The fifth iteration of India-Japan Maritime Bilateral Exercise, JIMEX, between the Indian Navy and the Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force (JMSDF) was held in the Arabian Sea from 06 to 08 October 2021. The bilateral exercises between the two countries had started in 2012 with primary focus on maritime security cooperation, to develop a common understanding of operational procedures and enhance inter-operability by conducting a multitude of advanced exercises, across the entire spectrum of maritime operations.[i] Regular bilateral exercises have been a key element of a strong maritime relationship between the two countries. Over the years, JIMEX has become more intense in nature with advanced level of operations. The last edition of the JIMEX was held in September 2020 amidst COVID protocols. The three days bilateral exercise this year, involved participation from ships and aircrafts from two sides engaging in air, surface and sub-surface operations in maritime and air domain.[ii]
The ‘special strategic and global partnership’ between India-Japan has significantly grown in recent years, with special focus on maritime cooperation, with converging geo-economic and geo-strategic interests of the two Indio-Pacific partners. Geographical location of India and Japan inextricably links their security, commerce and trade with the maritime domain. Both India and Japan are heavily dependent on oceans, for 90% of their trade is carried via crucial International Sea Lanes (ISLs) in the Indo-Pacific region.
Complementarities in India’s vision for a “free, open and inclusive” Indo-Pacific as articulated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Shangri-la Dialogue 2018 and Japan’s 2016 Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) initiative provides an opportunity to pursue shared objectives of “peace, prosperity and progress” in the region. The former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in his much acclaimed ‘confluence of the two seas’ speech in 2007 in the Indian Parliament had highlighted shared interests of the two maritime democracies.[iii] The relationship between the two countries is expected to be charting the same positive course, under the Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) which retained single party majority in the general election held on 31 October 2021. The approach of the new administration towards relationship with India is likely to be a continuation of Abe administration’s approach.
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 at India as a crucial partner to realise ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’.
Amidst the geopolitical ambiguities in the region India and Japan are bolstering their 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 6th round of India-Japan Maritime Affairs Dialogue took place in virtual format on 09 September 2021.[iv]
An Implementing Arrangement for Deepening Maritime Cooperation was concluded between the navies of the two countries in 2018, to facilitate greater exchange of information. The Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA) was signed between the two countries on 09 September 2020, similar to logistics sharing agreements that India has with the United States, Australia, Singapore and France. The agreements enable exchange of supplies and services between armed forces of the two countries.[v] The ACSA will further contribute in enhancing interoperability between the Indian and Japanese navy.
A converging area of interest for India and Japan has been cooperation in enhancing maritime connectivity and infrastructure in the Indian Ocean and the wider Indo-Pacific region, in an ‘open, transparent and non-exclusive’ manner, more so given the apprehensions about China’s increasing footprints in the region. Collaboration for quality infrastructure in third countries like the ongoing projects in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and African countries “fine-tuned with their development needs and priorities”[vi] have been a key focus area of the strategic partnership. Recently, India’s External Affairs Minister Dr Jaishankar, discussed about a possibility of concretising a sea-route between the Arabian Sea and the South China Sea, while discussing India’s Act East Policy during an event, [vii]
Japan has also 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.
The navies of the two countries have been engaged in regular exercises and port visits in the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific. In addition to bilateral exercise, Japanese Navy has become a permanent participant in the multilateral Malabar exercise since 2015 with navies of India, United States and now Australia. The second phase of Malabar exercise between the Quad countries was held in the Bay of Bengal from 12-15 October 2021, consisting of integrated maritime operations.
As the Indo-Pacific region witnesses rise of many minilaterals in recent years, the discussion has also been going round about a possible trilateral of India, Japan and France complementing the deepening bilateral relations among the three countries. As the French Ambassador to India Emmanuel Lenain speaking at the event said, “we are building piece by piece a strategic triangle between Paris, Tokyo and Delhi committed to a rules-based Indo-Pacific order.[viii] Also present at the event was Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla, who stated that, “India, France and Japan are leading stakeholders in the region and with other like-minded countries, it is upon us to ensure that the Indo-Pacific remains peaceful and open, taking into account needs and concerns of all its inhabitants”.[ix] Despite their different geographical peculiarities the three countries have economic and strategic stakes in maintaining a stable and secure maritime environment in the Indo-Pacific region. The possibility of such trilateral, with a maritime angle is something to look forward to, as France is looking to enhance its ties in the Indo-Pacific region. Paris is looking to explore options, more so after the recent announcement of the new security trilateral AUKUS.
The long special strategic partnership between India and Japan has clearly built a sense of comfort between the two. Maritime cooperation is one of the linchpin areas of the ‘special strategic and global partnership’ between the two democracies. As India endeavours to strengthen relations and seeks development of the countries 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 could be some of the major focus areas in furthering maritime cooperation between the two countries. Robust India-Japan partnership has the ability 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, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.
[i] Fifth Edition of Japan-India Bilateral Maritime Exercise ‘JIMEX’, https://pib.gov.in/PressReleasePage.aspx?PRID=1761131
[ii] India, Japan hold bilateral maritime exercise
[iii] Confluence of the Two Seas" Speech by H.E.Mr. Shinzo Abe, Prime Minister of Japan at the Parliament of the Republic of India, https://www.mofa.go.jp/region/asia-paci/pmv0708/speech-2.html
[v] Signing of the Agreement Between the Government of Japan and the Government of the Republic of India Concerning Reciprocal Provision of Supplies and Services Between the Self-Defense Forces of Japan and the Indian Armed Forceshttps://www.mofa.go.jp/press/release/press4e_002896.html
[vi] Asia Africa Growth Corridor: Partnership for Sustainable and Innovative Development, A Vision Document, Africa Development Bank Meting, Ahmedabad, India, May 2017, http://www.eria.org/Asia-Africa-Growth-Corridor-Document.pdf, p.6
[vii] India and Japan to develop infrastructure projects in the North-Eastern states, 15 February 2021, https://indbiz.gov.in/india-and-japan-to-develop-infrastructure-projects-in-the-north-eastern-states/
[viii] India, France & Japan plan Indo-Pacific bloc, January 20, 2021, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/articleshow/80356858.cms?utm_source=contentofinterest&utm_medium=text&utm_campaign=cppst
[ix] I. bid