India-Japan bilateral ties reached another milestone when the maiden Foreign and Defence Ministerial Dialogue (2+2) was held on 30 November in New Delhi during which the two sides discussed boosting defence and security ties besides other issues of mutual interest. While the Indian delegation was led by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and Foreign Minister S Jaishankar, Japan’s Foreign Affairs Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and Defence Minister Taro Kono led the Japanese side. The 2+2 ministerial dialogue is seen as an upgrade of the meeting between foreign and defence secretaries of the two countries, the first round of which took place in 2010. The upgrade to the ministerial level talks follows an agreement reached between Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi and his Japanese counterpart Abe Shinzo during the 13th India-Japan Annual Summit held in Japan in October 2018. So far, India holds similar ministerial level 2+2 dialogue only with the US and with the start of similar format with Japan, the strategic congruence between the three countries comes into focus.
The significance of this bilateral ministerial meeting can be deciphered from the fact that it came weeks ahead of the annual summit of the two prime ministers, the 14th summit, scheduled to be held in Guwahati later in December 2019. The choice of Guwahati as the summit venue is in line with the Modi government’s policy to hold such high-profile meets outside Delhi to give glimpses of India’s rich cultural history to visiting dignitaries. The Japanese Prime Minister may also visit Imphal in neighbouring Manipur, once a battlefield between Japan and the Allied forces during World War II and pray for peace.
The 2+2 meeting provided an opportunity for the two sides to review the status and exchange further views on strengthening defence and security cooperation between the two countries and also aimed to give stronger spine to the existing India-Japan Special Strategic and Global Partnership. Besides, the two sides exchanged views on the situation in the Indo-Pacific region and their respective efforts under India’s ‘Act East Policy’ and Japan’s ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific Vision’ for achieving their shared objective of peace, prosperity and progress to realize a better future for the people of the two countries and the region.
The 2+2 ministerial dialogue reflects the growing relations between the two countries, especially on strategic and security issues. The focus was on seeking ways to advance cooperation for peace and progress in the Indo-Pacific region and the desire of both countries to create a rules-based framework to ensure the Indo-Pacific region remains free, fair and inclusive. The two countries, both major importers of energy, are keen to ensure freedom of navigation in regional waters against the backdrop of China’s increasingly assertive behaviour. India and Japan have also made progress in efforts aimed at maritime domain awareness in regional waters and are currently engaged in negotiations for an Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement, which is aimed at boosting joint efforts on military hardware.
The armies and air forces of the two countries held their first bilateral exercises in 2018. Though there is a great deal of convergence of interests in the strategic and security domains, a Japanese proposal to sell the Shin Maywa US-2 amphibious aircraft to the Indian Navy appears to have run into trouble, largely due to the cost of the aircraft. If an agreement on this strategic asset is concluded enabling India to purchase the aircraft, it could enhance India’s capability mix in the context of the humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) efforts. It would also be a good addition to India’s recent maritime capability acquisitions including the P-8I maritime patrol aircraft and the potential acquisition of the Sea Guardian armed drone.
Japan is keen that an agreement on this is reached as soon as possible. In order to entice India for this acquisition, Japan has committed to manufacture 30 percent of the aircraft in India and this could eventually help improve Indian defense manufacturing. The two have also established a working group to study the possibilities in Visual Simultaneous Localization and Mapping (SLAM) Based Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) Augmentation Technology for UGV/robotics. Opportunities in the areas of technology collaboration are significant. Defense electronics is particularly important for India since its domestic defense electronic manufacturing segment is still at a nascent stage and it has to partner with its strategic partners in building a domestic capability base but also direct procurement of those capabilities in the interim.
At the last 2+2 dialogue at the official level in 2018, the two sides had “discussed measures to strengthen cooperation in fields such as counterterrorism, maritime security, defence equipment and technology
peacekeeping operations”. These issues were taken up at a higher level at the ministerial level dialogue. During the India-Japan defence dialogue last September, defence minister Rajnath Singh and his Japanese counterpart Takeshi Iwaya had stressed that peace and stability in the Indian and Pacific Oceans are “crucial for ensuring prosperity of the Indo-Pacific region”. They had also discussed the security situation in the Indo-Pacific, including developments on the Korean peninsula and the South China Sea. The Prime Ministers of India and Japan in their Vision Statement in October 2018 had reiterated their commitments to working together towards a free and open Indo-Pacific. Both sides have an inclusive approach in the region and defined their emerging Asian strategic framework with that goal in mind. Both see China’s approach in the region as being exclusivist. There is a clear clash between their two visions of the region.
This time around, the ministerial dialogue added strategic heft to the special relationship in the wake of growing Chinese assertiveness on regional affairs. No wonder, maritime cooperation in the Indo-Pacific topped in the ministerial talks. There is strategic congruence between the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) and the Indian Navy demonstrated by participation in multilateral exercises, including participation as observers. Both the Japan-India-US trilateral maritime exercise ‘Malabar 2019’ held from late September to early October 2019, and the second Japan-India-US trilateral mine-countermeasures exercise (MINEX) held in July 2019 are aimed at deepening cooperation in the maritime domain. Similar trilateral exercises in the same framework are likely to continue at an annual basis.
Besides, the Armies and Air Forces of India and Japan held their first bilateral exercises, ‘Dharma Guardian’ and ‘Shinyuu Maitri’ in 2018. Last year, Japan also joined the India-US Air Force exercise ‘Cope India’ as an observer for the first time. The two countries have made steady progress in Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) based on implementing the arrangement for deeper cooperation between the two navies, signed in 2018. With an eye on China, both the countries are also close to concluding negotiations on Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ASCA), a military logistics sharing pact. Such an agreement could expand the strategic reach and influence of both the militaries that would allow both countries to access each others’ naval bases. While Japan could gain access to Indian facilities in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, India could have access to Japan’s naval facility in Djibouti. India took more than a decade to finalize such an agreement with the United States, but now that it has been done once, New Delhi has found it less problematic to do others. It has now concluded such deals also with France and South Korea; talks for a similar deal with Australia are at an advanced stage. The negotiations for the ASCA with Japan commenced after the October 2018 summit meeting. Discussions on global commons including maritime, outer space, and cyber space have been key themes in the dialogue process.
When India opted to stay out of the RCEP in November 2019 Bangkok summit, reports surfaced that Japan shall make a big push to convince India to join the mega pact. But soon it transpired that Japan itself would not be a part of the RCEP without India. Japan’s deputy minister for economy, trade and industry Hideki Makihara made it clear that Japan was at the moment thinking only of negotiations. China has sought to accelerate the RCEP deal but India is unwilling without adequate safeguards and commensurate market access to the rest of the 15 RCEP members for its IT and services sector.
In a meeting with Kono and Motegi in New Delhi, Prime Minister Modi reiterated that joining the free trade pact in its present form would be detrimental to India’s interests. Modi was assured that Tokyo was working with other RCEP countries to address “core concerns” raised by India. Kono and Motegi referred to the RCEP joint statement issued in Bangkok which said India had outstanding issues and that all participating countries will work together to resolve these in a mutually satisfactory way. China in particular that hoped to benefit massively through market access in India seems to be perturbed by India’s decision not to join the RCEP deal, effectively wrecking its aim to create the world’s largest free trade area having half of the world’s population.
Japan sees free trade as one of the pillars of its Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy and is keen that India joins the RCEP. Japanese foreign ministry deputy press secretary Atsushi Kaifu, who accompanied Motegi to India underlined to working with India for regional peace and prosperity by enhancing connectivity. Japan acknowledges its commitment to the infrastructure development and increase connectivity, with the north-east as the focus area. It remains unclear at the moment if India will be willing to change its stance on the RCEP.
War against terror is a common issue between India and Japan. In strong words on Pakistan’s sponsorship of terrorism, the ministers from both sides asked Islamabad to take “resolute and irreversible” steps against terror networks operating from its soil. The two countries called upon Islamabad to “fully comply” with its international commitments to deal with terrorism including the steps prescribed by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). The Indian defence and foreign ministers will be meeting their US counterparts Mike Pompeo and Mark Esper for the next round of the 2+2 dialogue on December 18. It is likely that some of the issues discussed with the Japanese counterparts would be shared with Pompeo and Esper, contributing further towards mutual understanding.
The India-Japan ministerial level 2+2 strategic dialogue is an important initiative. It emphasizes the deep interest that both sides have to further strengthen their security and strategic engagements. Unlike Japan’s relations with China, Koreas and some ASEAN countries which suffer from the shadow of history, India-Japan ties have no such historical baggage, the only aberration being when Japan reacted harshly after India detonated a nuclear bomb in 1998. The China factor also propels both to see common grounds and their worldviews are shaped accordingly. India and Japan alone are unlikely be able to cope with the China challenge. They need a larger coalition to balance China effectively. The Quad initiative could be a possible channel that can address issues in the larger Asia and the world.