Shinzo Abe’s visit is a good time to operationalise the India-Japan maritime partnership.
Japanese Prime Minister Shizo Abe will be back in India later this month. He gave a magnificent speech at the Indian Parliament in August 2007 advocating the Japan-India strategic global partnership in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Abe envisioned the idea that Japan and India, as like-minded maritime democracies, should promote freedom and prosperity in the “broader Asia”, evolving the region into a network that would allow people, goods, capital and knowledge to flow freely.
Although his health did not allow Abe to pursue this vision himself, his successors promoted the strategic global partnership and expanded bilateral security and economic cooperation over the past six years. The recent visit of the emperor and empress of Japan to India endorsed and further strengthened bilateral ties. In particular, Japan and India have bolstered maritime security cooperation with occasional combined naval exercises. Japanese and Indian defence minsters have just agreed on a plan to export Japan’s highly capable frying boat US-2 to India, which will enhance India’s maritime capability.
Abe has returned to power in a world different from that seven years ago. The Indo-Pacific region is witnessing a power shift as a result of the “rise of the rest”. There is a growing concern over the sustainability of the US pivot towards Asia due to its fiscal constraints and indecisive domestic politics. China has surpassed Japan as the world’s second-largest economy and become more assertive, disrupting freedom in the global commons, while Japan was suffering from its decade-long stagnation and reducing its defence budget. Meanwhile, India has maintained rapid economic growth, although the pace is slowing, and invested more in the development of sea power.
The great maritime commons provide most benefits when regarded as an open and free highway, not a defensive barrier. Good order at sea that ensures legitimate use of the seas for navigation and resource exploitation is the foundation of regional security and prosperity. However, good order at sea is now being challenged in the “Long Littoral” along the Indo-Pacific region by persistent piracy, growing sea-denial capabilities and excessive maritime claims.
Legal warfare — the efforts to reshape navigational regimes in the economic exclusive zone (EEZ) and the airspace above it as part of an access-denial strategy — is a serious challenge to good order at sea. China’s arbitrary interpretation of the Law of the Sea triggered Chinese aggressiveness in the Hainan EP-3 incident in 2001, the USNS Impeccable incident in 2009, and the USS Cowpens incident in 2013. The announcement of China’s air defence identification zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea is another attempt to deny the freedom of overflight. Whether the Law of the Sea is able to continue to establish order at sea will depend on the outcome of the ongoing “struggle for law” in the oceans.
Abe clearly recognises the threat to good order at sea. Japan has a strong stake in maintaining the liberal international order and has just adopted its first national security strategy for proactive contribution to peace. Abe understands that the best source of national power is the economy. In order to restore Japanese national power and keep Japan relevant, Abenomics addresses the three arrows of monetary easing, stimulus spending and growth with structural reforms. At the same time, Abe is determined to reform Japan’s national security policy by reversing downward spending in defence, introducing effective decision-making and relaxing self-imposed restrictions on defence policy.
Abe also envisions a “democratic security diamond”, a coalition among Japan, India, the US and Australia, as a key enabler for good order at sea and an expanded capacity-building programme for navies and maritime law enforcement agencies in Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Horn of Africa and the south Pacific. The Indo-Pacific is a vast unified strategic theatre. As Japan maintains its naval presence in the Indian Ocean and India bolsters its engagement in the western Pacific, Abe’s upcoming visit to India is an important step to realise the security diamond.
The most important mission for the security diamond is to deter armed conflict between traditional and emerging maritime powers. The security diamond partners need to develop a strategy of “offshore control”, or a strategy to deny any hostile maritime power’s use of sea communication with other like-minded maritime nations. Offshore control aims to deter Chinese aggression by showing sea-denial and interdiction capabilities in peacetime and, if deterrence fails, it creates time for diplomats to negotiate for peace while reducing escalatory pressure.
It is time to operationalise the Japan-India strategic global partnership. India fails to recognise its EEZ as international waters and prohibits other countries’ military exercises and manoeuvres without authorisation. Although India does not implement the regulation in an assertive way, how can Japan and India deepen maritime cooperation without a shared interpretation of the rules? To maintain a liberal rule-based maritime order, the two maritime nations should address the difference. By doing so, Japan and India can shift
their maritime partnership from rhetoric to reality.
The writer is fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, Tokyo