by the US when such commitment, as the Japanese are beginning to find, grows iffier by the day.
The immediate escape for India from a bad security situation getting worse is the over-reach that a bumptious Beijing is prone to. Out of the blue, on November 23 it announced an “air defence identification zone (ADIZ)” in the East Sea. It is an airspace version of the “nine dot line” expansively delineating its sea territory that encompasses the legitimate claims over the Exclusive Economic Zones of neighbouring states — Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, and Taiwan in the South China Sea.
More ambitious still, just as the “nine dot line” seeks to demarcate a mere closum (closed sea) controlled by China, the ADIZ attempts to make the free airspace way off the Chinese coast a Chinese concern, attempting to shut down international air traffic other than on its terms. Indeed, in announcing the ADIZ the Chinese authorities demanded that all non-commercial aircraft submit their flight plans and maintain continuous radio contact whilst in the area. The next day Tokyo scoffed at the ADIZ, calling it unimplementable and two days later the Americans proved it by deliberately sending two unarmed American B-52 nuclear bombers over the Senkakus encompassed within the ADIZ. Beijing may not bring the issue immediately to boil. Rather, its plans seem oriented to the medium-term future. By 2030 when it may actually be in a position to enforce the ADIZ, the 2013 announcement of the zone will come in handy to establish its “historic” claims on this airspace.
It is imperative, therefore, that just as Indian naval ships ignore any notions of the nine-dot line Indian military aircraft too should now be tasked to fly frequently through this ostensible ADIZ without giving notice to mark out India’s right of free passage in this airspace for all time to come. It should be followed up with more full-fledged Indo-Japanese naval and air exercises in the Sea of Japan to bolster the point of free air and maritime space, unconstrained by Chinese claims.
The whole thrust of military co-operation with Japan, at least in theory, is to put China on notice not to swing against one or the other country. It is a warning that will grow teeth if New Delhi were to speedily take up on the Japanese offer to produce in the Indian private sector the Shin Miewa US-2 maritime patrol and surveillance aircraft that is also an excellent platform for mounting from-the-sea Special Forces actions.
But the defence ministry under A K Antony has been so infernally sluggish in taking decisions and then making the wrong choices, there’s every danger that this strategically significant Japanese proposal — the first of its kind by Tokyo under its “peace Constitution” which bars arms exports and sales — too will grow cobwebs before it is acted on.
Japan’s bulking up security co-ordination with India could prod its economic reorientation away from China. Japan was the source in 2012 of $122 billion worth of Foreign Direct Investment, most of it to China. As of now, Japanese companies are sitting on a “cash pile” worth a massive $2.4 trillion. India can be the prime investment destination for these funds, especially as the Indian government has plans for infrastructure development cost at $1 trillion. But Tokyo has to be motivated to channel these monies India-wards and intensified security co-operation can be that raison d’etre if only New Delhi had the wit to realise it.
Alas, the Congress party-led coalition government has shown it is bereft of any such understanding.
Bharat Karnad is professor at Centre for Policy Research and blogs at www.bharatkarnad.com