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Japan courts India to counter China: analysts

the big powers of the 21st century
by Staff Writers
New Delhi (AFP) Aug 23, 2007
Japan's bid for a strategic partnership with India aims to counter China's rising influence, with Tokyo omitting Beijing from its vision of an Asian 'arc of freedom', analysts said Thursday.

The highlight of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's three-day visit to India was the signing of a roadmap for strategic and global partnership between the two Asian giants.

Abe called for greater political, security, defence and trade relations.

"They are keen to consolidate their relations with India, which they see as a balance of power in the east against China's growing influence," said Sushila Narsimhan, professor of Japanese history at Delhi University.

Abe made no reference to China on Wednesday when he called for the creation of an "arc of freedom and prosperity" bringing together Australia, India, Japan and the United States, but Beijing loomed large in the background.

Analyst C. Raja Mohan said the trip had highlighted Abe's key strategic aims -- rebuilding a "foreign policy that is rooted in Japan's Asian identity and constructing a new Asia that is committed to democratic values and freer trade."

"Deepening strategic cooperation with India is essential for Japan's ambition to forge a new Asian architecture," Mohan, a professor at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University, wrote in the Indian Express.

Abe has long championed improving ties with India. But the conservative premier paid his first visit in office last year to China in a bid to improve sour relations between the East Asian giants.

"Obviously his visit to India is related to Abe's secret intention to contain China," said Kenichi Odawara, a professor emeritus at Japan's Nihon University.

"Although Abe's first trip abroad was to China, it was a fence-mending trip for the sake of Japan's national interest," he said, adding that Abe would win "leverage from stronger ties with India" if he wanted a harder line on China.

Abe and his Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh called for improved security of regional sea lanes and a massive increase in bilateral trade to 20 billion dollars by 2010 from eight billion today.

While trade between India and Japan remains low, the size of their economies makes the potential for expansion huge.

"India's poor infrastructure has been a big hurdle in attracting Japanese investment, but given the obvious threats from China, they will increasingly look to India," Narsimhan said.

Abe announced the two countries had also agreed on a basic currency swap agreement to tide each other over in case of a short-term liquidity crunch.

Even though no new initiatives were announced, analysts said Abe's high-profile visit marked a new shift in Indo-Japanese relations.

"Earlier, India's expectations from Japan were limited to economic factors, but now the two countries are talking about a partnership for global reach," said H.S. Prabhakar, associate professor of Japanese studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

"There were many references to a quadilateral strategic force (including the United States and Australia) in Abe's speech."

"A new broader Asia that broke away from geographical boundaries is now beginning to take on a distinct form," Abe said in an address to a special session of the Indian parliament.

However, despite the positive mood, New Delhi failed to get Tokyo's public backing for a historic civilian nuclear deal with the United States under which India will get access to nuclear fuel and technology.

Abe remained non-committal, saying Tokyo would "wait and watch closely" the outcome of negotiations between India and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

India also has to win the approval of the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers Group -- of which Japan is a member -- before the accord takes shape.

But analysts said that Japan's failure to deliver a public endorsement was unlikely to affect strengthening bilateral ties.

"Japan may not openly support it, but it will not create any problems for India," said Narsimhan.

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