By Fang Xiaozhi
Recently, the situation in South Asia has been far from tranquil. India repeatedly ignited border conflicts and frictions with its neighbors, despite the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic is still rampant in the country, bringing uncertainty and instability to the border areas. To seek superiority in such conflicts, the Modi government stepped up its efforts to draw in other countries in the region by strengthening military exchange and cooperation.
It is reported that India and Japan recently held a joint naval exercise in the Indian Ocean. Although it’s just a routine PASSEX (Passing Exercise) which involved all together four naval ships from both countries and merely focusing on collaboration about military operations and humanitarian missions, the joint exercise still sent a strong signal as it took place in a bigger context where India has border disputes with some of its neighbors. To a large extent, it signaled that India attempted to seek international assistance and political support while flexing its military muscle to deter rivals.
Besides, India joined hands with Japan to hold this joint exercise, which is also a stance that India is willing to support the US Indo-Pacific strategy. At present, the US deployed three aircraft carriers, namely the USS Ronald Reagan, USS Theodore Roosevelt, and USS Nimitz, in the Asia-Pacific region, the first time over recent years. The India-Japan joint exercise just acted in perfect unison with the US show of military prowess.
And the l exercise would also significantly accelerate the formation of the US-Australia-India-Japan Consultations mechanism (“The Quad”). In the US Indo-Pacific strategy, Japan is the stronghold in the Asia-Pacific region and the Western Pacific Ocean, while Australia in the area extending from the South Pacific Ocean to the Indian Ocean, and India in the Indian Ocean.
Earlier, India and Australia elevated their ties to a comprehensive strategic partnership, and established the “2+2” defense and foreign ministers dialogue mechanism, pushing their relations to quasi-allies. Along with further alignment and interaction between the three countries, the Japan-India, Australia-India, and Japan-Australia bilateral defense cooperation will be further enhanced. Meanwhile, the Japan-India-Australia trilateral defense exchange has also been strengthened continuously. As a result, the former three strongholds of the US Indo-Pacific strategy have expanded into a perfect strategic arc linking the East Asian Pacific with South Pacific and the Indian Ocean.
In recent years, Japan has always been committed to promoting the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” strategy, in hopes to realize its strategic goal of strengthening security cooperation in the Indian Ocean by linking the Pacific and Indian oceans. In this context, Japan takes an active part in regional cooperation with India, and the two countries struck an instant chord in strengthening bilateral military exchange and collaboration.
It is interesting that Japan’s attitude toward the joint exercise was much nuanced, and only relatively moderate comments were made relating to the joint exercise. It stated that the joint exercise aimed to strengthen mutual understanding between two naval forces. The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) particularly stressed that the joint exercise had nothing to do with current regional affairs, and declared that it had no preset targets. Moreover, in its statement, the JMSDF called the two missile destroyers it dispatched to participate in the joint exercise as training ships. All of these aimed to reduce the sensitivity of carrying out military operations at a crucial time, which ran against India’s strategic goals.
With the increase of shared interests between India and Japan in terms of strategic expansion and the enhancement of mutual dependence, strengthening and deepening defense cooperation will become a diplomatic tendency and policy preference for the two countries in the years to come. This will affect the development trends of the security situation in the Indo-Pacific region, and become an essential factor reshaping the international landscape in the region. However, due to multiple irreconcilable differences between their views on foreign affairs and their relevant strategic objectives, India and Japan will inevitably maintain a certain distance with each other in the process of strengthening military contact and defense cooperation, making it hard for the two countries to forge a close cooperative relationship like allies.
(The author is a researcher at the Institute of Strategic Studies and International Security under Fudan Institute of Belt and Road & Global Governance)