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Japan ride, China rider

- Tokyo ends arms embargo on India, seeks statement
The ShinMayva US-2 aircraft that India is buying from Japan. Tokyo has agreed to sell India an armed version of the aircraft. Picture credit: ShinMayva Industries Ltd, Japan

New Delhi, Jan. 21: Japan has decided to end its 47-year old self-imposed global embargo on exporting weapons, for India, agreeing to sell New Delhi fully armed amphibious aircraft ahead of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit this weekend, despite strong domestic concerns.

But Tokyo is driving a hard bargain in exchange, seeking a reference to Japan’s ongoing territorial disputes with China in the joint statement Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Abe will issue after their talks here, top government officials have said.

Abe is scheduled to land here on January 25 for a visit that could redefine the region’s geopolitics at a time Japan is trying to snug up to India to counter China, and India is trying to walk a fine balance — strengthening ties with Tokyo without upsetting Beijing.

The Japanese Prime Minister is scheduled to be chief guest at the Republic Day parade the day after he arrives, before key delegation-level talks between the nations that China will watch closely.

Abe will bring with him historic news — a decision to sell India armed versions of the U-2 amphibious aircraft manufactured by Japanese firm ShinMayva.

India has been seeking 15 of these aircraft for its navy for close to two years, the officials said. Before Prime Minister Singh’s visit to Tokyo in May last year, Japan had agreed to sell these aircraft to India and the two leaders announced plans to discuss the sale after that visit.

But India and Japan had quietly — without ever making it public — only agreed to a deal on a version of the US-2 that was stripped of all lethal potential, and usable strictly for civilian use. ShinMayva began reworking these aircraft to meet the “civilian” specifications.

“In Japan, there are still strong reservations about the export of military equipment and technology,” a Japanese diplomat said.

The sale of civilian aircraft would have saved Abe from having to answer those critical of any move to defy a 1967 Japanese law barring the sale of military equipment and arms. That law was aimed at demonstrating Japan’s pacifist credentials as it sought to grow in a post World War II global environment.

At the same time, the Abe government calculated that the sale of the aircraft would help buttress ties with India — a nation the Japanese Premier has repeatedly identified as a key ally he wants to focus on.

“India, in turn, could retrofit the civilian aircraft to serve military roles, if they wanted to. That was our thinking,” the Japanese diplomat said.

But Indian officials lobbied hard with Japan over the past seven months, nudging Tokyo to reverse its decision and agree to the sale of armed aircraft.

The final push came during the visit last November by Japanese emperor Akihito and empress Michiko, who left India full of praise and gratitude for their hosts, and with a message for the Abe government not to jeopardise ties with India at any cost.

Heightened tensions between Japan and China — which in November sought ownership of airspace over large swathes of the South and East China Sea — are also likely to have pushed Abe into agreeing to India’s demands, the Indian officials conceded.

But the armed US-2 amphibious aircraft come with a stern push from Tokyo to include a reference to Japan’s dispute with China over islands in the East China Sea. Called the Senkaku islands by Japan and the Diaoyu Islands by China, the uninhabited islands are claimed by both.

Indian officials hinted they would try and limit any reference to the dispute to an “anodyne mention” of widely accepted international norms on maritime security and the freedom of movement of ships and vessels in the sea.

“That’s something which we’ve used in the past without upsetting China,” a senior official said.

But any more direct reference to the dispute over the Senkaku Islands is likely to upset China, the officials said. “That’s what the Japanese want, but not what we want,” another official said. “We’re confident we’ll find a balance.”