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SOURCE: Ajai Shukla / Business Standard

While Indian and Chinese troops continue their nearly five-month-long face-off in Ladakh, the Indian Navy is training with its Japanese counterpart for the eventuality of war with China’s People’s Liberation Army (Navy), or PLA(N).

From Saturday to Monday, the two navies are conducting the fourth edition of the Japan-India Maritime Exercise, or JIMEX 2020. Conducted in the Arabian Sea, this has involved three of the Indian Navy’s most capable warships: the stealth destroyer Indian Navy Ship (INS) Chennai, frigate INS Tarkash and fleet tanker INS Deepak. The Japanese have fielded two warships of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF): the helicopter carrier, Japanese Ship (JS) Kaga and guided missile destroyer, JS Ikazuchi.

Under its post-World War II pacifist constitution, Japan cannot have a military or spend more than 1 per cent of its national income on defence. Even so, Japan’s large economy and technological capability ensures that the Kaga and Ikazuchi are amongst Asia’s most advanced and powerful warships and that the low profile JMSDF is a match for its most likely adversaries, China and North Korea.

For example, JS Kaga currently carries only helicopters, but can be converted into an aircraft carrier, should Tokyo abandon its self-imposed restraints. Along with its sister ship, JS Izumo, that would give Japan navy a two-carrier navy. The JMSDF’s 12 Soryu-class conventional submarines (the 12th is close to entering service) are amongst the quietest and most heavily armed in the world.

During JIMEX 2020, the three Indian and two Japanese warships, along with the highly capable Boeing P-8 Poseidon long-range maritime surveillance aircraft that both countries operate, will refine their drills for detecting and destroying Chinese submarines and surface warships.

India is concerned that, if war breaks out on the Sino-Indian boundary, the PLA(N) would try and sneak its submarines into the Indian Ocean through four narrow waterways that provide access from the South China Sea into the Indian Ocean – the Straits of Malacca, Sunda, Lombok and Ombai Wetar.

Meanwhile, Tokyo worries that the PLA(N) might try to use force to gain control of the Senkaku Island that Japan claims and controls in the East China Sea. Beijing also claims these islands, which it refers to as Diaoyu Islands.

Japan and India have no formal alliance or treaty that requires one to come to the assistance of the other in the case of aggression by a third party. However, JIMEX 2020 ensures that the two navies are operationally prepared to do so. They will rehearse the “interoperability” procedures, worked out in the trilateral Malabar exercises each year between the US, Japanese and Indian navies, to be prepared to operate together to defeat the PLA(N).

 “Multi-faceted tactical exercises involving weapon firings, cross deck helicopter operations and complex surface, anti-submarine and air warfare drills will consolidate coordination developed by the two navies,” said the Indian Navy on Sunday.

The interoperability of the Japanese and Indian navies has been further boosted by an “acquisition and cross-servicing agreement” (ACSA) that was concluded on September 9. This allows the two militaries to plug into each other’s logistics capabilities, including those located in their respective military bases. Besides Japan India has similar logistics agreements with only five other countries: the US, France, Singapore, South Korea, and Australia.

Underlining the closeness of political ties between Tokyo and New Delhi, Japan’s new prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, spoke on 25 September on the phone with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. They discussed, amongst other things, the importance of a “free and open Indo-Pacific”. 

Japan and India have actively promoted the concept of the “Indo-Pacific” region, geographically extending the traditional “Asia-Pacific” into the Indian Ocean littoral. Both countries have incorporated the Indo-Pacific concept into their strategic worldview and foreign policy lexicon.

In dealing with a resurgent and belligerent China, bilateral strategic ties and military exercises allow New Delhi and Tokyo to back the principle of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) and adherence to a “rules-based” order without being drawn into a framework like the “Quad”, which Beijing dismisses as an American grouping that is motivated by great power geopolitical rivalry. 

Initial attempts to curb Chinese aggression in the Western Pacific was based on the “Quad” – a dialogue group combining Australia, Japan, India and the US that also carried out a multilateral naval exercise in 2007-08. That was scaled down after Beijing complained about its motivations, but now seems likely to be back as a consequence of renewed Chinese belligerence against Taiwan, Hong Kong and Ladakh as well as in the South China Sea. 

“Such exercises, and displays of cooperation at sea, sends a strong message to our friends and others of the joint resolve to keep the seas open and prevent hegemonic actions of any single nation,” said a senior naval source without naming China.

The JIMEX series of bilateral naval exercises began in 2012. JIMEX is conducted every two years, increasing each time in scope and complexity. This year, due to COVID-19 restrictions, JIMEX 2020 is being conducted in a “non-contact, at-sea-only” format, without the customary “shore phase” of the exercise.