Defense and security interactions between India and Japan have lagged. India’s historic reluctance on the issue of military-to-military partnerships, attributable to its traditional nonaligned status, has been part of the problem. So too has been Japan’s unique constitutional limitations on military security beyond territorial self-defense. These longstanding limitations though are now changing. Defense and security cooperation activities have begun advancing rapidly in the case of military-to-military exercises, exchanges and, most recently, in the case of military equipment and technology transfers.
Japan views India as playing an important security role in the Indian Ocean and in maintaining a rules-based maritime order in the region. Beginning in 2012, the Japanese Maritime Security and Defense Force and the Indian Navy have engaged in the Japan-India Maritime Exercise. On a broader basis, India and the United States invited Japan in 2007 to be a guest participant in their bilateral maritime Malabar exercise. Japan participated in the two Malabar exercises that year—one near Okinawa and the other in the Bay of Bengal. Japan again participated in the annual Malabars of 2009, 2011 and 2014. In 2015, India, with U.S. support, expanded the annual bilateral Malabar exercise to include Japan as a permanent participant. Japanese officials and naval officers viewed this invitation as an “important uptick in exercise partnerships.” The trilateral 2016 Malabar exercise was held in waters off Okinawa; the 2017 exercise in the Bay of Bengal; and, the 2018 exercise was conducted off the coast of Guam.
India and Japan also are extending and normalizing security and defense relations through expanded military-to-military offices, meetings and exchanges. During 2015, Japan expanded its representational defense presence in India from one to three officers and also seconded a Japanese Coast Guard senior officer there. Since 2010, India and Japan have conducted regular staff talks between uniformed naval leadership. They have conducted a vice minister of defense policy dialogue since 2009. Defense and foreign ministry personnel conduct a recurring maritime security dialogue. Defense ministers meet annually, and often more than once each year.
Finally, the sale of defense equipment and technology occupies an important and increasingly active area in the expanding relationship between the two nations. Japan would like to see India better equipped to provide reliable security and assured deterrence against Chinese encroachment in the Indian Ocean (in the near-to-mid-term) and into the Southwestern Pacific (in future years). Indian officials aim to secure Japanese weapons, technologies and defense know-how in several critical areas related to these mutual security aims. India would like greater Japanese investment and assistance to help grow India’s anemic indigenous armaments manufacturing capacity. New Delhi also would like to procure key Japanese weapons platforms and advanced technology for maritime surveillance and patrol, eventually extending these acquisitions that will translate into a robust anti-submarine warfare capability. In conjunction with the United States and other Western partners, India would similarly like Japanese assistance in developing its indigenous shipbuilding capacity. The transfer of Japanese intelligence and cyber know-how into military as well as civilian applications is a long-term aspiration. New Delhi also desires Japanese investment and technology transfer for India’s civilian and military space programs.
Especially concerned with China’s increasing presence in the Indian Ocean, New Delhi is focused on the near-term improvement of maritime surveillance and intercept capabilities. A feature example of bilateral nascent defense weapons and technology cooperation is the half-decade-long effort by Japan to sell its US-2I amphibious search and rescue airplane to India. Negotiations on the sale of twelve Japanese US-2Is to India began in 2011 before the return of Abe to the Japanese prime minister’s office in late 2012. The negotiations side-stepped Japan’s self-imposed ban on selling arms by focusing upon the sea rescue aspects of the aircraft and its utility for the Indian Coast Guard. This point of obfuscation became unnecessary after 2014, when Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga announced a revision of Japan’s ban on arms exports to allow for arms export in cases that will contribute international peace and stability and serve Japan’s national interest. The US-2I export would be Japan’s first explicit defense equipment deal in its post-World War II history.
Nonetheless, India’s purchase of the US-2I remained deadlocked over pricing and technology transfer issues. In September 2016, Japanese sources reported that the Ministry of Defense planned to work with the manufacturer, ShinMeiwa Industries, to reduce the price of the $1.6 billion package in order to close the deal. More than two years later, in late August 2018, the deal was still not done.
Challenges with the US-2I aircraft sales demonstrate the pitfalls accompanying the promise of future bilateral India-Japan weapons sales. India’s hidebound defense bureaucracy is notoriously opaque, inefficient and resistant to change from a state-run model of weapons procurement that favors national content over weapon effectiveness. Even the dynamic leadership of Modi has generated only modest impact upon the Indian Defence Research and Development Organization’s proclivities for prevarication and arms course reversals, as Tokyo has learned. Japanese officials recognize there will be similar frustrations in future military weapons sales and technology transfer ventures. At the same time, Japan is very new to the military weapons sales game, only entering this stage formally in 2014. Japan lacks, and must develop, the bureaucratic infrastructure to support the sale or transfer of military technology. Its limitations in this area were cited as a major reason for the disappointing failure of the Japanese bid to win Australia’s tender for its next-generation submarine force.
Bilateral bureaucratic challenges will limit rapid growth in the Japanese sale of military equipment to India, despite the obvious appetite for Japanese expertise in maritime surveillance, search and rescue, anti-submarine capability and missile defense technologies. Growth will also be constrained by the lack of compatibility in military equipment, the lack of shared doctrine and limited experience in joint exercises. While the potential is great, the processes to realize this potential will take time to emplace.
Both Japan and India share a complementary geopolitical vision. In September 2011, then out-of-office Shinzo Abe addressed the Indian Council of World Affairs in New Delhi. There, Abe told his audience that a strong India is in the best interest of Japan and a strong Japan is in the best interest of India.
For Japan, the strategic relationship with India is manifestly security-related and overwhelmingly about China. As a U.S. ally, Japan remains confident that it does not have to fear China—for now. Australia also is a Japanese security asset—the second leg of its regional security “stool.” But for Tokyo, its biggest future security asset is India—one that is growing and that occupies an important strategic location.
In this context, India represents Japan’s best long-term hope to balance China on the Asian continent. Japan views Indian engagement in Central Asia, Iran and Afghanistan as a strategic parry to Chinese investments and Indian Ocean access via Pakistan. For these reasons, Japan plans to be an investment partner with India in port, road and rail projects planned for Iran and Afghanistan.
While they know that India is concerned with China and Chinese behavior, Japanese leaders recognize that India is presently unable to join with Japan in a full-throated criticism of China. India cannot afford to alienate Beijing when New Delhi remains far more heavily dependent on the Chinese economy for its vital sustained economic growth than does Tokyo. Senior Japanese officials emphasize that Japan-India strategic cooperation is not against anyone, but rather in support of the international system that has created postwar prosperity.
In India, there is a broad political consensus that strategic relations with Japan are very important. New Delhi continues to view the vital aspect of the bilateral relationship as that of strategic economic engagement. Japan has an exceptionally important role to play in India’s pathway to sustained robust economic growth, industrialization and modernization of its national infrastructure. Japanese ODA can do things that other Indian economic partner programs, like those of the United States and Western Europe, cannot, including the funding of sensitive infrastructure projects in northeast India.
Indians also appreciate Japan’s special role in elevating India’s global status. Tokyo’s intense focus on the bilateral strategic relationship conveys gravitas and importance to Indian economic, diplomatic and security activities across the Asia-Pacific region and globally.
At the same time, India’s political leadership views the bilateral strategic relationship with Japan as a complement to—not a substitute for—India’s growing bilateral strategic relationships around the world, especially its relationship with the United States. Japan is clearly now among the top five strategic relationships for India, and many in India’s ruling class believe that within ten years strategic relations with Japan will be among India’s top three in importance, eclipsed only by the United States and perhaps the European Union.
Together, Japan and India are growing a formidable strategic partnership—one spanning the entire Indo-Pacific. Tokyo and New Delhi continue to pursue many avenues of cooperation with China. Yet beneath the surface, the two countries share historic worries and competitive dynamics with China that make for their common cause. Theirs is a strategic partnership with shared political, economic, cultural and strategic norms that do not resonate with China.