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South Asia has witnessed an upsurge of violence since the military takeover in Pakistan and the hijacking of an Indian airliner last year. There may or may not be any causal link between the two incidents, but the peace process in the region has been the biggest casualty of both.

Clashes and brutalities in the Kashmir Valley and along the India-Pakistan frontiers are now a routine affair. The regular annual summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation remains postponed indefinitely at India’s behest.

This makes the regional communication process totally dysfunctional. With diplomats having faced mutual expulsions from New Delhi and Islamabad, the official level of bilateral diplomacy appears stalled. Nonofficial peace initiatives, the “track II approach,” remain muted. The people-to-people-level contacts symbolized by the much-heralded “bus diplomacy” has come under direct attack by the Shiv Sena, the religious zealots backing the Hindu fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition government in New Delhi.

When all this is viewed in the context of contentious claims over the disputed and strategically located territory of Jammu and Kashmir between India and Pakistan, the situation would seem alarming. This is particularly so because both the contending sides are now armed with nuclear weapons and both are poised toward missile rattling, articulating even the value of nuclear deterrence.

Against this backdrop, the Pakistani military regime wants a renewal of the peace process that is to include Kashmir as part of the bilateral agenda. India, in control of two-thirds of the disputed territory, categorically states that peace process could be revived only when Pakistan vacates the part of Kashmir it controls.

Beyond such zero-sum traps and wars of words there are further alarming bells. To the dismay of many in India itself, New Delhi has declared a 28 percent increase of India’s defense budget. Since Pakistan’s economy is already under strain, Islamabad may feel pushed to taking desperate measures to overcome its security vulnerability.

Naturally, in such settings there is a clamor for an international peace role in South Asia. The questions arise: Who could play that part and what would be the role model?

The visit of U.S. President Bill Clinton to South Asia is sometimes billed as part of a major international initiative. But hopes that the U.S. would be acceptable as a possible go-between has already been effectively rejected by New Delhi.

At the political level, in a clear reversal of its earlier position, India is quite hostile to any third-party role in its territorial dispute with Pakistan, including that by the United Nations. Most European powers seem to put a priority not on South Asian peace but on arms bazaars.

Of the Asian powers, China is often perceived by India as an adversary and also as a partisan tilted toward Pakistan. That leaves only Japan to be a stabilizer in South Asia, where conflict has its own dynamism and may obligate a developmental approach.

The question whether Tokyo does have the necessary stake, the credibility and acceptance for a possible peace role in South Asia. National interest is a multidimensional, but not a static notion.

From a historical perspective, Japan’s Asian interest for long did not extend beyond Thai borders. World War II saw an expansion of Tokyo’s interest, with a noticeable empathy for India’s struggle for freedom and unity under the leadership of Subhas Chandra Bose. Japanese interest in the subcontinent during much of the postwar period was constrained by the rules set by its dominant alliance partner, a legacy of Japan’s part during the war.

In South Asia, newly emerged Bangladesh was the first major beneficiary of Japanese “strategic aid,” indicating a renewal of Tokyo’s interest in the region.

Strategically located South Asia, just across China’s border south of the Himalayas, with its soft underbelly further south straddling the Asia-Pacific trade routes, cannot but assume increasing significance for Japan.

With a quarter of the world’s population and a rising middle class, it also has huge potential for Japanese business and investment. Japan’s environmental management and sustainable development offers an attractive replicable model for South Asia, benefiting eventually Japan and the rest of the world.

Uninvolved in the political squabbles and committed to nonnuclear principles, Tokyo has greater credibility in the region than any other major power.

At the same time, Japan’s diplomatic linkages should enable it to win the support of other major global players, including a possible adversary, China, and its global ally, the U.S.

Kashmir may neither be the bane nor a bone of contentions if peace initiatives in South Asia are pursued in earnest with incentives offered for every positive act and the regional players are brought into the wider Asia-Pacific framework of interactions. For all that to happen, Japan has to expand the frontiers of its diplomacy, outlining its “guideposts” and envisioning how to secure Asia for itself before it assumes the well-deserved status of an international player.

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