Beyond bullet train: Will India gift Japan's Abe the diamond of his dream?

USS Nimitz, INS Vikramaditya and JS Izumo in close formation during Malabar 2017. Photo: @indiannavy
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s India visit earlier this month would be remembered, among other things, for the launch of the ambitious bullet train project. While the visit showed his commitment to his country’s ties with India, it also highlighted India’s significance, notably, in another of his key commitments – building a counterweight to China’s rising might in the Asia-Pacific waters, an exercise he began more than a decade ago. 

In 2007, during one of his visits to India, Abe had courted New Delhi to form a coalition of democracies securing ‘broader Asia’ – a geographic and economic construct that would evolve into a network spanning the entire Pacific Ocean, and incorporating the United States of America and Australia.

During his speech in India’s Parliament, Abe had called for the two countries to work together and ensure the Pacific and Indian Oceans became “seas of freedom and prosperity”. In particular, he had spoken of India and Japan’s shared interest in the security of sea lanes.

In a December 27, 2012, oped piece that he wrote, days before securing a second term as Japan’s prime minister, Abe built upon his ‘Confluence of the two seas’ speech delivered in the Indian Parliament five years earlier. Titled ‘Asia’s Democratic Security Diamond’, the oped called for “a strategy whereby Australia, India, Japan, and the US state of Hawaii form a diamond to safeguard the maritime commons stretching from the Indian Ocean region to the western Pacific”. While the 2007 speech had not explicitly named China, the 2012 oped made it clear that China’s naval might and actions needed to be challenged.

Even as bilateral and trilateral efforts to secure maritime commons in the Asia-Pacific region have grown among the four countries since, the envisaged ‘security diamond’ remains elusive. A bilateral India-Australia maritime exercise, called ‘AUSINDEX’, began in 2015 and its second edition took place earlier this year. Also, an India-Japan-Australia trilateral dialogue was initiated in 2015. But New Delhi reportedly declined Canberra’s request to join the July 2017 edition of the Malabar naval exercise, in which the navies of India, the US, and Japan participated.

An Indian Navy MiG 29K on a low pass over the deck of USS Nimitz during Malabar 2017. Photo: @indiannavy

Why is India hesitant?

According to experts, India’s concerns range from Beijing’s likely reaction to setting up of a quad, to Australia’s own ties with China.

“There is a debate in Australia over its options between the US and China. That complicates its involvement in a formal quad initiative. There are concerns in New Delhi about Canberra's perceived 'tilt' towards Beijing,” explains Harsh V Pant, professor of international relations at the Defence Studies Department, and the India Institute at King’s College, London.

The history of earlier endeavours might also have added to India's hesitance. Abe's 2007 speech had come months after the first India-US-Japan-Australia meet for a quadrilateral security dialogue, which had been preceded by formal diplomatic protests from Beijing. After the dialogue, in September that year, there had been a massive iteration of the Malabar exercise involving the navies of the four nations, as well as Singapore. However, following a government change, Australia had in February 2008 pulled out of the dialogue.

Australia's about-face, however, might have been only one of the reasons for India’s caution. Abhijit Singh, head of Maritime Policy Program at Observer Research Foundation, and a former naval officer, explains that New Delhi had been more “rattled” by a political fallout at home – after the 2007 Malabar exercise, India’s communist parties had staged “massive street protests” against the government’s perceived tilt towards the US. So, the government might, in fact, have been “secretly relieved” when Australia pulled out of the quadrilateral.

Ten years on, according to Singh, Australia’s Chinese associations worry Indian watchers more than past actions. “Some say these connections are so vast and intricate that Beijing might even have infiltrated Canberra’s political establishment.”

Australian Navy submarine HMAS Waller exercising with INS Kamorta during AUSINDEX 2017. Photo: @Australian_Navy

Is Canberra really ready?

While India remains hesitant, Australia now appears increasingly vocal about its willingness to join a quadrilateral. Before the 2017 Malabar exercise, Canberra reportedly lobbied with New Delhi that the Indian government allow the Australian Defence Force to attend the naval drills as an official “observer”. In fact, according to reports, Australia has since 2015 “regularly discussed” participating in naval exercises with India.

Further, during her visit to Tokyo in April this year, Australian Defence Minister Marise Payne had said her country was “very interested” in “a quadrilateral engagement” with India, Japan and the US.

David Brewster, a senior research fellow with National Security College at the Australian National University, says it is not necessary to have a formal quadrilateral framework, but it would be valuable to have high-level meetings among the four countries. Such cooperation would be a “practical and symbolic step” showing their commitment to a "rules-based international order,” he says.

Brewster dismisses the idea that including Australia in a four-way initiative might be risky, given China’s economic investments in that country. “Australia is trying to figure out how to properly balance its valuable economic relationships with China, and political and security factors that might point in other directions. Australia is a close ally of the US, and it is about as ‘tilted’ to China as India is.”

J Berkshire Miller, senior visiting fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, says: “Once reticent, Australia now is much more eager to join. At past year’s Shangri la Dialogue, its defence minister made it clear that Canberra was ready.”

What’s the way forward for India?

A major factor in determining whether a security diamond will take shape in the future are China and its behaviour. Pant and Miller are of the view that if India-China tensions grow, New Delhi might find it in its own interest to join such a framework. While Pant says China’s aggressive foreign policy behaviour could lead to an informal quadrilateral grouping, Miller argues that the result could instead be a formal set-up.

Pant, however, agrees that bilateral and trilateral associations would remain the preferred way in the immediate future, as “effective balance-of-power mechanisms are not easy to construct”.

Singh, who feels Indian policymakers thought inviting Australia to Malabar might have crossed “Beijing’s tolerance threshold”, believes New Delhi should base its decisions on the evolution of China's posture in the Indian Ocean. He also favours allowing select Australian naval officers to participate in the Malabar 2018. But Singh also has a word of caution: The Indian Navy lacks “surveillance and anti-access/area-denial capability” to counter Beijing’s submarines in near-seas; that might be challenging, as a move towards a quad could provoke China to up its submarine operations’ tempo in the Indian Ocean.

Brewster suggests India should look at how it could benefit from a more concrete cooperation with Australia, which has “close security relationships with our Southeast Asian FPDA (Five Power Defence Arrangements) partners and has built an excellent maritime domain awareness system covering the entire eastern half of the Indian Ocean”.

Considering these, will India join the quad? While Abe this time came to give India its first bullet train project, which Prime Minister Narendra Modi referred to as “a gift from Japan”, India might in the future consider gifting Abe the ‘diamond’ of his dream.

Business Standard is now on Telegram.
For insightful reports and views on business, markets, politics and other issues, subscribe to our official Telegram channel