Originally Published 2020-08-21 12:00:53 Published on Aug 21, 2020
Despite some disappointments on both sides, the India-Japan relationship looks set to further deepen in the face of an aggressive China.
India-Japan defense ties to get a boost With Modi-Abe virtual summit

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe will meet for a virtual summit in September. This will be Modi’s second virtual summit this year, after one with the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison in June. According to Indian media reports, citing India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), the two sides are expected to sign an important military logistics agreement, the Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSA). While this remains an important milestone moment for New Delhi and Tokyo, it also remains key for both countries to take stock of what has been accomplished so far.

India and Japan missed their planned 2019 summit because of protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in Guwahati, in the northeastern Indian state of Assam, where the meeting was supposed to be held. Although the Modi government was reportedly keen to shift the meeting venue to Delhi, the Japanese side insisted that the focus of the 2019 summit was on Japanese investment in India’s Northeast infrastructure development and therefore, as a Japanese diplomat said, “The venue is the message.” Since then, India and Japan have been trying to reschedule the summit, but the COVID-19 pandemic further delayed their plans.

The current summit meeting comes against the backdrop of Chinese aggression against both countries, along the Sino-Indian border and the East China Sea. The Abe government is reportedly also keen to explore the possibility of shifting some Japanese manufacturing to India as part of its efforts to shift such operations out of China. This is part of a concerted effort of several countries to shift their manufacturing out of China in order to reduce their dependency on Beijing. The two leaders are also reportedly working to strengthen the Quad agenda in this regard.

The ACSA should also boost the geographical reach and influence of both countries’ militaries. India has so far signed such logistics agreement with the United StatesSouth Korea, and Australia. Such logistics agreements are meant to simplify the processes involved in using each other’s facilities. It took India more than a decade to sign the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) with the U.S. on account of several misperceptions, but since its signing in 2016 it has become easier for India to negotiate such deals with other countries. Probably to maintain some semblance of balance, India is negotiating a similar agreement with Russia. The Russian agreement is named differently, the Agreement on Reciprocal Logistics Support (ARLS).

The India-Japan ACSA got a big push during the last summit in Japan in October 2018. India’s MEA in a statement at the time said, “The two leaders welcomed the joint exercise between each of the three services and the commencement of negotiations on the Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA), which will enhance the strategic depth of bilateral security and defense cooperation.” The inaugural 2+2 dialogue, the India-Japan Foreign and Defense Ministerial Meeting, also noted “the significant progress” made in the negotiations of ACSA and their desire “for early conclusion of the negotiations” which would “further contribute to enhancing defense cooperation between the two sides.”

The India-Japan ACSA would provide the two militaries with access to each other’s military facilities for repair and replenishment of provisions as well as overall improve the scope and sophistication of military-to-military cooperation. In fact, the India-Japan ACSA is reported to be broader in scope, encompassing overall defense cooperation between the two countries, with logistics as one important leg in the expanding defense partnership. Japan could get access to India’s key naval bases, including in the Andaman and Nicobar islands, close to the Malacca Straits, a key international sea lane. The agreement will also enhance India’s own operational reach, most specifically for the Indian Navy. India could gain access to Japanese bases such as in Djibouti. Some of the agenda items for broader India-Japan defense cooperation could include stepping up defense trade and technology cooperation under existing mechanisms, such as the Joint Working Group on Defense Equipment and Technology Cooperation (JWG-DETC). There is already cooperative research work being done on areas such as unmanned ground vehicle (UGV)/robotics under this framework, but it could be expanded to an entire range of existing and emerging technologies.

It is also possible that Japan would like to see more discussion on the Japanese-built US-2 amphibious aircraft, which India has been soft-pedaling for a while now. Capacity-building for better maritime security and maritime domain awareness (MDA) are also high on the agenda for India and Japan. Establishment of the Information Fusion Center – Indian Ocean Region (IFC-IOR) by India in December 2018 has been deemed an important step in this regard and Japan will have a liaison officer at the IFC-IOR. Other Indo-Pacific powers such as Australia, France, and the United States will also have their officers at this center.

While ACSA and the defense agenda are forward-looking in furthering cooperation between India and Japan, there are also some difficulties in the relationship. Japan seems to have been considerably disappointed with the Indian decision to walk out of the regional trading agreement, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). The fact that Abe was not even informed before New Delhi made the announcement appears to have been a jolt to the Abe administration. Japan was counting on India to be a powerful player within the RCEP to push back on China’s aggressive economic agenda. Tokyo is also possibly disappointed about the lack of enthusiasm in New Delhi about pursuing the defense trade agenda, with the US-2 being a case in point. On the other hand, although India was keen on considering the Soryu-class submarine, Japan has been somewhat cautious, and indeed has not bid for India’s submarine contract.

Nevertheless, Japan has remained a steadfast partner to India. For instance, after the Galwan Valley clash in mid-June, the Japanese ambassador to India strongly supported India, tweeting that “Japan opposes any unilateral attempts to change the status quo.” This suggests that the pressure from China will continue to strengthen India-Japan ties, despite some disappointments on both sides.

This commentary originally appeared in The Diplomat
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Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan

Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan

Dr Rajeswari (Raji) Pillai Rajagopalan is the Director of the Centre for Security, Strategy and Technology (CSST) at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.  Dr ...

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