By Satoru Nagao*
In recent months, Japan-India cooperation in the maritime commons has been a subject of animated discussion in strategic circles. Following Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Tokyo in November 2016, there is speculation that India and Japan might strike up a dynamic partnership in the littoral-Southeast Asia. New Delhi and Tokyo have been active security players in Asia, with growing maritime presence in their near-seas. The Indian Navy and Japanese Self Defence Maritime Force have in recent years drawn closer, as evidenced by the increasing complexity to the Japan India Maritime Exercises (JIMEX) and exercise-MALABAR, where Japan is now a regular partner.
Tokyo has also sought to expand its defence trade with India, with a reported bid to export the US-2i amphibious aircraft to India, as also to undertake construction of maritime infrastructure, most notably in the Andaman and Nicobar Island (ANI). According to recent news reports, Japan is seeking to extend its financial support via the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) to upgrade naval air bases and construct new signals intelligence stations along the ANI chain, with the goal of monitoring Chinese submarine activity in the region. The eventual aim is to integrate the new network of sensors into the existing Japan-US “Fish Hook” Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS) network. This would boost India’s trilateral cooperation with the Japan and United States in countering China’s assertive maritime policy in the Indo-Pacific region. The two countries have agreed to strengthen their maritime cooperation in the wider maritime commons.
Are Tokyo and New Delhi, in fact, going to expand their cooperation in the South China Sea?
Informed sources say they well might. During Modi’s visit to Japan, a joint statement categorically mentioned the importance of South China Sea security for both states. “The two Prime Ministers,” the statement read, “stressed the importance of resolving the SCS disputes by peaceful means, in accordance with universally recognised principles of international law including the UNCLOS.” This was much in keeping with a recent trend where India-Japan joint communiqués have taken care to mention the dispute in the South China Sea. Indeed, during Premier Shinzo Abe’s visit to New Delhi in December 2015, the SCS found clear reference in the joint statement. “The two Prime Ministers,” the joint statement read, “noted the developments in the South China Sea and called upon all States to avoid unilateral actions that could lead to tensions in the region.”
Interestingly, neither Japan nor India belongs to the Southeast Asian littoral. They also know well that their maritime cooperation mostly leads to an acerbic reaction from China, with calls to “countries from outside the area to stop pushing for the militarization of the South China Sea”. Despite the fact that the SCS remains an “outside” issue for Japan or India, both countries strangely display a keen interest in its affairs.
In order to decipher this peculiar dynamic, it is useful to pose three key questions: How important is South China Sea geographically for Japan and India? How do the territorial disputes in the critical waterway impact New Delhi and Tokyo’s geopolitical interests? What kind of security role do Japan and India see themselves playing in the South China Sea?
How important is South China Sea geographically for Japan and India?
Whereas 97 percent of India’s international trade by volume is conducted by sea, almost all of Japan’s international trade is ocean-borne. As energy-poor countries heavily dependent on oil imports from the Persian Gulf region, the two are seriously concerned by mercantilist efforts to assert control over energy supplies and transport routes. The maintenance of a peaceful and lawful maritime domain, including unimpeded freedom of navigation, is thus critical to their security and economic well-being.
In essence, the South China Sea is important for Tokyo and New Delhi for the critical sea lanes of communications that it hosts. The waterway enables regional energy and trade flows and commerce and is a key determinant for Indo-Pacific prosperity. SLOCs, however, are not the only reason why the South China Sea issue is important. The SCS is also important because it rims Southeast Asia, which is a strategically critical space. Situated in the middle of the Indo-Pacific, Southeast Asia is one of the most commercially dynamic regions in the world, and for many the epicentre of world geopolitics.
But Southeast Asia is peculiar because it isn’t really an integrated region. Unlike South Asia, where a power like India can be a net security provider, the picture in the Southeast Asian littorals is a lot more complicated. The fact that it is surrounded by great powers like China, Japan US, Australia and India, means Southeast Asia remains highly vulnerable to the great power game.
In many ways, Southeast Asia can be compared with Central Europe during the Cold War. The combination of East and West Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and other European states was not quite politically integrated but still a strategically important place, surrounded by great powers. Like Southeast Asia today finds itself caught between China and the US, Europe in the Cold War, suffered due to the great power game between the US and Russia.
And yet, the South China Sea is unique because it involves overlapping territorial claims that pose a threat to geopolitical stability. Today, within its arbitrary “nine dotted line” (9DL), China claims more than 80 percent of the SCS. Despite the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s rejection of its historic rights within the 9DL, Beijing continues to build artificial islands in the South China Sea. Both Tokyo and New Delhi have worries about China’s power projection in the Southeast Asia and the Eastern Indian Ocean, using its new bases in the South China Sea. Some even fear that China could deploy submarines and launch fighter jets from its Spratlys islands and attempt to obstruct all foreign warships and airplanes in the region.
Yet, China’s provocative behaviour is not entirely unanticipated. In August 2013, during a symposium in Tokyo, Japanese Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera’s statement had carried a prescient warning. Onodera had reiterated that “China has and will make more and more advancement into the seas.” In the absence of military capability, the Japanese veteran political pointed out, China tries to promote dialogue and economic cooperation, setting territorial rows aside. But when it sees a chance, any daylight between a nation and its ally, China makes blunt advancements. Just as Onodera had predicted, Southeast Asian countries today have neither the capability nor their main ally’s support to deter Chinese assertiveness.
How does China’s assertiveness in the SCS impact New Delhi and Tokyo’s geopolitical interests?
Much of China’s maritime expansion is driven by its need to create a new military balance in the Asia Pacific. Since the 1950s, when China captured half of Paracel islands following France’s withdrawal from Vietnam, Beijing has dominated the Southeast Asian littoral. China occupied another half of the Paracel islands in 1974 just as the Vietnam War ended and America withdrew its troops from the region. After the Soviets’ own withdrawal from Vietnam in 1988, China moved to attack the Spratly islands. Even in the Philippines, the PLA Navy occupied the Mischief Reef, immediately after the US vacated Philippines bases.
It is the militarisation of the PLA that worries Japanese and Indian strategic experts. Over the past two decades, China’s submarine arm has grown from a few to almost 42 submarines. During the same period, Singapore acquired five submarines, while Vietnam got four, and Malaysia, two.
Both Japan and India know they do not individually possess the capability to counter China. In the absence of hard military power, they are both dependent on the United States to maintain a favourable military balance in that region. But the US is itself a declining power in the Asia-Pacific. Since 2000, the US Navy has acquired only 13 submarines while its total number of submarines has declined from 127 in 1990 to 73. Although US submarines are far more sophisticated than China’s, their numerical shortfall is significant.
In addition, there is growing sense that given its problems in other parts of the world, Washington cannot afford to focus all military power in Asia. Like smaller Southeast Asian countries, Japan worries about a scenario where US involvement in conflicts in the Eastern Europe and Middle East might leave Washington with a shrunken appetite for issues in the South China Sea.
This is not to say that the United States is vacating the Asia-Pacific anytime soon. Far from it. With the Trump team announcing plans to increase the number of warships from 276 to 350 for greater deployments in the East, not many doubt Washington’s Pacific ambitions. Japanese analysts do wonder, however, how America’s approach to the Asia-Pacific can “remain one of commitment and strength and inclusion” if it is, in the words of US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, simultaneously “countering Russian aggression and coercion in Europe, checking Iranian aggression and fighting ISIL’s malign influence in the Middle East.” It does appear odd that Washington today has neither the budget nor the warships for a sustained presence in the Asia-Pacific.
What kind of security role do Japan and India see themselves playing in the South China Sea?
For India and Japan, it appears, maintaining the military balance in Asia is a priority. Both sides would like to be ready for a worst-case scenario. In view of declining US military power, the best method for maintaining military balance is to cooperate with other regional powers. Each would ideally like to see China as a responsible power in the Pacific. India might particularly expect China to accept the Arbitral Tribunal’s decision in the same way that New Delhi embraced a tribunal ruling on the India-Bangladesh sea boundary dispute in 2014 in favour of Bangladesh. But modifying its strategic behaviour might be hard for Beijing, not least because the stakes for China appear much higher.
Strategic security in Asia has for a long time been underwritten by the United States. Its bilateral partnerships with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Australia have been critical in providing maritime security in the regional commons. Now that these alliances appear to be fraying, regional states need to develop closer intra-ties to tide over strategic uncertainties. Indeed, in the absence of preponderant US military power, the old system of strong bilateral ties with Washington system is not enough to maintain peace and order in this region; which is why Japan, India, Australia and Singapore are cooperating in the maritime realm. Their mini-lateral interactions could potentially culminate in a collective security system.
In this regard, the Japan-India-Australia Trilateral Dialogue held in June 2015 is a particularly significant initiative. By keeping the United States out of their grouping, the three sides sought to independently evolve a system of responsibility sharing in the maritime commons. It is now hoped that Vietnam, Indonesia and other Southeast Asian states would separately join the system to maintain the military balance with China. This is not to suggest that there is a deliberate attempt to isolate China. Regional states are open to working alongside China, provided it agrees to acting responsibly under an agreed set of rules. Indeed, India, the US, Australia and other Southeast Asian countries have also all held joint exercises with China, even cooperating in areas such as anti-piracy patrols along the coast of Somalia. These examples indicate that this cooperative multilateral security framework is a good way to both establish strategic balance and defuse emerging tensions.
Japan-India Operational Cooperation
For a few years now, India has vigorously pursued the ‘Look East Policy’ as a guiding foreign policy principle. Under its broader ambit, New Delhi has supported regional security efforts in Southeast Asia. An updated version—the ‘Act East Policy’—unveiled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014 seeks to widen India’s operational presence in the Asia-Pacific. Besides operational forays in Southeast Asia, New Delhi has also been providing support to regional armed forces. From providing training to Malaysian fighter pilots, to facilitating maintenance of Indonesian Air Force fighters, and offering air and land bases for the training of Singaporean forces, India has sought to expand its security contribution in maritime-Asia.
Japanese experts say Tokyo regards India’s defence relationship with Vietnam as a model to be followed in New Delhi’s security ties with other Southeast Asian countries. Alongside training naval submarine crews and fighter pilots, New Delhi has undertaken to supply spare parts of Soviet-origin warships and jets for the Vietnam Navy and Air Force, even donating some patrol ships.
For its part, Tokyo has been indirectly supporting Southeast Asia – providing maritime equipment including anti-piracy system, tsunami warning system, cyber defence system, and also building infrastructure. In addition, the Abe administration has also been donating maritime platforms to these countries. In the recent past, Tokyo has donated patrol ships to Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia, also leasing a TC-90 training plane to the Philippines.
In effect, India-Japan cooperation is a potential source of strength for Southeast Asian countries. If their navies could forge a closer partnership in the South China Sea they could provide critical balance to the Asia pacific region. Japan’s superior infrastructure-building capability could help install operational systems — such as air control equipment — in the South China Sea, while India’s significant personnel training capacity can be leveraged to benefit regional maritime forces.
To this end, India and Japan seem to be moving towards a favourable arrangement – albeit progressively. In January 2014, when PM Abe visited Delhi, the two prime ministers “welcomed the launch of a bilateral dialogue on ASEAN affairs.” Japan and India have been encouraging practical trilateral strategic dialogues and have supported the idea of security through mini-laterals with Vietnam, Singapore, Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Their active collaboration will result in more effective sharing of information, enabling Southeast Asian countries to better identify particular challenges in the maritime commons.
Connectivity and Infrastructure Building
India believes it is important to cooperate not only in the security realm but also in building connectivity and infrastructure in the wider Asian commons. During his last visit to Tokyo, Modi emphasised the importance of an inclusive outlook, to help create connectivity and build regional capacity on the inter-linked waters of the Indo-Pacific. India’s outlook complements Japan’s ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy’ in the Indo-Pacific region that has been driving regional prosperity. Underlining the intent of the two Asian powers, the statement reminded that Japan’s presence in the Malabar naval exercise “underscored the convergence in our strategic interests in the broad expanse of the waters of the Indo-Pacific.”
Clearly, maritime power is not the only area where Japan must compete with China. Beijing has steadily become one of the biggest donors of development aid in South East Asia. By providing massive aid and assistance to countries like Cambodia and Laos, Beijing has successfully created a rift within ASEAN members on how to tackle the South China Sea dispute.
To counter China’s growing influence, Japan has had to dig deep into its pockets, sponsoring entire networks of development projects in South East Asia. In this, it has sought support from regional states. Prime Minister Abe has also proposed a new initiative combining “human, financial and technological resources” to build up connectivity in South East Asia, including through Japanese Overseas Development Assistance projects.
In contrast, India’s development aid strategy for ASEAN has been relatively modest. While it has undertaken some infrastructure projects in Myanmar, New Delhi’s connectivity initiatives in Southeast Asia have been limited to involvement in the Asian Highway Project sponsored by the Asian Development Bank (ADB). Importantly, India and Japan have expressed a willingness to include Africa in their development strategy, by implicitly setting up a rival to China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ project. By improving connectivity between Asia and Africa, through realising a free and open Indo-Pacific region, India and Japan hope to provide substantive maritime goods in Asia, also countering growing Chinese influence in the region. This is one reason why synergy between India’s ‘Act East’ Policy and Japan’s ‘Expanded Partnership for Quality Infrastructure (EPQI)’ is a good idea. Japan has set aside $700 billion over five years to finance infrastructure projects across the world under the EPQI initiative, which was unveiled at the -7 Summit in 2016.
For India, it is encouraging to see Japan’s interest in developing Iran’s Chabahar port, which will provide an alternate sea route to land-locked Afghanistan instead of depending on Pakistani ports. India also welcomes the prospects of cooperation with Japan for the promotion of peace and prosperity in South Asia, particularly Afghanistan.
The Way Forward
At a time when Asia faces the prospect of power disequilibrium, India and Japan, as natural allies, must help promote regional stability by adding concrete strategic content to their fast-growing relationship. Both sides are aware that the balance of power in Asia will be determined by events in East Asia and the Indian Ocean. As things stand, it is the developments in the South China Sea that threaten to have the most long-lasting impact on regional security.
Tokyo and New Delhi have an important role to play to advance peace and stability and help safeguard vital sea lanes in the wider Indo-Pacific region. Since Asia’s economies are bound by sea, maritime democracies like Japan and India must work together to help build a stable, liberal, rules-based order in Asia.
Bilaterally, Japan and India need to strengthen their still-fledgling strategic cooperation by embracing two ideas, both of which demand a subtle shift in conventional thinking and policy. Their first objective would be to build interoperability between their naval forces. Together, Tokyo and New Delhi can undergird peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.
*Satoru Nagao is Research Fellow at The Tokyo Foundation, Lecturer in Security at the Department of Political Studies at the Faculty of Law, Gakushuin University, and Research Fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies
This article was originally published in GP-ORF’s Line in the Waters
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