The Indian navy has finally met up with its Japanese counterpart over the weekend. The first joint exercise ever between the two navies, JIMEX 12, marks a significant advance in the maritime cooperation between India and Japan.
Until now, Tokyo was only letting its Coast Guard participate in the exchanges with India. With JIMEX 12, Japan has also shed its political inhibitions about bilateral naval exercises with India.
Given the widespread concerns in China and among other neighbours about Japan’s past militarism, Tokyo had been hesitant to pursue independent naval diplomacy in Asia’s waters.
Japan’s preference, then, was for multilateral maritime engagement with others along with its treaty-ally and guarantor of its national security — the United States. JIMEX 12, then, marks an important step forward.
The expanding engagement with the Japanese navy, one of the strongest in the world, should give a boost to India’ maritime diplomacy in Asia. If New Delhi’s interests in the Pacific are growing, Tokyo’s naval profile in the Indian Ocean has begun to expand.
That India and Japan are natural partners in the Indo-Pacific has long been an abstract proposition. It now has a reasonable chance of realisation.
The recent decision by ONGC Videsh to stop drilling in one of the offshore blocks it had acquired from Vietnam had set off much speculation in the Indian media about Delhi’s “retreat” from the South China Sea.
The compliments from the Chinese media for India’s wisdom in “pulling out” of the South China Sea added to the impression of Delhi’s deference to Beijing’s sensitivities.
India’s joint exercise with Japan last week, however, sends a very different message to the region — that Delhi’s interest in the waters of East Asia is enduring and its naval presence in the Western Pacific is here to stay.
The four ships of the Indian navy that went to Japan are on a “sustained deployment to the South China Sea and the North West Pacific”, according to the defence ministry.
The two-month deployment far from India’s shores and the naval exercises with a number of countries, the MoD said, demonstrate the Indian navy’s “operational reach”.
Besides the exercise with Japan, one part of the Indian naval contingent showed up at the Subic Bay in the Philippines amidst the mounting naval tensions between Manila and Beijing in the South China Sea.
Two ships of the naval contingent also travelled to the Hai Phong port in Vietnam, which, like the Philippines, is locked in an escalating maritime territorial dispute with China. The Indian navy has been flying the flag in the South China Sea since 2000. Having demonstrated its capability
for extended naval presence in these waters, Delhi must now develop the necessary supportive arrangements in the littoral.
Special relationships with key regional states and greater coordination with other naval powers are critical for an effective Indian strategy in the South China Sea.
At the same time, Delhi needs to reassure Beijing that India harbours no hostile designs against China in the Western Pacific. That is one of the reasons why the Indian naval unit is making a port call in China on its return trip from Tokyo.
The word “interoperability” is politically incorrect in India’s defence engagement with the US. Sections of the civilian bureaucracy manning South Block and the left-leaning chattering classes have conjured dark scenarios of India becoming a subordinate partner to the US if there is interoperability between the two armed forces.
Yet, interoperability is one of India’s important objectives in engaging the East Asian navies, according to the MoD’s announcement on the joint exercises with Japan.
The Indian navy is also seeking greater interoperability with the maritime forces of its smaller neighbours like Sri Lanka and the Maldives and such Indian Ocean partners as Seychelles and the Maldives.
When India was inward looking and its economy closed, the navy’s primary tasks were to protect the nation’s territorial waters and deny its near seas to other powers. “Interoperability” had no meaning when the Indian navy was a lone ranger.
Today, with a globalised economy — our exports and imports account for 40 per cent of the GDP — the navy can’t secure India’s expanding regional maritime interests on its own.
Building maritime coalitions, developing special regional relationships and establishing interoperability with other naval forces — big and small — must be at the very top of India’s defence diplomacy in Indo-Pacific