On the second day of Shinzo Abe’s two-day visit — one marked by many firsts including the flagging-off of India’s first-ever bullet train project, a familiar theme returned to the agenda: Asia’s Democratic Security Diamond as coined by the Japanese prime minister back in 2012.
In an article for Project Syndicate on 27 December, 2012 (registration required), Abe had stated:
“I envisage a strategy whereby Australia, India, Japan, and the US state of Hawaii form a diamond to safeguard the maritime commons stretching from the Indian Ocean region to the western Pacific. I am prepared to invest, to the greatest possible extent, Japan’s capabilities in this security diamond.“
In the years since, allusion has rarely been made to this security diamond in India-Japan joint statements.
In the joint communiqués issued by Abe and Manmohan Singh, the topic was notably absent. The first joint statement issued by Abe and Prime Minister Narendra Modi also failed to elucidate on this aspect. It appeared that the concept articulated by the Japanese prime minister would remain just that — a concept articulated on paper.
However, in January 2015, during then US president Barack Obama’s visit to India — among other things to be the chief guest at India’s Republic Day parade, he and Modi issued a statement titled ‘India-US Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region‘, which was seen in many quarters as New Delhi’s first clear indication of intent with regard to the South China Sea. “We affirm the importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and over flight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea. We call on all parties to avoid the threat or use of force and pursue resolution of territorial and maritime disputes through all peaceful means,” read the statement.
The Modi-Obama statement seemed to be a catalyst of sorts for India’s growing role in the Asia-Pacific region, evident in the insertion of a reference to joining hands with Australia for security purposes in the very next Modi-Abe joint statement: “The two prime ministers expressed satisfaction on the inaugural Japan-India-Australia Trilateral dialogue. They were of the view that these dialogue mechanisms could contribute to regional efforts to evolve an open, inclusive, stable and transparent economic, political and security architecture in the Indo-Pacific region.”
By the time the two prime ministers met in November 2016 amid much bonhomie (as was repeatedly pointed out by various arms of the media), this notion had become a lot broader: “The two prime ministers welcomed the holding of trilateral dialogue among Japan, India and the United States, and strengthened coordination and cooperation in such areas as HA/DR, regional connectivity as well as maritime security and safety. The two Prime Ministers also welcomed continued and deepened trilateral dialogue among Japan, India and Australia.”
And on 14 September, 2017, the joint statement between the two prime ministers contained the following paragraph:
More of the same? That would seem most unlikely and at face value, there are three clear reasons why this declaration by Modi and Abe should be taken more seriously than similar proclamations in the past.
First, it already has China — which will find itself surrounded by this potential diamond — rattled. A few hours before Modi and Abe issued their joint statement, the spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Hua Chunying made a statement, advocating “that regional countries should stand for dialogue without confrontation and work for a partnership instead of an alliance”. In the past too, Beijing has reacted strongly to mentions of the strategic diamond, most notably in March 2016 when Admiral Harry B Harris of the US Navy suggested, “By being ambitious, India, Japan, Australia, the United States and so many other like-minded nations can aspire to operate anywhere on the high seas and airspace above them.”
Second, despite the semblance of a thaw in India-China relations — that had gone frigid as a result of the Doka La standoff — that set in after the BRICS Summit in Xiamen earlier this month, there is still a fair bit of bad blood between the two Asian neighbours. One of the motives of this proposed security diamond is to curb China’s increasingly expansionist attitude in the South China Sea region — something that directly affects Japan. Even if this eventually turns out to be a case of mere saber-rattling, Beijing appears to have already received the message (see earlier point). India too has been at the rough end of China’s expansionist designs and the Doka La standoff which ended only recently bears testimony to this fact.
Third, it is the clearest articulation by Tokyo and New Delhi of pursuing the idea of the security diamond. And based on the measured tone of previous joint statements, this point alone makes it clear that Abe’s brainchild is back in play… and back with a vengeance.