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Eye on China, Delhi walks Tokyo tightrope

New Delhi, Jan. 25: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh today elevated India’s ties with Japan to the very centre of the country’s “Look East Policy”, but steered clear of referring directly to Tokyo’s disputes with Beijing, carefully navigating a tightrope walk between the two Asian giants.

“Japan is at the heart of India’s Look East Policy,” Singh said after a two-hour meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the chief guest for the Republic Day celebrations. “It is also a key partner in our economic development and in our quest for a peaceful, stable and prosperous Asia and the world.”

Singh’s reference to Japan’s role as a force for peace and security is likely to irk China, which accused Abe of stirring long-dormant tensions in East Asia through his refusal to apologise for his country’s past imperialist excesses, and his aggressive foreign policy.

But Japan, which is locked in an increasingly bitter territorial dispute with China over islands in the East China Sea, sees in India a potential counterweight to Beijing’s muscle-flexing over the past two years.

In the weeks leading up to Abe’s visit, India’s foreign office had been desperately trying to formulate an answer to Japan’s nudges that would keep Tokyo close, without seriously upsetting Beijing.

Saturday was the test and, by evening, India’s foreign policy establishment appeared satisfied with the balance Singh and his delegation managed in talks with their Japanese counterparts.

India desperately needs Japanese investments to keep flowing in, and for Tokyo to continue its technological assistance in fields as diverse as freight corridors and engineering education. On Saturday, India and Japan announced they would cooperate in developing a 256km-long Chennai-Bangalore Industrial Corridor.

The two had recently signed an agreement expanding a bilateral currency swap pool from $15 billion to $50 billion, effectively committing each nation to supporting the other financially in an emergency up to the revised amount. Japan as a strategic ally would also help India keep a militarily superior China wary.

Singh and Abe decided to speed up talks over the purchase of 15 fully armed US-2 amphibious aircraft by India from Japan. India has also invited Japan to participate in trilateral naval exercises called the Malabar — also including the US — that have in the past upset China. But Singh did not budge on India’s reluctance to get drawn into Japan’s dispute with China.

Japanese officials, at preparatory meetings with their counterparts in the ministry of external affairs, had indicated that in exchange for Tokyo’s strategic and economic investment in India, it wanted Delhi to criticise China.

That criticism, Japan suggested, could come in the joint statement by Abe and Singh, the most vital communiqué in any diplomatic talks between two top leaders. “But anything directly referring to China would have upset our friends in Beijing — and that is something we simply cannot afford,” a senior official here said.

Singh said he appreciated “Japan’s efforts to contribute to peace and stability of the region and the world”, but India can tell the Chinese that the Prime Minister was merely being a polite host with that generic statement.

But on the two specific disputes that China and Japan are most perturbed over, Singh and Abe agreed only to anodyne references that merely restate universal principles in the joint statement.

Japan and China both claim a chain of islands Tokyo calls the Senkaku islands and China the Diaoyu Islands. The islands are uninhabited, but control over them gives the power to control a key seaway in the East and South China Seas, where Beijing is also locked in a dispute with Vietnam and the Philippines.

“The two Prime Ministers reiterated the commitment of Japan and India to the freedom of navigation, unimpeded commerce and peaceful settlement of disputes,” was all that Singh agreed to in the joint statement with Abe.

China’s decision to claim airspace over the East China Sea by announcing Air Defence Identification Zones has upset most other East Asian nations, and Japan in particular.

India and the US — though concerned about the long-term implications of these zones that could allow China to decide on which flights to allow over the air space — have steered clear of confronting Beijing.

“Washington’s reluctance to take Beijing on over the air zones tells you something,” said Arjun Asrani, former Indian ambassador to Japan. “It makes little sense for India to jump into a fight that even the US isn’t ready for.”

On Saturday, Singh evaded any direct reference to the air defence zones, sticking to generic policy statements that China too accepts in principle. “The two Prime Ministers underscored the importance of freedom of over-flight and civil aviation safety in accordance with the recognised principles of international law,” read the joint statement India agreed to.