'Axis of democracy' flexes its military muscles

Posted in Japan | 01-Apr-07 | Author: Hisane Masaki| Source: Asia Times

TOKYO - Will their love be requited? Japan and the United States have been ardently courting India recently for what appears to be an emerging "axis of democracy" in Asia, also involving Australia, primarily aimed at keeping China in check.

In a significant sign that these efforts by Japan and the US may be bearing fruit, the two countries and India are preparing to hold their first-ever joint military exercise in the Pacific Ocean near Japan. Some Japanese media have reported that it will be held in early April for about a week.

Although no official announcement of the military drill has been made, and the details, including the exact period and number of troops participating, remain unknown, it is expected to focus on maritime security and involve rescue operations during large-scale natural disasters, such as earthquakes and tsunamis.

It is also expected to involve communication training, including code-breaking. Japan's maritime Self-Defense Force (SDF) is expected to dispatch destroyers and patrol helicopters. While the drill is widely seen as a move largely aimed at China, Tokyo will probably take pains to dismiss the view, especially as this is an important time in its relations with Beijing.

Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao is scheduled to make a trip to Japan in mid-April, the first by a top-level Chinese leader in seven years. During his talks with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Wen is expected to invite the Japanese leader to visit Beijing this autumn to keep up the pace of top-level contacts.

During the past few years of Junichiro Koizumi's premiership, China shunned top-level contacts with Japan, even during international conferences in third countries. China - and also South Korea - harshly criticized Koizumi's official pilgrimages to the Yasukuni Shrine as glorifying Japan's militaristic past. But Sino-Japanese relations have been warming since Abe succeeded Koizumi last September and made a fence-mending trip to Beijing - and also to Seoul - soon afterward.

Japan invited Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh last December, his first Tokyo trip since taking office, apparently in hopes of strengthening ties with the South Asian country as a counterbalance to the growing influence of China in Asia. Abe and Singh agreed to forge a "strategic global partnership" between Japan and India and boost bilateral defense exchanges.

Earlier, in May last year, Japanese and Indian defense chiefs agreed to implement reciprocal visits by naval ships. Personnel exchanges are also increasing between the two countries' militaries. Top officers from the ground, air and maritime SDFs have already visited India for talks with their counterparts.

The landmark joint military exercise will come less than a month after the signing of an historic pact between Japan and Australia in mid-March to upgrade their security ties. It is only Japan's second bilateral security agreement since the end of World War II, with the first being the Japan-US security treaty dating back about half a century.

Japan and Australia are both staunch US allies. Despite strong domestic criticism, both Tokyo and Canberra have steadfastly supported the US-led war in Iraq by dispatching troops there. The Japan-Australia security pact was signed about three weeks after US Vice President Dick Cheney made an Asian tour in late February.

Unlike his previous Asian tour three years ago, which took him to Japan, China and South Korea, Cheney visited only Japan and Australia, underscoring the particular importance Washington attaches to strengthened ties with Tokyo and Canberra.

Washington has thrown its weight behind closer security ties between Tokyo and Canberra. With relations between the US and South Korea deteriorating in recent years, the Bush administration is seen by some as shifting the focus of its security policy in Asia away from ties with Japan and South Korea and toward those with Japan and Australia.

Cooperation between Japanese and Australian forces has also increased in recent years. Australian troops have been in charge of maintaining security in the southern Iraqi city of Samawah, where some 600 Japanese ground SDF personnel were stationed on a non-combat mission until last summer.

Australian forces, along with American ones, also cooperated with the SDF in relief operations following the Indian Ocean tsunami triggered by a massive earthquake that struck off Sumatra, Indonesia, in December 2004. But Japan and Australia have yet to conduct a joint military drill, even for disaster relief.

The Japan-Australia pact calls for closer cooperation on terrorism, preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, disaster relief and peacekeeping. It specifically calls for close intelligence-sharing and joint military exercises for disaster relief and United Nations peacekeeping operations.

Unlike the Australia-US security treaty, the Japan-Australia security pact does not commit either party to defend the other. And Tokyo and Canberra have stressed that their security pact is not directed at China or any other country. Still, Beijing may have been alarmed by the pact, seeing it as another US-led attempt to contain its rise.

Beijing views with deep suspicion the move toward a stronger security alliance between Japan and the US, especially since a peaceful settlement to tensions in the Taiwan Strait was included in a list of common strategic goals to be pursued by Tokyo and Washington under the new security arrangements.

There are also suspicions in China that the real US motive for the sweeping overhaul of its military's global posture might be what some call the "soft containment" of its rapidly ascending military and economic power. The Bush administration publicly denies any intention to contain China, and claims its policy is to encourage China to be a "responsible stakeholder" in the international system.

Since taking office last September, Abe has advocated a more assertive foreign policy and further strengthening of the security alliance with the US. He has also vowed to seek revisions of the postwar pacifist constitution to allow the nation to play a greater role in the international security arena, especially in step with the US.

In a thinly veiled snub to China, the Abe government has also put particular emphasis on strengthening ties with countries that share common values, such as freedom, democracy, market economy, respect for human rights and the rule of law.

These include countries in Europe. Over New Year Abe visited the headquarters of the 26-nation North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in Brussels to pitch a greater international security role for Japan. Abe's visit came in the wake of NATO's decision last November to beef up cooperation with Japan, Australia and other democratic non-member countries to ensure global peace and stability, especially in dealing with the threats of terrorism and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Abe has proposed a four-way "strategic dialogue" between Japan, the US and Australia plus India. Like China, neighboring India is attracting global attention as a newly rising Asian power, and is widely seen in Tokyo, Washington and elsewhere as a potential counterweight to China's growing clout in the region. The Japan-Australia security pact is therefore part of efforts to implement the proposed four-way dialogue.

The Japan-Australia document stipulates the establishment of so-called "two-plus-two" ministerial security talks comprising foreign and defense ministers from the two countries, similar to those each country already has with the US. Japan, the US and Australia inaugurated a three-way security dialogue of foreign ministers in March last year. By establishing a "two-plus-two" forum of their foreign and defense ministers, Tokyo and Canberra want to strengthen trilateral security cooperation among the three nations.

Japan and Australia are active participants in the US-led Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) aimed at preventing the smuggling of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction, missiles and parts, including those by North Korea. The planned Japan-US-India military exercise is also seen as part of efforts by Tokyo and Washington to encourage Delhi to join the PSI. Observers think it is possible for Japan, the US, Australia and India to launch quadrilateral defense exchanges in the near future.
Meanwhile, the US is also cozying up to India. The US and India signed a controversial civilian nuclear cooperation deal in March last year during President George W Bush's visit. The agreement, which has been ratified by Congress, gives India access to US technology, even though New Delhi has not signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The deal represented a significant reversal in US policy, which had restricted nuclear cooperation since India's first nuclear test in 1974.

Also in 2005, the US and India signed a 10-year defense framework agreement that calls for expanding bilateral security cooperation. Since 2002, the two countries have engaged in numerous and combined military exercises.

Hisane Masaki is a Tokyo-based journalist, commentator and scholar on international politics and economy. Masaki's e-mail address is [email protected]