Republic Day celebration

Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe’s, visit to India on the occasion of the Republic Day celebration as its chief guest has taken Delhi-Tokyo ties to a new height.

There is an unprecedented level of convergence between India and Japan on a whole host of issues ranging from economics, to defence to the regional strategic realities. The fact that these ties are soaring is a tribute to the investment that Manmohan Singh government had made in this relationship and the positive response it has received from the Japanese government, especially Abe. Abe’s visit to India came days after South Korean President Park Geun-hye, the country's first woman president, visited India on a three-day state visit, providing a valuable opportunity to New Delhi and Seoul to impart new dynamism to their bilateral relations and underscoring the success of India’s ‘Look East’ policy. After ignoring each other for years, India and South Korea are also now beginning to recognise the importance of tighter ties.
As they carefully assess the evolving strategic environment in the Asia-Pacific region, New Delhi, Tokyo and Seoul need to advance their political ties so that a mutually beneficial and long-term partnership can evolve among them. The resulting relationships could be as important for greater regional stability as they are for Indian, Japanese and South Korean national interests.

At a time when India’s tensions with China have become more manifest and Japan’s relations with China are getting highly contentious, there are signs that South Korea, too, is re-evaluating its ties with China. In recent years, China could count on South Korea as a friend in the region—a cultural admirer, with residual memories of the close political and cultural ties that existed in Ming times. For its part, Seoul counted on Beijing to help stabilise the situation on the Korean Peninsula. South Korea has become China’s largest trading partner in the region and has been hospitable to Chinese visits. But strategically, Seoul is getting disenchanted with Beijing’s support for the North Korean regime’s provocations as well as China’s own aggressive claims on contested territory.

India is emerging as a serious player in the Asian strategic landscape as smaller states in East Asia reach out to it for trade, diplomacy and, potentially, as a key regional balancer. The “Look East” policy, initiated by one of the most visionary of India’s prime ministers, P V NarasimhaRao, is now the cornerstone of India’s engagement with the world’s most economically dynamic region. States in South and South-east Asia also remain keen on a more pro-active Indian role in the region. At the broader regional level, India continues to make a strong case for its growing relevance in the East Asian regional security and economic architecture with greater urgency than ever before.

Regional stakeholder

China is too big and too powerful to be ignored by the regional states. But the states in China’s vicinity are now seeking to expand their strategic space by reaching out to other regional and global powers. Smaller states in the region are now looking to India to act as a balancer in view of China’s growing influence and America’s anticipated retrenchment from the region in the near future. Larger states see India as an attractive engine for regional growth. To live up to its full potential and meet the region’s expectations, India must do a more convincing job of emerging as a credible strategic partner of the region. Neither India nor the regional states in East Asia have incentive to define their relationship in opposition to China. But they are certainly interested in leveraging their ties with other states to gain benefits from China and bring a semblance of equality in their relationships. Great power politics in the region have only just begun.

The rupture in China-ASEAN ties over the last two years has also provided India with a key opening in the region to underline its credentials as a responsible regional stakeholder. On the one hand, China’s aggressive pursuit of its territorial claims has aggravated regional tensions. On the other, despite Obama Administration’s famous ‘pivot’ towards the Asia-Pacific, there are doubts about the ability of Washington to manage regional tensions effectively. India’s proximity to the region and its growing capabilities make it a natural partner of most states in Southeast Asia.

It is not without significance, that the vision document released at the summit talks of promoting maritime cooperation and “strengthening cooperation to ensure maritime security and freedom of navigation, and safety of sea lanes of communication for unfettered movement of trade in accordance with international law.” New Delhi has been reiterating its commitment to not only supporting freedom of navigation and right of passage but also access to resources in accordance with accepted principles of international law and practice.

The rapid rise of China in Asia and beyond is the main pivot even as Delhi seeks to expand economic integration and interdependence with the region. India is also developing strong security linkages with the region and trying to actively promote and participate in regional and multilateral initiatives. New Delhi’s ambitious policy in East and Southeast Asia is aimed at significantly increasing its regional profile. Smaller states in the region are now looking to India to act as a balancer in view of China’s growing influence and America’s anticipated retrenchment from the region in the near future. And larger states see this as an attractive engine for regional growth. It remains to be seen if India can indeed live up to its full potential, as well as to the region’s expectations.

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