Build Japan-India naval ties

by Brahma Chellaney

At a time when the specter of power disequilibrium looms large in Asia, the visit of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to India offers an opportunity to the two natural allies to help promote Asian stability by adding concrete strategic content to their fast-growing relationship. Japan and India need to build close naval collaboration.

The balance of power in Asia will be determined by events principally in two regions: East Asia and the Indian Ocean. Japan and India thus have an important role to play to advance peace and stability and help safeguard vital sea lanes in the wider Indo-Pacific region.

Asia’s booming economies are bound by sea, and maritime democracies like Japan and India must work together to help build a stable, liberal, rules-based order in Asia. Whereas 97 percent of India’s international trade by volume is conducted by sea, almost all of Japan’s international trade is ocean-borne. As energy-poor countries heavily dependent on oil imports from the Persian Gulf region, the two are seriously concerned by mercantilist efforts to assert control over energy supplies and transport routes. The maintenance of a peaceful and lawful maritime domain, including unimpeded freedom of navigation, is thus critical to their security and economic well-being.

In this light, Japan and India have already agreed to start holding joint naval exercises from the new year. This is just one sign that they now wish to graduate from emphasizing shared values to seeking to jointly protect shared interests. Today, the fastest growing bilateral relationship in Asia is between India and Japan. Since they unveiled a “strategic and global partnership” in 2006, their political and economic engagement has deepened remarkably.

Their growing congruence of strategic interests led to the 2008 Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation, a significant milestone in building Asian power stability. A constellation of Asian states linked by strategic cooperation and sharing common interests has become critical to ensuring equilibrium at a time when the ongoing power shifts are accentuating the security challenges that now exist in Asia.

The joint declaration was modeled on Japan’s 2007 defense-cooperation accord with Australia — the only country with which Tokyo has a security-cooperation declaration. Japan, of course, is tied to the United States militarily since 1951 by a treaty. The India-Japan security agreement, in turn, spawned a similar India-Australian accord in 2009.

A free-trade accord between Japan and India, formally known as the comprehensive economic partnership agreement (CEPA), entered into force just three months ago. By covering more than 90 percent of the trade as well as a wide range of services, rules of origin, investment, intellectual property rights, customs rules and other related issues, CEPA promises to significantly boost bilateral trade, which remains small in comparison with Japan’s and India’s trade with China. India is already beginning to emerge as a favored destination in Asia for Japanese foreign direct investment.

In response to China’s use of its monopoly on rare-earths production to punitively cut off such exports to Japan during the fall of 2010, Japan and India have agreed to the joint development of rare earths, which are vital for a wide range of green energy technologies and military applications.

Today, the level and frequency of India-Japan official engagement is extraordinary. Noda’s New Delhi visit is part of a bilateral commitment to hold an annual summit meeting of the prime ministers. More important, Japan and India now have a series of annual minister-to-minister dialogues: a strategic dialogue between their foreign ministers; a defense dialogue between their defense ministers; a policy dialogue between India’s commerce and industry minister and Japan’s minister of economy, trade and industry; and separate ministerial-level energy and economic dialogues.

Supporting these high-level discussions is another set of talks, including a two-plus-two dialogue led jointly by India’s foreign and defense secretaries and their Japanese vice minister counterparts, a maritime security dialogue, a comprehensive security dialogue, and military-to-military talks involving regular exchange visits of the chiefs of staff.

To top it off, Japan, India, and the U.S. have initiated a trilateral strategic dialogue, whose first meeting was in Washington last week. Getting the U.S. on board will bolster the convergences of all three partners and boost India-Japan cooperation.

As Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba said recently, “Japan and the U.S. are deepening a strategic relationship with India,” and the trilateral dialogue is “a specific example of collaboration” among the three leading Asia-Pacific democracies.

Bilaterally, Japan and India need to strengthen their still-fledgling strategic cooperation by embracing two ideas, both of which demand a subtle shift in Japanese thinking and policy. One is to build interoperability between their naval forces. These forces — along with other friendly navies — can undergird peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region. As former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe put it in a recent speech in New Delhi, the aim should be that “sooner rather than later, Japan’s navy and the Indian navy are seamlessly interconnected.” Presently, Japan has naval interoperability only with U.S. forces.

Another idea is for the two countries to jointly develop defense systems. India and Japan have missile-defense cooperation with Israel and the U.S., respectively. There is no reason why they should not work together on missile defense and on other technologies for mutual security. Their defense cooperation must be comprehensive and not be limited to strategic dialogue, maritime cooperation, and occasional naval exercises.

There is no ban on weapon exports in Japan’s U.S.-imposed Constitution, only a long-standing Cabinet decision, which in any event has been loosened. That decision, in fact, related to weapons, not technologies.

Japan and India should remember that the most-stable economic partnerships in the world, including the trans-Atlantic ones and the Japan-U.S. partnership, have been built on the bedrock of security collaboration. Economic ties that lack the support of strategic partnerships tend to be less stable, as is apparent from Japan’s and India’s economic relationships with China.

Through close strategic collaboration, Japan and India must lead the effort to build freedom, prosperity and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.

Brahma Chellaney is a professor at the independent Center for Policy Research in New Delhi.