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LONDON — Before visiting Beijing to attend the Seventh Asia-Europe Meeting summit in Beijing in October, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh stopped over in Tokyo. It was his second visit to Japan since assuming office in 2004 and underlined the rapidly evolving strategic realities in Asia.

Asia is witnessing an unprecedented shift in the regional balance of power as three major powers — China, India and Japan — try to shape the region in the service of their own interests. The shift in the center of gravity of global politics from the Atlantic to the Pacific will not happen quietly as China and India rise economically, Japan asserts its military profile and the United States shifts its global force posture in favor of the Asia-Pacific.

While the U.S. still remains the predominant power in the Asia-Pacific, the rise of China is reshaping the strategic environment in the region. China, India and Japan have long been viewed as the states with a potential for great power status with inherent capacities to influence international economic, political and military systems, but it is only in the last few years that these projections have come closer to being realized.

For more than a century it was Japan that dominated Asia, first as an imperial power and more recently as the first Asian economy to achieve Western levels of economic development. It’s now China’s turn. While declaring that it will focus on internal socioeconomic development for the next decade or so, it is actively pursuing policies to prevent the rise of other regional powers such as India and Japan, or at least limit their development relative to itself.

Despite significant economic and trade ties between China and Japan — with China even replacing the U.S. as Japan’s biggest trading partner in 2004 — political tensions have increased in recent years, especially over differing interpretations of history by the two nations. But it would be a mistake to view these Sino-Japanese tensions merely through the prism of history. It is also about the future of Asia’s balance of power.

Fueling these Sino-Japanese tensions is a burgeoning sense of strategic rivalry as China’s power expands across Asia and Japan redefines its regional military role in cooperation with the U.S. Japan has made it clear that it considers China a potential military threat. This was reflected in Japan’s announcement that a peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue is a strategic objective that it shares with the U.S., signaling to China that it might help defend Taiwan in the event of a war.

The 2008 Defense White Paper of Japan expresses concern over the effects that the lack of transparency in China’s defense policy and its military buildup will have on the regional state of affairs and on the security situation of Japan.

The Bush administration has backed the notion of a more assertive Japan, viewing Tokyo as an increasingly important partner at a time of dwindling support for the administration’s policies among U.S. allies. The apparent U.S. policy of engaging China as well as states on China’s periphery has led not only to the reinvigoration of its existing alliance with Japan but also to new partners such as India. The U.S. has also encouraged Japan to forge close political and strategic ties with neighboring states such as India and Australia.

India is also gearing up to face China. India and China have global aspirations and some significant conflicting interests. India is charting a new course in its foreign policy by moving closer to the U.S. in recent years. If India is indeed a “swing state” in the international system, then it seems to have swung considerably closer to the U.S. This development is prompting Japan to take India seriously; both are well aware of the Chinese strategy to contain the rise of its two most likely challengers in the region. This is most clearly reflected in China’s opposition to the expansion of the U.N. Security Council to include India and Japan as permanent members.

China’s status as a permanent member of the Security Council and as a nuclear weapons state is something it would be loathe to share with any other state in Asia. Both Tokyo and New Delhi seek to hedge against Chinese influence by trying to create stronger relations with other democracies in Asia. The goal is to ensure that China becomes less threatening and ultimately more cooperative.

India’s ties with Japan have evolved significantly since May 1998, after India’s nuclear tests led to Japan’s imposing sanctions and suspending its overseas development assistance. The changing strategic milieu in Asia-Pacific has brought the two countries together to the extent that the last visit of the Indian prime minister to Japan resulted in the unfolding of a road map to transform a low-key relationship into a major strategic partnership.

India and Japan have decided to invigorate all major aspects of their relationship ranging from investment, defense, science and technology to civilian cooperation in space and energy security. India and Japan seem to have rediscovered their common values and reaffirmed their proximity as ancient civilizations.

Singh has aptly described India and Japan as “civilizational neighbors.” India and Japan are also exemplars of how economic growth can be pursued in consonance with democratic values. A strategic partnership between Japan and India is crucial to the Asian power equilibrium. The rise of China is a major factor in the evolution of Indo-Japanese ties as is the U.S. attempt to build India into a major balancer in the region. The signing of the declaration on security by India and Japan during Singh’s latest visit amounted to an acceptance of the changing ground realities.

Singh has suggested that “the time has come for India and Japan to build a strong contemporary relationship, one involving global and strategic partnership that will have a great significance for Asia and the world as a whole.”

The massive structural changes taking place in the geopolitical balance of power in the Asia-Pacific are driving India and Japan into a relationship that is much closer than many could have anticipated a few years back. Both should now focus on cultivating this partnership more comprehensively so as to achieve a greater balance in the region’s strategic milieu.

Harsh V. Pant teaches at King’s College London.

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