Japan is a pacifist nation-state despite some recent changes. Thus, it can be safely assumed that defence is not so much a priority for the island country. In fact, Japan does not officially have an army or a navy or even an air force. Instead, what it deploys are ‘self-defence’ forces or SDFs, which are simply meant to come to the aid of the country in the wake of a foreign invasion or terrorism or other such vile acts. The Japanese SDF comprises the three fundamental branches of warfare as well as new and emerging divisions such as space and cyber.
However, despite a neat security architecture, Tokyo purports to never actively use force against any country and this has been enshrined in the Japanese constitution of May 1947 through the so-called ‘peace clause’ or Article Nine. These steps were taken following the painful era of imperial Japan in the 1940s.
This being said, self-defence is non-negotiable and remains a priority for Japan and the country swears to maintain just the right amount of ‘military’ forces so as to prevent an invasion or a direct or indirect threat to its population. Japan spends merely a single per cent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on matters of defence and this has been reformed recently to 2% of GDP.
The above being notably mentioned, Japan does not back away from forging critical defence relationships with aligned and like-minded countries. Japan and the Republic of India are two key defence partners and their defence relationship is both evolving and blossoming.
The strategic partnership between New Delhi and Tokyo has come a long, long way from its inception in the early 2000s as a platform for wide-ranging India-Japan defence cooperation. It is now termed a Special and Global Strategic Partnership (since 2014) after having been a Global and Strategic Partnership for the best part of a decade prior. The keywords ‘special’ and ‘global’ highlight and justify why Japan and India are time-tested defence partners and that their reach pans across the entire planet.
In 2001, the Vajpayee government was instrumental in setting up the India-Japan Comprehensive Security Dialogue. This dialogue even covered issues such as disarmament and non-proliferation. In 2015, Japan introduced reforms that helped enable a better defence relationship with India
India-Japan Defence Cooperation: An Analysis
The succeeding paragraphs briefly highlight the key aspects of India-Japan defence cooperation. India and Japan have undertaken a host of initiatives to ensure that the defence relationship remains active. The partnership also has significant potential to become proactive in response to the prevalent and emerging constraints in the Indo-Pacific region, chiefly the People’s Republic of China or PRC.
Ambassador Shivshankar Menon has said that the bonhomie between India and Japan in the field of defence truly began during the prime ministerial reign of Dr Manmohan Singh (UPA government). A security cooperation agreement was signed between India and Japan in 2008.
Earlier in 1999, the Indian Navy and Coast Guard had rescued the MV Alondra Rainbow, a Japanese merchant ship, from pirates in the Indian Ocean. This is a landmark moment in India-Japan defence cooperation and has pegged Japan to trust India with the security of its vessels far away from its shores. In 2001, the Vajpayee government was instrumental in setting up the India-Japan Comprehensive Security Dialogue. This dialogue even covered issues such as disarmament and non-proliferation.
Much later, in 2015, Japan introduced reforms that have helped enable a better defence relationship with India. The Agreement concerning the Transfer of Defence Equipment and Technology and the Agreement concerning Security Measures for the Protection of Classified Military Information were both agreed upon in 2015. These have deepened the defence relationship and removed hindrances arising from issues such as Japan’s non-export-oriented defence regime. In 2017, there was also the first iteration of the India-Japan Defence Industry Forum. Japan now considers India a special partner and is willing to listen to New Delhi as far as matters of defence are concerned. These agreements have also paved the way for critical joint research and development in defence.
In September 2020, India and Japan signed the Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA), which came into force in July 2021. This agreement enables mutual logistics assistance between the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) and the Indian Navy. Through this agreement, India has also gained berthing rights at the Japan-operated Djibouti military-maritime port in east Africa. As can be discerned, India and Japan are not focused on defence cooperation merely in their own geographies but are keen to assist each other in faraway lands to further mutually beneficial cooperation.
India and Japan take part in the ‘2+2’ meetings, one half of which are undertaken by the defence ministers. The ‘2+2’ foreign and defence meetings were instituted in November 2019. Additionally, there is the Defence Policy Dialogue (DPD), which discusses specific policy issues concerning defence and security between the two countries. There is also, of course, an annual ministerial dialogue regarding matters of defence between New Delhi and Tokyo.
Ambassador Shivshankar Menon has said that the bonhomie between India and Japan in the field of defence truly began during the prime ministerial tenure of Dr Manmohan Singh. India and Japan signed a security cooperation agreement in 2008
In April this year, the two countries organised the seventh iteration of the invaluable Defence Policy Dialogue. Bilateral defence cooperation was discussed at the DPD. Japan also shared updates from the newly-released defence documents such as the National Security Strategy and National Defence Strategy and how they matter to and include India within Japanese strategic thought and planning.
Military-to-military and Coast Guard-to-Coast Guard cooperation also takes place in the defence realm between New Delhi and Tokyo. The Vajpayee administration of the early 2000s was key in enabling military-to-military consultation. This cooperation enables their respective forces to remain abreast of each other’s developments and furthers cooperation in regard to interoperability between their forces. This amounts to historical cooperation between the two countries since the Indian Navy and the JMSDF are inclined to further deepen their roles in the Indian Ocean and secure the region from the many ills it faces.
India-Japan defence cooperation is also very real, tangible, and practical. Military exercises are an annual norm while Japan is also a member of the expanded exercises between the four members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) countries. Japan joined the MALABAR exercises in 2015 and has been an active participant ever since. In January this year, India and Japan conducted a China-specific exercise and this was also the first ever ‘joint air combat’ training exercise.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has enhanced the partnership and made it both ‘special’ and ‘global’. This is in tune with India’s own policy architecture in the region – the Security And Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) and the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI) featuring seven pillars of cooperation. Japan is the lead country in the ‘Connectivity’ pillar of the IPOI. This befits Japan to enable connectivity in a region that includes key chokepoints such as the Straits of Malacca and offers Tokyo a proactive role in boosting connectivity in the Indian Ocean region. The architecture is in place and all that is needed is real on-ground cooperation for the architecture to materialise and solidify in stature.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government enhanced the partnership and made it both ‘special’ and ‘global’. This is in tune with India’s policy architecture in the region – the Security And Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) and the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI) featuring seven pillars of cooperation
It must be noted that, despite the many successes, bilateral trade of defence equipment between the two countries is conspicuously missing from the defence relationship. Japan does not buy defence equipment from India and India doesn’t buy from Japan either despite both having proposed deals for successful collaboration and elevation of the strategic partnership. There is evidence of failures in trade from the US2i-ShinMaywa Search-And-Rescue (SAR) amphibian aircraft and the Soryu-class submarines deals. Neither of these concluded successfully and a first major purchase by either side continues to evade the otherwise promising defence equation between them. What is more worrisome is that Japan has already enabled the facilitation of arms exports to India in particular. Despite this, trade remains absent from the defence partnership equation. This may also be a reason why the India-Japan defence relationship has been termed a ‘work in progress’.
Conclusion: Indo-Japanese Defence Cooperation Matters
Defence cooperation is clearly an imperative for Japan and India. It is integral to the strategic partnership and is wide-ranging in nature. From extensive military exercises across all domains to Track-I cooperation in diplomatic forums, defence has been a vital parameter in the India-Japan relationship. Defence has never been ignored and never will be. The succeeding paragraphs identify the reasons behind the necessity of defence as an instrument of cooperation between New Delhi and Tokyo.
With an eye on Chinese hegemony and growing assertiveness in the Indian Ocean and the Indo-Pacific regions, Japan and India are compelled to cooperate in the realm of defence for several good reasons. Firstly, the basic cooperation model between the two in itself posits them as a bulwark against the Chinese threat. Moreover, the security of the sea lanes stretching from the vast expanse of West Asia (which is home to the many energy interests and requirements of both countries) to Southeast Asia is also critical. India and Japan have also explored deals such as basing Japan in the strategically significant unsinkable aircraft carrier, the Andaman and Nicobar islands, in the eastern realm of the Indian Ocean.
Despite many successes, the Indo-Japan trade of defence equipment is missing from the defence relationship. Japan does not buy defence equipment from India and India doesn’t buy from Japan either despite both having proposed deals for successful collaboration and elevation of the strategic partnership
Secondly, India-Japan defence cooperation provides an example for the region and helps assist smaller countries in upscaling the state of their own defence. India and Japan have frequently assisted countries in the Indo-Pacific region (such as Vietnam) with patrol boat donations to enhance maritime security among other aspects of defence. Maritime security is integral to the region since the Indo-Pacific is largely viewed by scholars as a ‘maritime’ region. No defence partnership would be complete without due attention accorded to the maritime domain. Thirdly, India and Japan are now identified as key countries in the broader Indo-Pacific space as far as the Chinese challenge is concerned. If either of the two takes a step back, China will only become more assertive. Japan is seeking more reforms to further liberalise its approach to defence matters and become a ‘normal’ country.
While tangibles will eventually matter and issues such as trade will be at the forefront of India-Japan defence relations discussions, the context of the Indo-Pacific is what matters most presently. The Indo-Pacific region needs defence partnerships to balance an assertive China and none suits the region more aptly than India-Japan defence cooperation. As two middle powers strongly suited to dealing with China, India and Japan are well poised to make the Indo-Pacific region their own.
-The writer is a Research Fellow at Defence Research and Studies (DRaS) and has been most notably associated previously with the National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi, as a Researcher. His core work lies in the domains of International Relations, the Maritime Domain, and Strategic Studies. His geographical focus areas are the Indian subcontinent, Southeast and East Asia (Japan, South Korea, ASEAN), and the Indian Ocean and Indo-Pacific regions. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda