Japan-India military exercises a harbinger of deeper ties

The two countries are key components of US strategy in the region that seeks to counter rising Chinese influence

July 25, 2018 by Umer Beigh
In June, the Indian, Japanese and US navies took part in the Malabar military exercises off the coast of Guam. Photo: Indian Navy/IANS

Towards the end of the year, Japan and India are for the first time likely to hold bilateral military exercises. Itsunori Onodera, the defence minister of Japan, will be discussing the expansion of military ties with his counterpart, Nirmala Sitharaman, in India next month. The Indian army and the Japanese ground defence forces may take part in joint military drills in November-December 2018.

While the details are yet to be released, the development is yet another step in the strengthening of military and economic ties between the countries that have become key players in the US strategy in the region with a view to countering China.

In June 16, the two countries, along with the US, took part in the 22nd edition of the Malabar military exercise on the coast of the Guam (the first edition involved India and the US in 1992). During the exercise, the Indian navy, the US navy and the Japan maritime self-defence force held defence and other communication drills.

Similarly, in November 2017, India conducted a three-day drill with the US and Japanese navies in the Sea of Japan for “improving skills and cooperation.” India, in recent times, has sought to expand its maritime footprint in the region, encouraged by both the US and Japan, which see it a counterweight to the Chinese.

India, in October 2017, also signed the Memorandum of Cooperation of Technical Intern Plan with Japan, which allowed around three lakh Indian students to take technical internships for nearly five years in Japan. Indian policy makers saw it as part of their mission to enhancing the skill set of its young population.

The Indo-Japanese Partnership

Another key project the two countries are keen on is the India Africa Growth Corridor for which Japan has agreed to provide US $30 billion for the infrastructure. This is seen as a response by the two countries to counter the Belt Road initiative of China. The fact that the latter project passes through ‘Azad Kashmir’ (the portion of Kashmir controlled by Pakistan) has led to concerns among Indian policy makers.

Meanwhile, the recent developments in the Korean peninsula, which have seen North and South Korea coming closer, have also raised concerns in Japan. Thus, both countries have been looking at ways to ensure ‘balance of power’. Increasingly, both the countries have a common perception of security challenges and see a far greater possibility for collaboration in the field of defence. “India is planning to spend $400 billion in the next ten years on defence modernization alone, thereby making the role of Japan essential,” notes Vinay Kaura, who teaches International Affairs and Security Affairs in Rajasthan.

The current right-wing governments in India and Japan also have ideological affinities. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Japanese counterpart, Shinzo Abe, share similar “ideological tints, work ethics” and unbounded faith in individual leadership.

The two countries are also seeking to improve economic ties. One of the Modi government’s signature initiatives has been the Bullet Train project that is being undertaken with Japanese aid at what the government calls interest free rates (0.1% interest). The project will connect the cities of Mumbai and Ahmedabad and is being touted as a “symbol of new India” by the government that hopes such big-ticket projects will enable it to come back to power in 2019 despite its imposing policies that have caused great distress to the poorer sections of society.

The project was criticized by many who said it was way more expensive than similar projects undertaken by China and Thailand.

Japan at present is India’s largest donor and the third largest provider of foreign direct investment (FDI), but as per figures, the trade between them has seen a decline since 2013. In 2016-17, it was valued at $13.61 billion, a decline from $14.51 the previous year. India, with a population of 1.3 billion, is viewed as having huge potential as a market by Japanese firms.

A tale of ups and downs

Incidentally, the relationship between India and Japan has gone through quite a few ups and downs. In the aftermath of India ado pting neo-liberal policies in the 90s, there was an upswing in ties.

“However, in 1998 the Indian nuclear tests affected the bilateral ties with Japan imposing [a] ban on five Indian entities including firm Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd that was lifted after BJP came into power in 2014,” Kaura writes in India-Japan Relations and Asia’s Emerging Geopolitics.

In November 2016, India signed a civilian nuclear cooperation agreement with Japan. The agreement has been termed critical for India as it will provide “access to sensitive technology” for generating clean energy and will pave the way for India to use Japanese nuclear technology.

With such steps and more, the two governments are hoping to be part of a new order, as well as shore up their own positions at home at a time of rapid changes in the region.