India-Japan naval exercises: a message for China?
Joint exercises by the Indian and Japanese navies in the Indian Ocean at the weekend suggest the two countries are drawing closer to face what they perceive as a common threat from China, analysts say.
While joint military exercises involving the two countries are not uncommon, the latest activity comes amid tensions both are experiencing with Beijing.
Indian and Chinese troops remain locked in a face-off along the disputed Himalayan border where 20 Indian soldiers were killed in a recent clash with their Chinese counterparts, while Japan and China are locked in a war of words over a Japanese move to change the administrative status of the Senkaku Islands, which China claims and refers to as the Diaoyu Islands.
New Delhi and Beijing have blamed the deaths in the Himalayas on each other. The Chinese Ambassador to India Sun Weidong said Indian troops were responsible for the clash because they had “crossed the Line of Actual Control” which acts as the de facto border. In response, the Indian Ambassador to China Vikram Misri warned of “ripples and repercussions” in diplomatic ties because China was “trying to alter the status quo on the ground by force”.
Meanwhile Tokyo and Beijing have traded barbs over the islands. The Chinese Foreign Ministry has called Japan’s move a “serious provocation on China’s territorial sovereignty”, while Japanese Defence Minister Taro Kano responded that Tokyo would be monitoring Beijing’s “intentions, not only its capability”.
The exercise is the latest indication that geopolitical rivalries are heating up in the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
In this month alone the United States has conducted three exercises in the Philippine Sea and the South China Sea. Two of these were conducted by three aircraft carriers, the USS Nimitz, the USS Ronald Reagan and the USS Theodore Roosevelt, while the third was conducted jointly with the Japan Maritime Self-defence Force.
Tensions are also running high between China and Vietnam after two Chinese vessels rammed into and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) on Saturday issued what many experts saw as a strong assertion against Chinese claims over the South China Sea when it said the 1982 United Nations Oceans Treaty should form the basis of deciding territorial claims in the waters.
Amid the renewed spat over the Diaoyu/Senkakus, Japan’s Ministry of Defence has also established a new team to advance better maritime ties with the US, India, Australia and the Southeast Asian nations.
A confluence of two seas
China’s assertiveness in the South and East China Seas has acted as a spur to bring together India and Japan, analysts say.
Visiting India in 2007, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had called for stronger maritime ties between the two countries by invoking “a broader Asia” at the “confluence of the two seas” of the Indian and the Pacific Oceans.
Since then, the two countries have deepened their military cooperation, taking part in joint events such as the ‘Dharma Guardian’ land exercises, the ‘Shinyu Maitr’ aerial exercises and the trilateral military exercise ‘Malabar’ with the US.
Abe and his Indian counterpart, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, have met often – in 2019 alone they met three times. The two countries even have yearly bilateral summits, which is rare for Japan.
Analysts like C Uday Bhaskar, a retired commodore in the Indian Navy who is now the director of the New Delhi think tank Society for Policy Studies, said China loomed large over the relationship.
However, Bhaskar said that while India and Japan shared a concern about Chinese assertiveness, both were “reticent about forging a robust security-strategic relationship.”
“Delhi and Tokyo have a shared vision about the freedom of the seas, but that is still at the politico-diplomatic level,” Bhaskar added.
Rajiv Bhatia, a former Indian Ambassador, said the naval exercise also signalled to China the need for diplomacy rather than aggression. “The signal is not one of escalating the conflict. It is, in fact, a reminder that sticking to the diplomatic channels [to resolve outstanding issues] would be the best for China and everyone else,” he said.
A return of the Quad?
Some analysts said the uptick in activities in the Indian and Pacific Oceans indicated the renewed relevance of the Quad – an informal strategic military grouping between the US, Japan, Australia and India.
This month, in their virtual summit, India and Australia signed the Mutual Logistics Support Agreement, which allows their militaries to share logistical support and bases.
Ambassador Bhatia, also a Distinguished Fellow at the Mumbai-based think tank Gateway House, said a surge in Chinese aggression might lead to the Quad gaining strength.
“The signal is clear – the more China is troublesome to the region, the more the affected countries, particularly the Quad countries, are bound to move closer together.”
Bhatia said strengthening military cooperation between the four militaries was a sign of that. He added that the Quad, though, needed to do more – from roping in Asean nations to conducting joint exercises.
That is why, according to Bhaskar, this might be only the beginning of the action in the Indo-Pacific.
“The Indo-Pacific will be the most strategically relevant theatre for the US, Japan, India and China over the next decade and more. Currently, China appears to be more aware of this than the other nations in this region,” he said.
In New Delhi there is a heightening realisation that the maritime domain is key to countering rising Chinese assertiveness. The two countries share a 3,488-kilometre long border.
Many retired naval officers have urged the Indian government to step up its maritime presence in the region.
“The maritime domain offers certain options to temper China’s ‘creeping aggression’ tactics, whether in relation to India or anyone in the extended Indo-Pacific,” said Bhaskar.
Bhaskar said that the Chinese Communist Party had long been anxious of maritime powers controlling the Strait of Malacca, one of the world’s busiest waterways and one that is crucial to Chinese interests.
“This anxiety can be stoked in a calibrated manner and professionals know how to signal this intent,” Bhaskar said.