In signal to China, Manmohan Singh embraces Japan's idea

In an unambiguous signal to China, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh Tuesday asserted India's strategic preference as he described Japan as a "natural and indispensable partner" and framed the Indo-Pacific as a new axis for cooperation in the region.

Singh also laid out a three-pronged approach to take this strategic cooperation forward, and in doing so, endorsed his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe's vision articulated in an address to the Indian Parliament in 2007.

Japan, Singh said, is a natural and indispensable partner in the "quest for stability and peace in the vast region in Asia that is washed by the Pacific and Indian Oceans". The last time the PM used the term Indo-Pacific was at the India-ASEAN meet in Delhi in December.

What was an even stronger message to China was Singh's endorsement of settling maritime disputes according to international law. While that has been India's stated position, the fact that he included this in his three-point prescription for the Indo-Pacific is significant because Japan, like many smaller countries in the region, is in the middle of a tense territorial dispute with China over the Senkaku Islands.

Outlining his approach in an address to the Japan-India Association today, Singh identified three key areas of cooperation to strengthen the idea of an Indo-Pacific strategic confluence:

* Forge greater regional interaction to "develop habits of consultation" and "evolve commonly accepted principles for managing differences".

* Promote regional economic integration and connectivity for a "more balanced regional architecture.

* Ensure maritime security in the Indo-Pacific by upholding principles of "freedom of navigation and unimpeded lawful commerce in accordance with international law and resolve maritime issues peacefully", while addressing common challenges like piracy.

Both speeches that Singh made in Tokyo Tuesday carried a common central message that the two countries have commonalities that are essential ingredients to take the relationship forward. While he did mention China, the attributes he identified are ones specifically missing in the India-China relationship.

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