Defence Cooperation: India Japan - The Growing Strategic Relationship

Spotlight By Aftab Seth

In September 2017, Abe will undertake a ground breaking ceremony at Ahmedabad, which is the terminus of the Shinkansen, connecting this city with Mumbai.

India Japan 2017

Cultural links with Japan go back around 1500 years to the time when the message of the Buddha reached Japanese shores via China and Korea. The message from India received the invaluable support of the powerful and influential Imperial Court under the leadership of Prince Shotoku. This facilitated the spread of Buddhism throughout the land.

Nineteenth century cultural links between our countries, represented by great men like Tagore in India and Okakura Tenshin in Japan, were reinforced by trade links which grew exponentially in the 20th century, making India the 3rd largest trading partner of Japan after the USA and China.

After the Second World War and the gestures of friendship shown by India towards Japan, prepared the ground for friendship; gestures included the gift of an elephant by Nehru to the Tokyo zoo, the dissenting judgement of Judge Pal at the Tokyo war crimes tribunal and the decision of Nehru to help the Japanese steel industry, by encouraging the sale of iron ore from India. As a consequence of these friendly acts, the bilateral relationship acquired new dimensions, both economic and cultural.

On the strategic front, however, there were no major developments, because in the 50s and beyond; Japan was closely tied to the USA in a security treaty relationship and India’s non-alignment was perceived in Japan and elsewhere, as leaning too close to the Soviet line.

Despite these differing strategic perceptions, the relationship was close enough for Japan to take the momentous decision, after the recovery of its economy, to make India the first destination for its Overseas Development Aid. This began in 1958. Since 2003 India has remained the largest recipient of Japanese Economic assistance. Much of the aid has been given to build India’s infrastructure; its oil industry, its railways and its agriculture.

At the strategic level it is significant that in 1961 Hayato Ikeda, then PM of Japan said: “India and Japan are natural pegs” in the security system of Asia. Yet when India fought a brief border war with China in 1962, the Japanese were not overly supportive of the Indian position. This was despite the fact, that at that time, Japan did not recognise Communist China. Instead Japan maintained diplomatic links with the Nationalist Kuo Min Tang regime in Taiwan.

This cold, unsympathetic attitude was similarly seen in 1971, during the war with Pakistan. This event took place on the eve of the game changing visit of Nixon to China in 1972, followed by a visit to China of Japanese PM Kakuei Tanaka and the establishment of relations with Beijing. In the months preceding the December 1971 war and during it, the Japanese strategic establishment remained hostile to India, even after the creation of Bangladesh. Relations were further strained on the strategic front, by the 1974 nuclear tests at Pokhran. Through the 70s and 80s there were visits at the summit level; notably the relationships established during the regime of PM Yasuhiro Nakasone with his counterparts in India. The warm exchanges between Rajiv Gandhi and Nakasone and the Festivals of India in Japan were an important element in improving the ties between us.

Yet there was no palpable warmth of the kind witnessed today, nor was there any strategic depth in our relations.

PM Kaifu visited India in 1990. For ten years, during which there were several changes at the PM level in Japan, not a single Japanese PM went to India in that decade. The May 1998 nuclear tests under PM Vajpayee, exacerbated the situation and led to a harsh set of sanctions, including the suspension of all fresh aid to India. Humanitarian assistance was exempt from this ban.

The rescue of the Japanese cargo ship the “Allondra Rainbow “ by the Indian navy and coast guard in 1999, after its hijack by Indonesian pirates in the Indian Ocean, was a small beginning in the thaw that was set in motion. As a consequence of this new situation, Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh was invited to Tokyo in November 1999. George Fernandez, the defence minister was invited to Tokyo in January 2000.

This was the first ever visit by an Indian defence minister to Japan! It would take 3 years for the first Japanese Defence Minister to visit India; Shigeru Ishiba went in May 2003 for discussions with George Fernandez.

The historic visit of PM Mori in August 2000, after a gap of 10 years, followed by the return visit of PM Vajpayee to Tokyo, in December 2001 was a major turning point our bilateral relationship. [It was purely coincidental that my ambassadorial tenure started with the Mori visit.

In particular the defence relationship can be traced to these early exchanges in the first 3 years of this century. Vajpayee and Mori announced the “Global Partnership for the 21st century between India and Japan. Among the decisions taken, was the setting up of the Comprehensive Security Dialogue, involving officials of the defence and foreign ministries of the two countries and most significantly, for the first time, uniformed officers were included as part of the security dialogue.

The first such dialogue took place in Tokyo in July 2001. Exercises between the navies and coast guards of the two countries were mooted. Paleri the head of the Indian Coast Guard, who was in position when the Allondra Rainbow was rescued, was invited to Japan and feted by the security establishment.

Training of Indian military officers at the National Institute of Defence Studies in Tokyo and some years later of Japanese officers, at the National Defence College in Delhi, was another important development in our defence relationship.

In 2006 December PM Man Mohan Singh signed an agreement in Tokyo with PM Abe, raising the level of the partnership from a “Global” one, to a “Global and’ Strategic” Partnership.

In recognition of this changed equation the navies of Japan India and the USA held joint exercises off Okinawa in April 2007.

It may be recalled that joint naval exercises with the USA had begun in 1992. However the landmark agreement signed between President George Bush and PM M.M. Singh in July 2005, covering inter alia, several defence related projects, seen in the context of the December 2006 pact between India and Japan, mentioned above, facilitated the holding of joint exercises of the three navies in April 2007. These were followed in September 2007 by exercises of the 3 navies in the Bay of Bengal. Australian and Singaporean ships also participated. Apprehension about the adverse reaction of China to such naval cooperation however, led to a temporary suspension of such naval manoeuvres. However, the presence of PM Abe in January 2014, at our Republic Day parade, the first by a Japanese PM was an occasion when the military machine of India was put on public display. The fact that a Japanese PM was a witness to this public demonstration of India’s military potential was symbolic of the distance our two countries had travelled in the area of security cooperation since the turn of the century.

PM Modi's visit to Japan in September 2014 led to the upgrading of the Partnership to a “SPECIAL” Global and Strategic and Partnership. As a consequence of this, the inclusion of Japan in the “Malabar naval exercises with the USA, became a regular annual feature”. The last exercise held in June 2017, in the Indian Ocean was the biggest ever, involving 11 of the largest ships of the 3 navies, including an Indian aircraft carrier and the Japanese helicopter carrier. 8000 personnel of the navies and air forces of the three great democracies took part. Apart from improving inter-operability, the three navies focussed on anti-submarine warfare. The exercises were preceded by an “unusual surge” in the intrusion of Chinese ships and submarines, in the Indian Ocean. In fact the Chinese stationed vessels in the area of the exercise, to constantly monitor the activities of the three friendly navies. Japan and India have been discussing the activities of China in the South China and East Seas at each annual summit over the last four years or more. On this occasion Abe is seeking a maritime agreement with India. In the context of China’s recent activities in Doklam, on the India China Bhutan border and the invective that flowed against India from China, it is certain that these problems will continue to be a major area of focus of India and Japan. Freedom of navigation and adherence to the Law of the Sea continue to be important areas of focus for India and Japan, especially in the light of China’s aggressive activities which proceed unabated.

Japan’s strategic cooperation with India, however, goes well beyond joint naval exercises. From 2014 January, cooperation in the opening of the North East of India has been under discussion. It may be recalled that on 17th September 2014 during his visit to India, Chinese President Xi Jing Ping made an offer to help develop our North East. India has not taken up this Chinese offer but on the contrary, has pursued the discussions with Japan with renewed vigour. On the eve of the visit of Abe to India in September, on the 3rd August 1917 in fact, a Japan India Coordination Forum for the development of the North East was formed. This body, for the first time, brings together all concerned state and central ministries and bodies under the same umbrella, in order to speed up development. This joint work by India and Japan in our North East sees a convergence of our “Act East policy and Japan’s Free and Open Indo Pacific Strategy” A concrete example of this joint work, is the building of National Highway 54 in Mizoram and NH 51 in Meghalaya, using Japanese ODA. The significance of these activities has to be seen in the context of the 1600 km border India shares with Myanmar, which also shares a border with the Yunan province of China. China has been wooing Myanmar for some years. The connectivity that Japan and India are building in this critical region is vital for our joint security. Myanmar is the entry point for the Asean region, in which India and Japan both have strong economic and strategic interests. BIMSTEC, which brings together India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Thailand, is seen as an important forum for the pursuit of our strategic goals in the wider ASEAN region. The disruptive stance of Pakistan in SAARC, heightens the importance of BIMSTEC. PM Modi in early September, 2017, visited Myanmar.

He underlined the fact that India, which has some irredentist movements in the Myanmar border region, needs the full cooperation of Myanmar in order to establish security in our territory, and to bring prosperity and employment to the entire region. India is building a trilateral highway with Thailand and Myanmar, with the objective of linking India by land with Hanoi in Vietnam. Vietnam is a country with which we have a wide ranging defence relationship going back decades. The Vietnamese have been wary of aggressive Chinese activities on their land border and Chinese ambitions in the South China Sea. India has exchanged visits with Vietnam at the summit level for over half a century. Abe after winning his election in December 2012 chose Vietnam as his first foreign destination in January 2013. Before that year was out Abe had been to all ten countries of ASEAN.

Modi's recent visit to Myanmar on the eve of Abe’s visit to India from September 12th, may be seen as an effort to coordinate policies in this region. It would be recalled that Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to India in November 2016, was immediately followed by a visit by her to Japan. Abe pledged $7.73 billion to Suu for the development of her country. Significantly Modi arrived in Japan days after the visit of Aung San Suu Kyi. Modi, on his September 2017 visit to Myanmar, spoke of the trilateral highway involving India Myanmar and Thailand. He also spoke of a road river project connecting Kolkata to the Myanmar port of Sittwe. This project is scheduled to be completed by 2020.

India will also connect Myanmar’s Kaladan River to our North East providing a direct connection for trade with our North Eastern region. The coordination of discussions between India and Japan on Myanmar and ASEAN, takes on added importance, in view of the inroads that China continues to make in this region and the degree of suspicion with which several ASEAN nations view the aggressive activity of China.

Another important area of cooperation between India and Japan, in the context of China’s expansionist roles is in Africa. Modi’s visit to Japan in November, 2016, saw the announcement of the Asia Africa Growth Corridor. [AAGC]

In May 2017 in Ahmedabad, the governors of the African Development Bank met and discussed trilateral cooperation between India, Japan and African. The philosophy of the AAGC is open and inclusive and seeks to involve fully, the resources of the African countries with which collaboration is being undertaken. This philosophy is in a sense a counter to the One Belt One Road {OBOR] of China and the Maritime Silk road, projects with which India has not associated itself. Japan and India are also aware that the China Pakistan Economic Corridor infringes the sovereignty of India, since it traverses territory claimed by India. AAGC ‘s open approach is in stark contrast to CPEC, which even in Pakistan, is being criticised as likely to reduce Pakistan to a “vassal status”, vis a vis an overly dominant China.

Japan and India, in working together in Africa, are demonstrating their ability to provide viable options to the Chinese model. Japan has pledged $200 billion for the AAGC and India will provide $2 billion worth of expertise including human resources. Mombasa has been identified as the point of entry for the Japan-India cooperation with Africa; a large industrial project is to be undertaken by the two countries.

Building the Indian infrastructure has been part of Japan’s agenda from the 1950s and 1960s.

PM Koizumi mooted the Delhi Mumbai Industrial Corridor in 2005 April, when he was in India. PM Abe in August, 2007 signed the agreement in Delhi, on this huge project, involving an area as large as Honshu, Japan’s largest island.

In September 2017, Abe will undertake a ground breaking ceremony at Ahmedabad, which is the terminus of the Shinkansen, connecting this city with Mumbai. Easy soft loans provided by Japan funding 81 percent of the total cost of about $15 billion will make this high tech project a symbol of the ever growing ties between India and Japan. Japan’s success in getting this project should be seen in the context of the out-bidding of Japan by China for a high speed rail project in Indonesia some two years ago, the failure of a bid for a rail project in Thailand and the rejection by the National Assembly of Vietnam, of a Japanese proposal for a high speed rail link in Vietnam. The success of the Mumbai Ahmedabad rail project is to be seen not only in bilateral terms but also as having wider regional and global ramifications.

Civil nuclear cooperation has been on the anvil for the last few years. The enabling legislation passed by the Japanese parliament in August, should facilitate cooperation in civil nuclear energy. It is highly symbolic for Japan to have arrived at this agreement with India, since we are the only country with which Japan has such cooperation, even though we are not signatories of the NPT. All other partners of Japan in nuclear matters are signatories of the NPT.

Japan knows that helping nuclear power production in India will give a boost to India’s economy. It would, of course, also provide Japanese companies like Hitachi and Toshiba many opportunities to export large quantities of their equipment to India.

In the field of defence and especially maritime surveillance, the US two amphibious aircraft, manufactured by Japan, has been under discussion. Acquisition of this sophisticated equipment and access to the high technology associated with its manufacture, would give a significant boost to defence and strategic cooperation between India and Japan.

China is an important factor in the support given to the Kim Jong Un regime in North Korea. India and Japan have expressed grave concern at the provocative behaviour of Kim in conducting multiple nuclear tests and sending missiles over Japanese territory. It is important that both countries work together with like-minded nations to prevent the destabilising effects of Kim’s dangerous provocations.

Japan has also observed the all-weather support that China has extended to Pakistan, despite the glaringly clear evidence that Pakistan’s authorities continue to harbour and sponsor terrorist groups in the North West of Pakistan and in Afghanistan. India and Japan will continue efforts to counteract the malevolent influence of these nefarious elements in Pakistan.

Japan and India are poised to enhance and expand their burgeoning cooperation in the realm of trade, investment, people-to-people contacts and importantly in the field of defence.

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Diplomatist Magazine was launched in October of 1996 as the signature magazine of L.B. Associates (Pvt) Ltd, a contract publishing house based in Noida, a satellite town of New Delhi, India, the National Capital.

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