Deepening India-Japan Maritime Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific

The Indian and Japanese coast guards conducted a joint naval drill in waters off Chennai, southeastern coast of India on 16 January 2020. These joint exercises and drills between the navies and coastguards are conducted at regular intervals. This 18 th such engagement involved Japan’s Echigo patrol vessel and five Indian ships, as well as helicopters belonging to both countries. Te exercises focused on anti-piracy training, law enforcement operations and inspections of vessels. Significantly, maritime security cooperation has been a priority agenda of discussion at frequent high level interactions between India and Japan.

The special strategic partnership between India-Japan has significantly advanced in recent years, with convergences of geo-economic and geo-strategic interests in the Indo-Pacific. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s in his much acclaimed ‘confluence of the two seas’ speech 2007 in the Indian Parliament had highlighted shared interests of the two maritime democracies. Geographical location of both the countries inextricably links their security, commerce and trade with the maritime domain. Both India and Japan are heavily dependent on oceans since 90% of their trade is carried via crucial International Sea Lanes (ISLs) in the Indo- Pacific region. Both the countries have reiterated at various occasions the importance of ensuring freedom of navigation and over flight, unimpeded lawful commerce, and peaceful settlement of disputes, for a ‘free, open, inclusive and rules-based’ Indo-Pacific and have expressed willingness to further cooperation to maintain maritime security and stability.

Complementarities in India’s vision for a “free, open and inclusive” Indo-Pacific as articulated by Prime Minister Modi at Shangri-la Dialogue 2018 and Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) initiative provides an opportunity to pursue shared objectives of “peace, prosperity and progress” in the region. India with its growing economic, maritime-military capabilities and strategic ambitions in the wider Indo-Pacific region is keen to strengthen partnerships with the countries across the region. India’s relationship with Japan is also crucial in the light of its Act East Policy. On the other hand, Japan looks towards India as a crucial partner to realise a “free and open Indo-Pacific”.

Amidst the geopolitical ambiguities in the region, India and Japan are bolstering bilateral maritime cooperation. Maritime Affairs Dialogue has been instituted between the two countries to discuss issues of mutual interest in maritime domain and identifying ways of furthering maritime cooperation. The 5 th round of India-Japan Maritime Affairs Dialogue took place in Tokyo on 24 December 2019. The navies of the two countries have been engaged in regular exercises and port visits in the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific. Bilateral exercise JIMEX has been instituted since 2013. Japan has also become a permanent participant along with India and the US, in the Malabar exercise since 2015 adding momentum to the trilateral relationship. The 23 rd iteration of the Malabar exercise in 2019 took place off the coast of Japan. The Indian and Japanese Navy ships also participated in a group sail in May 2019, in the South China Sea, along with the ships from the of the US, and Philippines navies, conducting formation exercises, joint naval drills for six days. Such a joint exercise in contentious waters of the South China Sea (SCS) is significant given the backdrop of complex sovereignty disputes in the region between China and Southeast Asian countries. Also it comes at a time when the US and China are engaged in trade friction, tension between Japan and China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu and concerns about growing Chinese assertiveness in the region particularly its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

An ‘Implementing Arrangement for Deepening Maritime Cooperation’ was concluded between the navies of the two countries in 2018, to facilitate greater exchange of information. Negotiations are expected to conclude soon on ‘Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA)’, similar to agreements for logistics sharing between India and the US and with France. The ACSA will further contribute in enhancing interoperability between the Indian and Japanese navies. The efforts are also on to procure US-2 amphibious aircraft by New Delhi. The acquisition will add to Indian Navy’s existing Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) and Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR)/ Search and rescue (SAR) capabilities.

A priority area in India-Japan partnership has been development cooperation in the wider Indo-Pacific region especially for enhancing connectivity and infrastructure including maritime connectivity, in an “open, transparent and non-exclusive” manner.

Recently the first India-Japan Two plus Two Dialogue at Foreign and Defence Ministers levels was held on 30 November 2019. It is a robust mechanism to enhance defense and security ties between the two countries. Maritime cooperation was one of the crucial issues flagged at the inaugural Dialogue. During the meeting the Japanese side welcomed the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI) announced by PM Modi at the East Asia Summit in Bangkok in 2019. As part of the IPOI, India is willing to partner like-minded countries to cooperate in focus areas including “maritime security; sustainable use of marine resources; disaster prevention and management”. Japan could be a crucial partner in taking the initiative of IPOI forward.

Maritime cooperation therefore, remains the linchpin of the ‘special strategic and global partnership’ between India and Japan. As India endeavours to strengthen relations and development in the region in a mutually supportive and cooperative manner under the vision of SAGAR (Security and Growth for All) and now IPOI, Japan is a crucial partner for India. Ports and inland water transport, smart islands, disaster risk reduction, harnessing ocean resources for development; unimpeded by regional conflicts or non-traditional challenges to security, could be focus areas in furthering cooperation between the two countries. India-Japan partnership has the ability and willingness to work together for security of global commons to maintain stability and support economic prosperity in cooperative manner in the wider Indo-Pacific region.

Dr Pragya Pandey is a Research Fellow at the Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.

© 2018 Kalinga International Foundation Designed by Nescant Info Systems