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Indian PM Visit to Japan Expected to Deepen Military, Economic Ties

The visit this week of India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Japan has raised expectations of closer political and economic ties between the two countries. As VOA's Steve Herman reports from Tokyo, Japan's defense chief hopes the new closeness will not worry China.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh arrives in Tokyo Wednesday for a four-day visit that will include wide-ranging discussions with his Japanese counterpart, Shinzo Abe. The visit comes at a time when interests between these two nations are converging - both have vibrant though very different economies, and both have a strong interest in maritime defense.

Washington is also eager to expand connections with India and Mr. Singh has recently spoken in favor of four-way military cooperation among Japan, India, the United States and Australia.

Japan's defense agency chief Fumio Kyuma endorses the idea. Kyuma tells VOA that the four countries have a common interest in protecting shipping from piracy and other threats in the Indian Ocean. Joint training, patrols and other cooperation, he says, are something Japan would favor.

The Japanese and Indian coast guards already hold annual exercises and there is also talk of joint naval exercises - a move that could rattle China.

Japan's defense chief Kyuma acknowledges concern about how Beijing might view closer military ties between Tokyo and Delhi. Kyuma says that of course any cooperation between Japan and India must avoid worrying China.

A former Indian ambassador to Japan, Aftab Seth, now a professor at Keio University's Global Security Research Institute in Tokyo, agrees that China should not feel threatened by Japan-India maritime cooperation.

"Any cooperation between Japan and India or the United States, Japan and India - if you want to put Australia into it as well - should not be seen as being directed against anybody but as being a measure of joint effort to ensure the safety of the sea lanes for all users," he said.

Economics is the other large issue on the agenda. Japan has lagged in investment in India, partly due to the sanctions it had in place for three years following India's 1998 nuclear tests.

Both India and China have growth rates between eight and ten percent annually. Japan's trade with India is estimated at less than five percent of Japan's commerce with China. Japan's investment in China outstrips that of its investment in India by more than 15 times.

The two leaders are expected to lay the groundwork for talks on an economic partnership that would go beyond a free trade pact.

Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman Tomohiko Taniguchi says this should happen quickly.

"We are just about to launch an official negotiation, which is going to take a considerable amount of time but the Indian government and the Japanese government are thinking of shortening the process as much as possible," he said.

Professor Seth says the two largest and most developed democracies in Asia have much to gain by bridging closer economic ties.

"Prospective Japanese investors have always said 'oh, no no, we can't look at India with the same view as we can China because you don't have any infrastructure,'" said Seth. "But that's what's changing so rapidly."

India's red tape and lack of infrastructure have dissuaded some Japanese companies from establishing joint ventures in India's automotive and chemical sectors. This visit could see the beginning of efforts to change that.

Japanese and Indian media report that the two leaders will announce that they have agreed to substantially increase the number of weekly passenger air flights starting next year from eleven to 42. That would mark the first revision in 13 years of the aviation pact between India and Japan.