The assertiveness of China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy in the Indian Ocean is forcing the government of Narenda Modi to look to modernize India’s naval forces as quickly as possible. This venture, as would be expected, includes overtures to the U.S. (for example, to share technology for India’s next aircraft carrier), but India is increasingly seeking cooperation with Japan as well. India has asked Japan to consider working with India to build submarines and recently announced its plans to purchase Japanese amphibious search and rescue (SAR) aircraft.
Russian-made SAR flying boats had also been considered, but India chose the Japanese option because the Indian defense ministry valued the US-2’s ability to take off and land on waters with high waves. If the export of Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force’s US-2 air-sea SAR aircraft to India is realized, it will be the first export under Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s new three principles on defense equipment transfers, declared in April 2014.
Aside from defense equipment deals, Japan and India have been working to improve their bilateral cooperation in the fields of maritime security, counter-terrorism, and anti-piracy operations since January 2014, when then-Indian Defense Minister A.K. Antony met with then-Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera.
At the time, the two defense ministers put off the issue of Japanese US-2 sales to India, but it was given added momentum during Modi’s trip to Japan last September. Modi declared during a joint press briefing with Abe, “We intend to give a new thrust and direction to our defense cooperation, including collaboration in defense technology and equipment, given our shared interest in peace and stability and maritime security.” At the same meeting, Abe and Modi agreed to upgrade “two-plus-two” security talks, increase working level talks on defense equipment and technology cooperation, hold regular maritime exercises, and continue Japanese participation in U.S.-India drills.
Abe and Modi have capitalized on their close personal ties with each other – and the increasingly uncertain external environment created by China’s bellicose foreign policy – to increase security cooperation despite several remaining obstacles, such as the lack of a civilian nuclear cooperation agreement.
Last July, Japan participated in the Malabar exercises, traditionally a bilateral India-U.S. exercise, at India’s invitation. Prior to 2014, the last time Japan had participated was in 2007 and 2009. There is no word yet on Japan’s participation in this year’s exercises — whether India and Japan will stand firm in the face of Chinese criticism of Japan’s participation is a critical test of how strong and resilient India-Japan relations can be in the near future.