(File) Prime Minister Narendra Modi with his Japanese counterpart Fumio Kishida. Reuters
The sea symbolizes the vast expanse of strategic opportunities and challenges for India and Japan in the face of China’s growing naval power and expansionist ideology. The Indian Ocean region is of immense importance to India’s maritime trade, with over 90 percent of the country’s international trade, including energy imports, taking place through these waters. The region is equally important from a security perspective. For Japan, as an island nation, the sea plays a key role in the economy and national security. With a huge exclusive economic zone of about 4.5 million square kilometers, the sea is an integral part of Japan’s interests.
China as a naval threat to India and Japan
In the bilateral ties between India and Japan, the presence of the invisible but omnipresent China cannot be ignored, be it trade or security. The presence of the threat perception from China is so strong that all joint strategic decisions are centered around it. China’s growing naval presence and building of aircraft carriers, submarines and surface ships at breakneck speed only gave obvious signs of China’s hegemonic ambitions. In no less uncertain terms, China’s Xi Jinping, who recently began his third presidential term, promised in his address to the National People’s Congress to strengthen national security and transform the military into a “great steel wall”. Although these words were primarily directed at the United States, the rest of the world’s nations could not ignore them, especially those with uneasy ties to Beijing, India and Japan among them.
China’s territorial claims in the South China and East China Seas, contested by Japan and other neighboring countries, are well known, often leading to heightened diplomatic tensions. In what is embarrassing for India, China is investing heavily in IOR countries like Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the Maldives in maritime infrastructure like ports and naval bases, signaling Beijing’s clear intentions to project power beyond its immediate neighbourhood. In this ultimate kuddelmuddel, there is a chance that China will quietly slip away from its goal if the world gets too used to the diplomatic snub.
Whatever the assurances from Beijing, the reality on the water is quite different and a strengthened partnership between India and Japan is not only practical but important and necessary.
Deeper defense ties between India and Japan are the need of the hour
Perhaps the maxim — In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is — aptly referring to India-Japan defense ties. Although there is rapid cooperation between the two countries, there are several areas where a faster conclusion of the negotiations will be good for both countries.
The purchase of the ShinMaywa US-2 Amphibian aircraft, which is a search and rescue aircraft that can also be used for maritime surveillance and reconnaissance, is still long overdue for India despite New Delhi giving the go-ahead for 12 such aircraft from Japan for a whopping 1 .3 billion dollars. For its Project 75I, the Indian Navy needed six air-independent propulsion submarines for greater ocean range, and even looked at Japan’s Soryu-class submarines, but nothing much materialized. The Soryu-class submarines are diesel-electric submarines operated by the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force and are known for their stealth capabilities and highly advanced sonar systems. In 2018, although it looked like India would approach Japan for these submarines, something concrete could happen in this regard. In between, there were reports that India might be interested in jointly developing the Mitsubishi X-2 Shinshin stealth fighter with Japan, but there has been no development on this front either.
Military-to-military ties are deepening between India and Japan, and joint exercises are being held for all three branches of the armed forces. The Japan-India Maritime Exercise (JIMEX) is held every two years to enhance interoperability and mutual understanding between the two friendly navies. Then there is the annual naval exercise called Exercise Malabar in which the navies of the United States and Australia also participate along with their Indian and Japanese counterparts. The Japanese Navy also participated in the MILAN multilateral naval exercise held off the coast of Visakhapatnam in February 2022. This year, the Malabar exercise will be held off the coast of Sydney, although the dates are yet to be specified. The armies of India and Japan are also participating in Exercise Dharma Guardian which is held for the two countries’ ground forces and Veer Guardian which brings together the air forces of the two nations. The joint air exercise was held for the first time in January this year.
While the strategic benefits of the $368 billion Aukus submarine deal, which will see Australia acquire eight nuclear submarines – the Virginia class and the next-generation SSN-Aukus submarine – are still being debated, the importance placed on China’s maritime superiority and rapidly expanding naval capabilities is not can be undermined. Apart from the tactics being tested through these military exercises, the equal importance of technology and highly advanced military equipment will only put all participating nations on an equal footing. In fact, the military debacle India suffered at the hands of China in 1962 was also largely due to inferior weaponry.
In a joint statement at the Japan-India Summit focusing on Partnership for a Peaceful, Stable and Prosperous Post-Covid World at the 14th annual Japan-India Summit in March last year, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and his Indian counterpart, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, “appreciated the significant progress achieved in security and defense cooperation and confirmed the desire to further deepen it”. The two Prime Ministers welcomed the operationalization of the Agreement on Mutual Provision of Supplies and Services between the Japan Self-Defense Forces and the Armed Forces of India and the ongoing cooperation in the field of unmanned ground vehicles and robotics. The need for future cooperation in the field of defense equipment and technology was also emphasized, which is extremely important considering the nature of the fight that can suddenly hit any country.
Although the 2+2 meetings of the ministers of foreign affairs and defense of both countries are very important, the spirit will have to be reflected on the field as well. In a joint statement following the first India-Japan 2+2 Foreign and Defense Ministers’ meeting in November 2019, both countries pledged early completion of the ACSA negotiations that began in October 2018. As both countries realize “the importance of ensuring maritime security in achieving a free, open, inclusive and rules-based Indo-Pacific”, the sooner bottlenecks to arms exports and technology transfer to India are removed, the better. Japan lifted its long-standing self-imposed arms export ban in 2014, and last December Prime Minister Fumio Kishida made it clear that Japan needed to develop counter-strike capabilities, reversing a policy that had been in place since World War II. . With China and North Korea as neighbors, there is little choice for Japan but this one.
The joint statement issued after the Second Japan-India 2+2 Ministerial Meeting of Foreign and Defense Ministers in September last year gave ample indication that Japan will exponentially develop its defense capabilities, including offensive ones within five years and a huge increase in the defense budget. However, what is somewhat disheartening is that the multiple joint statements issued on different occasions hardly mention any weapons system being negotiated between the two countries. Japan needs to understand that if Tokyo views New Delhi as a partner, it cannot allow the Indian military to depend largely on outdated weapons. Since 2014-15, India and Japan have held the sixth edition of the Joint Working Group on Defense Equipment and Technology Cooperation (JWG-DETC), but it needs to be expanded.
Even as international groupings like QUAD and AUKUS have been shaped with China in mind, the new Russia-Iran-China troika cannot simply be ignored even though India shares fairly good ties with Iran and Russia, but only in talks with China . Significantly, China is key and China can be a catalyst for God knows what when it comes to the global power equation.
Indo-Pacific similar to a stormy sea
The Indo-Pacific is literally the entire planet from the Indian subcontinent to the west coast of the USA and literally, only one country – China – has now set its sights on the whole of it trying to establish a single axis of power dictated by Beijing. In its ambition to change the power dynamics in the region, China is not only pushing hard on its Belt and Road Initiative, but has also entered into maritime territorial disputes with many of its neighbors.
The issue of Chinese hegemony poses a significant challenge to the world far more so to its neighbors like India and Japan. A year ago, both the Indian and Japanese Prime Ministers emphasized a safe maritime area with freedom of navigation and respect for sovereign boundaries under international law, particularly the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. With China in the backyard, this is easier said than done, as Beijing often shows little regard for international decency in its quest to seize power.
Japan Times reported on Wednesday (March 15, 2023) that Prime Minister Fumio Kishida will unveil a new plan to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific to counter China’s growing influence in the region. The Japanese Prime Minister will arrive in New Delhi on March 19 for a three-day visit where he will share with his Indian counterpart, Prime Minister Modi, the draft of the Japanese-led initiative.
There is little time to be amazed by what China is doing at sea or to be caught up in diplomatic nonsense, but rather to accept the bitter truth about China flexing its well-toned muscles to change the strategic landscape. It is high time that the others find ways to contain or oppose them.
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Updated Date: 19 Mar 2023 12:05:14 IST