India- Japan Maritime Cooperation: Testing the Waters in the Indo-Pacific

by Poornima B - 22 April, 2020, 12:00 4691 Views 0 Comment

The emergence of the Indo-Pacific construct has realigned relations between major powers in the region, opening new and enhanced avenues for strategic engagements. The partnership between India and Japan, particularly in the maritime domain has been bolstered in recent times. The pursuit towards ensuring a free, open and inclusive Indo- Pacific with a rule-based regime that maintains the good order at sea to provide freedom of navigation to all states, has cast the template for a closer India- Japan partnership in the 21st century. The foundation for this was laid in 2007 when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe presented his “Confluence of Seas” speech in the Indian Parliament, said, “The Pacific and the Indian Oceans are now bringing about a dynamic coupling as seas of freedom and prosperity…. Our two countries have the ability and the responsibility to ensure that it broadens yet further and to nurture and enrich these seas to become seas of clearest transparency.” Towards this end, India and Japan have actuated bilateral and multilateral military drills between the armed forces, Joint Working Groups for cooperation in defence technology, annual Ministerial-level dialogues as well as Track-II diplomatic initiatives to reap the best out the advantages the partnership provides for both the states.  

Confidence- building mechanisms

India and Japan went on to sign a security agreement in 2008, an MOU for the transfer of defence technology and an arrangement to protect military information. To develop the maritime cooperation and the interoperability between the IN and JMSDF, JIMEX was instituted in 2012. To sustain the momentum, Japan, in 2015, became a permanent member of the Malabar Exercise with the United States and India. Japan, the United States and India have come together to conduct MINEX, mine-countermeasures exercise as part of their naval wargaming drills. Additionally, Japan is also a participant in the MILAN multilateral naval exercise hosted by the Naval Wing of the Andaman and Nicobar Command. Eventually, in 2018, the Indian Navy (IN) and the Japanese Maritime Self- Defence Forces (JMSDF) agreed to create grounds for deeper cooperation. The states have sought to diversify and deepen the “Strategic and Global Partnership” by optimising the broad convergence in their political, economic and security interests. During a meeting in September 2019 between Prime Minister Abe and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, the two sides resolved to settle the Acquisition and Cross-servicing Agreement (ACSA) that facilitates sharing of military logistics for greater cooperation in Maritime Domain Awareness. In November 2019, the inaugural 2+2 Defence and Foreign Ministerial meeting was instituted to reinforce the credibility of the partnership which was followed by the 5th India- Japan Maritime Affairs Dialogue, a mechanism put forth for both the states to work on mutual maritime interests.

More than just the usual

Boosting the maritime partnership further, Japan has undertaken a project in Andaman and Nicobar to assemble undersea cable systems that connect the group of islands to Chennai on the East coast of India. In the past, India has been reserved in letting foreign entities in its strategically important territory that houses the tri-service command. India handing over the project to Japan is a sign of confidence being built between the two major powers of Asia for strategic engagements. Moreover, the signing of the logistics agreement would allow India to have access to the Japanese base in Djibouti, a strategically-illustrious state in the horn of Africa eyed by major maritime powers to oversee the region.

Playing on common grounds

India and Japan are Asia’s two economic giants who excessively rely on imported crude oil from West Asia. India imports 51-55 percent of its crude oil from the region (Jan- Mar 2020) while this energy source forms 89.1 percent (Feb 2020) of Japan’s imports. The crude oil is shipped to these countries through the Strait of Hormuz and the Strait of Malacca (further to Japanese shores), both being maritime chokepoints of incredible significance for not just Asia but the entire world. The protection of the International Sea Lines (ISL) has become a necessity for India and Japan to secure its shipments. With the increasing tensions in the Persian Gulf in recent times and China’s expansionist tendencies seen in the Western Pacific, both the states with maritime orientation states have found the prospects in collaborating to ensure the free flow of goods and services in the Indo- Pacific. Both stakeholders have been conducting joint anti-piracy operations under the auspices of the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP).

The U.S factor

Another facet of the India- Japan maritime ties is the larger U.S- India- Japan partnership founded on the common understanding of a value-laden maritime security architecture that ensures the sovereignty of states and protection of their stakes. The outcome was the formation of QUAD, an initiative that pulled together four democratic powers in the Indo- Pacific, U.S, Japan, Australia and India. Though, this informal strategic dialogue has struggled to pick up in a full-fledged manner because of reservations expressed by certain weak links. India and Australia have hesitated to project QUAD as a grouping against China, unlike the United States and Japan. Nevertheless, this difference in position has not taken a toll on the India- Japan bilateral maritime relations.


New Delhi’s “Indo- Pacific Initiative” which aspires a multipolar Indo—Pacific, has identified Tokyo as a major partner that can help to realise this vision. Through the years, Japan has also adorned its cooperation with India, highlighting India’s importance for a stable Indo- Pacific through rhetoric such as the “Arc of Freedom and Prosperity”, “Asia’s Democratic Security Diamond”, among others. Another offshoot of both the states’ converging interest in the Indo-Pacific is the Asia- Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC) which envisages Japan and India together promoting connectivity, infrastructure and connectivity between Asia and Africa. The dominant narrative among the strategic circles is that this initiative has been announced as a response to resist the Belt and Road Initiative, the Chinese mega-project bothering the United States and its allies in the Indo- Pacific as well as India.

Towards Symbiosis

The maritime cooperation between India and Japan seems to have a lot of prospects, given the convergence of interests in the Indo- Pacific. The states do not share any historic rivalry, but at the same time, are concerned about the increasing Chinese aggression in the region. More so, they do not seem to be carrying the burden of overlapping spheres of influence. While India seeks to provide security to the Indian Ocean Region, its near seas, Japan has profusely concentrated on securing the stability in its maritime neighbourhood, i.e. the western half of the Pacific Ocean. Both the states have been exchanging views about the developments in the Korean peninsula and the South China Sea and the overall security situation in the Indo- Pacific. They indeed, have complementary and not conflicting strategic goals that widen the scope for Japan and India to mutually benefit one another from a symbiotic maritime partnership favouring their respective strategic goals in the Indo- Pacific.

Japan is a major component of India’s Look East Policy. Jointly, they have invested in projects in other states like Sri Lanka to develop the East Container Terminal of the Colombo Port. India and Japan have been seeing possibilities to work together in infrastructure development, health, technology and relevant fields. Such endeavours could enable both the states to capacitate other developing and under-developed state, resisting China’s influence in these regions. Progress regarding defence manufacturing and technology development has not taken off in a mature form yet and other initiatives like AAGC and talks on logistics agreement are just in the nascent stage for evaluating the impact and outcome. Nevertheless, considering the opportunities that the India- Japan relations seem to offer and the combined potential of these powers, both the parties will be playing a major role in securing each other’s maritime interests in the Indo-Pacific.

Poornima B
Author is a postgraduate research student at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Karnataka. Her research interests include Geopolitics of West Asia focussing on Israel, India's national security especially, maritime security and cybersecurity.

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