Japan recently dispatched the largest warship it has built since World War II to a naval exercise here to signal its heightened commitment, alongside India and the U.S., to counter China’s expanding ambitions in the Indian Ocean.
The problem, however, is that Japan’s growing cooperation with India is moving slowly and tentatively, while China has moved by leaps and bounds in developing vital ports and facilities in other countries around the Indian Ocean in recent years.
Japan’s relationship with India has become increasingly important in the effort to contain China amid uncertainty in both countries over the extent of the U.S. military’s commitment to region.
Japan, an island nation that relies heavily on seaborne trade and free sea lanes, has been beefing up its maritime defense forces and trying to forge stronger security ties with India through offers to build vital infrastructure and sell it amphibious aircraft and other military equipment.
Japanese officials have expressed growing concern that tensions in the South and East China Seas could spread to the Indian Ocean, jeopardising the country’s important trade links with fast-growing nations in Africa, as well as with Middle Eastern countries that supply Japan with around 90% of its crude-oil needs.
But cooperating with India has proved incremental and challenging. This month, the U.S., Japan and India held their annual Malabar joint naval exercises, involving subs, destroyers and jet fighters. Hailed as one the effort’s most celebrated achievements was the successful sale and transfer of small amounts of fuel by the Indian navy to a Japanese ship.
The fuel sale was a “very historic event” that demonstrated increased trust between the countries, said Rear Adm. Yoshihiro Goka, Japan’s commander for the exercises, speaking with The Wall Street Journal aboard the USS Nimitz.
U.S. officials said they also purchased fuel from India’s navy, the first use of a logistics-sharing agreement signed last August with India that marked a major shift away from India’s decades of military neutrality toward the U.S.
“We are increasingly operating at further ranges from our own shores, and our integral logistics are quite stretched,” said Rear Adm. Biswajit Dasgupta, India’s commander for the exercise.
India’s baby steps toward a deeper and more meaningful partnership with Japan and the U.S. come as the country is being confronted by China’s rapid progress in the region. Experts say India has long believed its vast land and sea borders were best left undeveloped to avoid providing useful infrastructure for potential invaders. Now, with China building highways along India’s Himalayan border and constructing ports in neighboring countries, India is facing the reality that it needs to spend heavily to keep up.
Key strategic sites in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, an Indian archipelago at the eastern gateway to the Indian Ocean, haven't been developed, even as China has forged ahead with new ports in Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
The U.S. has been largely hamstrung in its offers to help. Indian authorities have rejected six requests by the U.S. Navy to dock ships at the Andamans in recent years, an official said, linking those rejections to China’s expressions of growing displeasure about the role of the U.S. in the Indian Ocean.
In the place of U.S. support, Japan has offered to step in.
“Japan is the only state willing to help India in its Indian Ocean project to develop islands there,” said Abhijit Singh, head of the Maritime Policy Initiative at the Observer Research Foundation, a New Delhi think tank. The reason, he added, is that other nations—notably the U.S.—consider offering such help too provocative to China.
India’s Ministry of Home Affairs denied a request by the Journal to visit the Andamans to speak with officials, citing security concerns.
Last year Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced a new “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy,” in a response to China’s increasingly assertive role in the seas from the east coast of Africa to the Pacific. That followed a bilateral India-Japan agreement, signed in late 2015, on the transfer of defense technology.
So far, however, Japanese offers to help India develop the Andamans have stalled. A power plant Japan’s development body agreed to build there has been bogged down in paperwork, and there has been no progress on its proposals to help build ports and airstrips on the islands, said Kenko Sone, the economics attaché at the Japanese Embassy in New Delhi.
“At the actual project level, we’re having difficulty figuring out the decision-making process” in India’s government, he said.
Japan has shifted some of its attentions to Sri Lanka, strategically located in the Indian Ocean midway between East Asia and Africa. Following a meeting with his Sri Lankan counterpart in April, Mr. Abe announced 1 billion yen ($9 million) in grant aid to develop the port of Trincomalee in Sri Lanka’s northeast.
Euan Graham, director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank, says Trincomalee port has “great potential” as a naval base, including for Japanese submarines, countering Chinese port access elsewhere in the island country. As part of the April agreement, Japan also pledged to supply Sri Lanka with two naval patrol vessels. Last year it also lent $400 million to help expand Sri Lanka’s main airport.
Meanwhile, a number of India’s critical homegrown weapons programs have stalled or been scrapped, while China has ramped up its navy.
More Chinese submarines have been spotted passing through the Malacca Straits and past the Andamans into the Indian Ocean, troubling India’s navy, which has relatively meager tools to track submarines.
India’s planned fleet of aircraft carriers is years behind schedule and facing criticism for design shortcomings. A homegrown naval jet program was scrapped last year, and naval jets India bought from Russia have experienced engine and maintenance problems
A string of border disputes with China has also forced India to invest heavily in roads and military facilities in remote regions such as Arunachal Pradesh, drawing attention and resources away from the Indian Ocean.
This month’s Malabar naval exercises, an annual tradition between the U.S. and India that expanded two years ago to formally include Japan, attempted to move the needle the other way. It marked the first overseas mission of Japan’s newly built Izumo-class helicopter destroyer, as large as many conventional aircraft carriers.
Indian and U.S. submarines carried out exercises under the waves, while their jet fighters tangled in the skies.
Speaking in the aircraft hangar of the USS Nimitz, Adm. Dasgupta said the three navies had become comfortable enough operating alongside each other to respond adequately “should there be a requirement to meet up at sea some day and make a response to any challenge.”
“But there’s no master plan as such to say ‘in this area this guy will do this and that guy will do that,’” he said. “Not yet.”