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Prime Minister Noda’s Year-end Strategic Tour

by Sheila A. Smith
January 3, 2012

Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda inspects a guard of honour during his ceremonial reception at the presidential palace in New Delhi

Japan's prime minister Yoshihiko Noda inspects a guard of honour during his ceremonial reception at the presidential palace in New Delhi December 28, 2011 (B Mathur/Courtesy Reuters).

Unlike many of us, Japan’s prime minister did not sit back and rest at year’s end. Rather, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda took to the road to visit two of Asia’s ascending powers. He spent Christmas in Beijing, after a planned visit for earlier in December was unexpectedly postponed by China’s leaders. Yet it was his trip to New Delhi on December 27–28 that energized Tokyo’s diplomatic agenda.

Noda’s willingness to rearrange his schedule to accommodate China’s desire to change the summit dates reflects an awareness of the delicacy of the moment for Beijing. The original date of the summit coincided with the deeply painful anniversary of World War II atrocities, the day Japanese Imperial Army troops captured the city of Nanjing. Postponing a planned summit meeting may be unprecedented, yet it leaves us wondering why Beijing’s leaders did not appreciate the domestic impact of hosting Japan’s leader when they picked the date. That they saw fit to ask Tokyo to reschedule reveals perhaps a bit more confusion in Beijing than is usual. But it also reveals the efforts Japanese and Chinese governments together are making to get this important bilateral relationship back on a sound footing.

Meeting on December 26 allowed Prime Minister Noda and President Hu Jintao to focus on a much anticipated event, the death of Kim Jong-il and his succession by then underway in North Korea. As it has in the past, change in North Korea opened the way for Beijing and Tokyo to move beyond some of the more difficult bilateral issues between them and concentrate on their common interests in Northeast Asia. Prime Minister Noda had already declared his interest in sharing information with Beijing, and on consultations that would lead to regional cooperation on managing any issues that might arise as a result of instability on the Korean peninsula.

Yet it was the prime minister’s visit to India that suggested more immediate promise. Where often the Sino-Japanese relationship seems fraught, the Japan-India strategic partnership has been a source of growing potential for Tokyo. Economic relations are growing, although private sector investment by Japanese corporations seems slower than might be expected. Japan’s assistance to India in the construction of vital infrastructure projects, most notably the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor Project, has been consistent and of obvious importance to integrating India’s growing local economies. Japan too has found a ready partner in India for diversifying their access to rare earth materials, a stinging concern since the fall of 2010 when China abruptly reduced its exports to Tokyo of these vital metals.

Less appreciated is the growing strategic harmony between Japan and India. When I visited New Delhi in November, I was astounded at the extent of interest in the Indian strategic community in furthering the bilateral cooperation with Japan on everything from the development of space technology to nuclear cooperation and cyber security efforts. Already Japan and India have had five ministerial-level meetings to flesh out the contours of their new strategic partnership, and have agreed to institute a two-plus-two meeting each year to include defense and foreign ministers. The interaction between the Japanese and Indian militaries is also increasing, as the two navies have worked closely on anti-piracy and other maritime security missions. The armies have had several high-level exchanges, and will soon initiate staff talks. In 2012, the two nations’ air forces will also upgrade their consultations. The East Asia Summit provided an important opportunity to consider how Japan and India might work together to help shape the regional environment as well.

Tokyo and Delhi’s concerns about a rising China are certainly part of the impetus for the acceleration of strategic cooperation, and this has not gone unnoticed in Beijing. China’s military and media have been alert to this burgeoning strategic conversation between Delhi and Tokyo. I was surprised to find that even my discussion at the Observer Research Foundation, reported in Asian News International, got some air time as evidence of containment in the China Daily.

Yet Japan’s renewed diplomatic outreach is not all about China. It is clearly all about Japan, and its need for an active agenda of strategic engagement in Asia. As the prime minister’s China visit attests, Tokyo wants a strong relationship of strategic trust with Beijing. But perhaps that will take more time.

Prime Minister Noda’s diplomatic energy is reassuring, and signals clearly that he has his eye firmly on Japan’s strategic interests even as he seeks to work through the complex array of domestic issues on his agenda.

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  • Posted by S. Mahmud Ali

    The strategic triangle linking Japan to the USA and India, formalised via the recently established trilateral strategic forum, and the strategic quadrilateral – or the Quad – linking these three partners to Australia, interwoven with bilateral accords, are designed to restore confidence in their ability to manage the systemic turbulence and transitional uncertainties generated by the rapid rise in China’s capacity – and, presumably, will – to assert and defend its strategic interests. This is part of a dialectic process which might or might not restore equilibrium to a system afflicted to fluidity as power-diffusion leads to power shift.

    However, the balance of power paradigm, so prominent in efforts to maintain systemic calm in the 19th and 20th century, may be somewhat inappropriate in a world in which all major players in these “games” are nodes in an increasingly interlinked and interdependent economic, financial and commercial landscape. Attempts to bring any rival down will have pyrrhic consequences for all the other major actors thus linked and, indeed, the entire globalised edifice. No individual victory can assure success or peace. The damage caused by conflict would impose pain on the victor and the vanquished.

    In fact, in this utterly interdependent world, terms like victory and defeat are inappropriate. A dominant power ascending over all others is no longer a realistic possibility for the long term. Unilateral systemic-leadership – or hegemony, if you will – is no longer an assured path to strategic success. And since all powers have betrayed feet of moral clay in the pursuit of their particular interest, whether cloaked in the garb of the “common good” or not, no power should expect to be believed when it claims its pursuits are designed to ensure global peace and prosperity.

    In an amoral world of international security relations, the best we can expect is an attempt by major powers to identify and define shared interests, focus energies and resources to addressing these, and seek to carry the rest of the world with them in this enterprise. Attempts to forcibly dominate others could carry the seeds of local, or even global, insurrections against those who seek to control others. Al-Qaeda is an example of what could go wrong.

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