Japan and India moved to expand air force ties before Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visits New Delhi in a few weeks, bolstering relations two months after China declared an air defense identification zone in a disputed area.
Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera and his Indian counterpart, A.K. Antony, discussed starting talks between air force officials while reaffirming plans to conduct regular naval exercises, according to an Indian government statement Monday. Asia’s second- and third-largest economies may also conduct pilot exchanges, it said.
“Both sides know that China stands between them and that they’d be smart to make sure they’re on the same page with each other now and in the future,” said C. Uday Bhaskar, an analyst with the New Delhi-based National Maritime Foundation who spent 37 years in the Indian navy. “They’re taking steps, small steps, but if there’s an inclusion of the air force now, then you’re seeing growth in this relationship.”
Japan and India, which both have territorial disputes with China, are increasing ties as tensions escalate in Northeast Asia. China and South Korea rejected Abe’s call for talks Monday after his visit to a war shrine last week drew an angry response from both countries.
Abe’s trip to India will be the first by a Japanese leader since 2011, when the countries agreed to boost security ties in the face of China’s growing assertiveness.
Last month, Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko visited India for the first time in five decades, and the nations’ navies conducted bilateral training exercises for the second time in as many years.
Also last month, the countries increased financial ties, with India approving an increase in the bilateral currency swap arrangement between the Reserve Bank of India and the Bank of Japan to $50 billion from $15 billion.
The ministers “decided to strengthen India-Japan defense consultation and cooperation, including those related to maritime security,” the New Delhi government said in Monday’s statement. Indian naval vessels will visit Japan to conduct exercises later this year, it said.
China in November unnerved its neighbors by declaring an ADIZ in the East China Sea that overlaps Japan’s and includes the Senkaku Islands, an uninhabited chain claimed by both nations but long under Japanese control.
China’s move “unjustly infringes on freedom of flight over the high seas,” Abe told reporters Dec. 14 following a Tokyo summit with the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Abe’s Dec. 26 visit to Yasukuni Shrine — the first by a sitting prime minister since 2006 — further exacerbated relations with Asia’s biggest economy. Abe’s visit to the Tokyo shine closed the door to dialogue with China because he disregarded the opposition of the Chinese people, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in Beijing on Monday.
An April military standoff between China and India marked the most serious incident between the nuclear-armed neighbors in a quarter of a century on the Himalayan border where the world’s most populous countries fought a brief war in 1962.