India-Japan Security Cooperation: Challenges in Aligning with their Respective Free and Open Indo-Pacific Initiatives

At a time when the United States and China are involved in a strategic competition, India and Japan have to engage in wider and deeper cooperation in their foreign and security policies, and function together as a stabilizing anchor in the Indo-Pacific region

Foreign Affairs

By Col Shutaro Sano (Retd)


Under the banner of the ‘Special Strategic and Global Partnership’, India and Japan have been deepening their strategic cooperation in a variety of areas, including economic, energy, climate change, global governance and security for over half a decade. While the foundation of a strategic partnership between the two countries was developed during the ten years of the UPA rule, the Modi and Abe administrations have driven the two countries to strive for a multifunctional cooperation. It should be noted, however, that the advancement of cooperative relationship has been driven by the urgent need for both countries to respond to the imminent challenges which emerged from the drastic changes, notably, in the international and regional security environment.

These include China’s rising assertiveness in the forms of military buildup and actions as well as its geostrategic Belt and Road Initiatives (BRI) – and the escalation of various regional and global security challenges such as terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and concerns over maritime security and safety. Furthermore, the growing strategic competition between the United States and China, President Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ policy, and the rise of nationalism and authoritarianism have laid the ground for India and Japan to seek wider and deeper cooperation in their foreign and security policies, and function together as a stabilizing anchor for maintaining the rules-based order based on shared norms and values in the Indo-Pacific region.

Today, the India-Japan security cooperation is being pursued to cope with the various bilateral, regional and global challenges at an unprecedented pace

Specifically, in the security field, there have been notable developments. To name a few, joint military exercises are now being conducted not only between the navies and coast guards, respectively, but also between the air and ground forces. Additionally, Japan has expanded the number of its defence attachés posted in India from one Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) officer to one from each service with a total of three. The vice-minister level ‘2 plus 2’ dialogues have been upgraded to minister level in November 2019, enabling the two countries to seek deeper cooperation in joint training and exercise, defence equipment and technology cooperation in a wide range of areas not only in the traditional geographic space – land, sea and air – but also in new domains such as outerspace, cyberspace and the electromagnetic spectrum. Notably, the significance of developing Japan’s defence capabilities in these three new domains has been highlighted for the first time in its latest National Defense Program Guidelines of 2018. Moreover, the enhanced ‘2 plus 2’ ministerial dialogues are expected to accelerate the negotiations on the Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA) that would, if concluded, further deepen not only the India-Japan bilateral security cooperation but also cooperation among Japan, India and the United States, together with the Japan-US ACSA agreement and the 2016 Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) concluded between New Delhi and Washington. Earlier in 2015, the status of Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) was upgraded to that of a permanent participant in Exercise Malabar– which has been held between India and the United States since 1992 –, facilitating the naval cooperation among the three forces. Meanwhile, deeper India-Japan security cooperation has been pursued not only in bilateral and trilateral forms but also in regional and international settings such as the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus)and the United Nations. Today, the India-Japan security cooperation is being pursued to cope with the various bilateral, regional and global challenges at an unprecedented pace.

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While there is an utmost need for New Delhi and Tokyo to continue its pursuit of a deeper security cooperation in all three dimensions– efforts to cope with the bilateral, regional and global challenges – a critical issue arises for the two countries: that is, whether/how to align the security cooperation with their respective development-driven Free and Open Indo-Pacific initiatives. The necessity of such an alignment may be a debatable issue, but a more comprehensive and coherent cooperative framework with the alignment is most likely to contribute better to ensuring peace and sustainable development in the region. However, this is easier said than done for a number of reasons. First, India and Japan’s Indo-Pacific initiatives – New Delhi’s Free, Open, and Inclusive Indo-Pacific (FOIIP) and Tokyo’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) vision – lack convergence. Indeed, the FOIIP and FOIP are both primarily development-driven initiatives, which emphasize the importance of ASEAN centrality and inclusiveness. Yet, the initiatives differ in their priorities.

The difference in their approaches to the Indo-Pacific is also attributed to the extant differences in the political foundations of the two countries: Japan’s reliance on the Japan-US alliance and India’s emphasis on its strategic autonomy

To begin with, the geographic scopes in which the initiatives cover do not match up: Tokyo’s FOIP ranges from the West Pacific in the east to the eastern coast of Africa in the west, while New Delhi’s FOIIP primarily focuses on the Indian Ocean. Moreover, the initiatives seem to have different areas of interests. Tokyo’s FOIP vision primarily focuses on quality infrastructure development and regional connectivity, but, at the same time, the Abe administration has recently solidified its efforts in deepening the linkage between security and development which has become increasingly significant with the multiple cross-border infrastructure development projects in the Indo-Pacific in recent years. Notably, Japan has made significant changes in its 2003 Official Development Assistance Charter, which has been heavily development-focused with the introduction of a more balanced Development Cooperation Charter in 2015. In addition, the Ministry of Defense of Japan (MOD) has deepened its security efforts through regional institutions such as the ASEAN by initiating the Vientiane Vision in 2016, which was later redefined in line with the concept of Tokyo’s FOIP in November 2019. Earlier in the same year, the MOD established a FOIP-related position, the Director for Defense Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, within the International Policy Division of the Defense Policy Bureau in July. These measures are intended to back up Tokyo’s FOIP, which aims to (1) promote fundamental principles of the international order, (2) pursue economic prosperity by strengthening regional connectivity, and (3) ensure peace and stability of the region through capacity building and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/DR). In contrast, India has been more cautious in reflecting the security elements in its FOIIP, and it seems, at this moment, that New Delhi has no intention to link development and security elements within its Indo-Pacific initiative. Instead, it seems, at least from the Japanese perspective, that India wants to focus on strengthening New Delhi’s strategic identity by enhancing economic development as well as maintaining diversity, plurality and other Indian values intact, while at the same time, increasingly building partnerships with the West. The difference in their approaches to the Indo-Pacific is also attributed to the extant differences in the political foundations of the two countries: Japan’s reliance on the Japan-US alliance and India’s emphasis on its strategic autonomy.


The second is the China factor. The stronger the India-Japan cooperation becomes, the more China may feel that it is being contained. Indeed, New Delhi and Tokyo have recently strengthened their defence efforts given Beijing’s growing military buildup and its continuous assertive actions along the respective territorial boundaries of both India and Japan, including Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai Shin, as well as the East and South China Sea and the Indian and the Pacific Ocean. Furthermore, apprehensions over China’s BRI have driven countries to question the intent of Beijing in its pursuit of the initiative, due to its geostrategic but ambiguous implications, as well as Beijing’s de facto possession of overseas ports such as Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Harbour and Pakistan’s Gwadar.

Meanwhile, both India and Japan have been very careful not to be perceived as containing or targeting any particular country including China, and have emphasized that their development-driven Indo-Pacific initiatives remain inclusive in fear of aggravating their respective relationships with Beijing. Indeed, China has continuously criticized of being contained politically and militarily, namely by the United States and its allies and partners. Given the two-way situation – the need to deal with China militarily and to accommodate China otherwise –, it will, by nature, be difficult for New Delhi and Tokyo to align their security cooperation with their respective development-driven Indo-Pacific initiatives. Furthermore, the fact that India and Japan do not necessarily share the same views towards China – the former being less accommodating than the latter as exemplified by their approaches to China’s BRI – complicates the matter even more.

Third, both India and Japan may be forced to transform their respective Indo-Pacific initiatives into a more confrontational one similar to the US version. Today, India’s FOIIP and Japan’s FOIP differ in principle and practice with the United States’ version of the Indo-Pacific initiative. Unlike New Delhi and Tokyo, Washington has taken a more confrontational approach in utilizing its own FOIP strategy/version. In early June 2019, the US Department of Defense released an exclusively security-oriented Indo-Pacific Strategy Report, which specifically targeted China along with Russia and North Korea. The report acknowledges the correlation between economics, governance and security, but is basically in line with the US National Security Strategy and the National Defense Strategy issued earlier by the Trump administration, which portrays China as a revisionist power. In addition, the US Department of State released its Indo-Pacific initiative in November 2019, emphasizing the importance of a “shared vision” rather than that of inclusivity, suggesting that the initiative is primarily in harmony with the basic confrontational approach of the Trump administration. Accordingly, if the US decides to maintain or even raise the level of confrontation against China, both New Delhi and Tokyo are most likely to be pressured to align with the US’ confrontational Indo-Pacific initiative. However, transforming their development-driven initiatives into security-oriented versions would most likely affect the level of support in a negative way towards India’s FOIIP and Japan’s FOIP from countries, notably the ASEAN member states, which do not want to lose their flexibility and/or to be forced to take sides with either the Indo-Pacific initiatives of the West or China’s BRI. In fact, Tokyo will be more vulnerable to the pressure from Washington than New Delhi as it has little room to manoeuvre outside of the Japan-US alliance framework. In any case, India’s FOIIP and Japan’s FOIP would lose legitimacy if they are transformed into security-oriented initiatives.

Meanwhile, both India and Japan have been very careful not to be perceived as containing or targeting any particular country including China, and have emphasized that their development-driven Indo-Pacific initiatives remain inclusive in fear of aggravating their respective relationships with Beijing

Finally, India and Japan do not have either the will or the sufficient power projection capabilities to back up their development-driven Indo-Pacific initiatives by security measures in order to ensure peace and stability in the region. As noted, the link between development and security has become increasingly significant given the introduction of multiple cross-border infrastructure development initiatives. However, India has no intention to link development and security elements within its FOIIP. In the case of Japan, the MSDF has been striking a balance between the ways of dealing with the traditional military challenges in the East and South China Sea and the so-called ‘non-traditional’ maritime security challenges notably in the Bay of Bengal, with the growing importance of protecting the sea lanes of communication from the Middle East to the Pacific in order to strengthen regional connectivity. However, the MSDF lacks the manpower and the number of equipment as well as the necessary overseas logistic strongholds that are necessary to carry out its operations in the Indian Ocean including the Bay of Bengal. As a result, India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands (ANIs), which are located northwest of the maritime chokepoint at the Strait of Malacca, have increasingly become areas of strategic significance for Japan, as the archipelago, together with the US base in Diego Garcia, has the potential to become one of the key strongholds for Tokyo in the near future. Acknowledging the increasing value of the islands, New Delhi and Tokyo have initiated talks in February 2016 over a plan, albeit modest, to boost the civilian infrastructure by building diesel power plants on the South Andaman Island. In July 2018, India’s Bharat Sanchar and Japan’s NEC Technologies India (NECTI) announced that they have planned to build a 2,300 km submarine cable that would connect India’s east coast city of Chennai with the ANIs. Further, cooperation may be expected in other areas such as port development. However, bilateral efforts in developing the ANIs, especially at a large scale, would most likely antagonize China, instigating Beijing to take countermeasures. These include converting economic stakes into military bases or other strategic outposts in the Bay of Bengal, such as Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port and Myanmar’s Kyaukpyu port. According to the 2019 US Report to Congress, Beijing’s overseas assistance through its BRI is ‘the clearest organizing concept behind the PLA’s expanding overseas presence’.In fact, Chinese state-owned companies, as of 2019, either owned equity in or had an operating lease in at least approximately seventy ports outside of China, which could be converted into dual-use military functions or become strategic strong points. Development efforts in the ANIs, therefore, need careful consideration to prevent China from further taking such actions.


Given these various challenges, both New Delhi and Tokyo would need to strike a delicate balance between their security policies and their respective development-driven Indo-Pacific initiatives with the following considerations. First, their respective Indo-Pacific initiatives need to remain inclusive. The two countries will have to maintain ASEAN centrality at the core of their initiatives, and, at the same time, be more engaged in Beijing’s BRI to ensure that the project’s infrastructure be conducted based upon international standards and rules and that it would not be used for military purposes in the future. Inclusively is critical in strengthening the legitimacy of the Indo-Pacific initiatives of New Delhi and Tokyo. Second, India and Japan need to seek more cooperative and well-balanced development-driven initiatives. In doing so, the two countries have to highlight the common grounds and differences of the various other versions of the Indo-Pacific initiatives such as the versions announced by the US, Australia, ASEAN, Republic of Korea and France, so that countries, both donor and recipient, would be able to overcome the misunderstandings and misperceptions that have been, in part, the obstacles in uniting in their pursuit of developing a more peaceful and stable Indo-Pacific. India and Japan also need to provide recipient countries with alternatives. Furthermore, New Delhi and Tokyo need to ensure that their initiatives remain development-driven, and not be forced to transform into a more security-oriented initiative. Last but not least, it is imperative that New Delhi and Tokyo commit themselves to function as influential ‘middle powers’ so that they can impact, if not ameliorate, the relationship between Washington and Beijing in avoiding potential threats from becoming real threats. This would require both India and Japan to tread on a fine line in mitigating the differences between the United States and China. In sum, despite the challenges, it is only by striking a better balance between India-Japan security cooperation and their respective Indo-Pacific initiatives that would enable the ‘Special Strategic and Global Partnership’ to become a truly substantive partnership that would contribute more effectively to maintaining peace and stability of the Indo-Pacific.

– The author is a Senior Researcher, Institute for National Strategic Studies and a retired Colonel, GSDF – Japan

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