Indian military personnel at joint naval drills in Japan in 2014 (photo: Indian Navy)
Japan is expected to take part in the 2015 edition of India’s joint naval exercises with the United States that are scheduled in October. This is being seen as a sign of stronger military and diplomatic ties between India and Japan, and an attempt by India to recover its position as the dominant maritime power in the Indian Ocean that has recently seen inroads by China.
The Indian Navy’s ‘Malabar’ exercises are conducted with the U.S. Navy each year. The last time these included other navies was in 2007, when Japan, Australia and Singapore were also invited. But following China’s disquiet at what it believed to be a U.S.-inspired coalition aimed at containing its rise, India has kept the exercises a bilateral affair with the U.S.
For the last 8 years, India has participated in three-way events only when it was away from the Indian Ocean, such as last year's drills off Japan's Nagasaki coast.
But no longer. With China's expanding naval footprint in the Indian Ocean including submarines docking in neighbouring Sri Lanka and again in Pakistan in May, Narendra Modi's administration has decided to accelerate naval modernisation as well as shore up ties with maritime nations.
"Modi's Delhi is no longer willing to give Beijing a veto over its defence partnerships," said C. Raja Mohan, a foreign policy analyst, to Reuters.
Military officials from India, the U.S. and Japan are meeting this week at a U.S. navy base in Yokosuka, near Tokyo, to plan the exercises, a navy and a diplomatic source in New Delhi said. The officials will decide the type of warships and planes the navies will deploy in the Bay of Bengal.
"They are discussing platforms, logistics and interoperability between the three naval forces," the source told Reuters. India and the U.S. have fielded aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines in their previous bilateral exercises.
A Japanese government official in Tokyo confirmed the meeting and said representatives from the three navies were discussing Japan’s participation in the naval exercises.
Jeff Smith, a South Asia specialist at the American Foreign Policy Council, told Reuters that Japan was keen to take part in the exercises this year since it was expanding the role of its military against a more assertive China. Multilateral exercises suited both India and Japan, he said.
"I'd view aircraft carrier participation in this year's drill as yet another signal from the Modi government that it was shedding the (previous) government's anxiety about a more overt balancing posture toward China and a more robust strategic embrace of the U.S. and Japan," Smith said.
An official confirmation on Japan’s participation is expected only closer to the event.