The Indian Ocean is becoming the front line in a new Cold War and India and Japan are forging a close alliance to counter China’s increasing presence in sea lanes that are vital trade routes.
When India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrives in Tokyo on Sunday for an annual summit with his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe, they are expected to sign a logistics pact that will allow access to each other’s bases.
In practical terms, that would mean that Japanese naval vessels will be using Indian naval bases on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to refuel and get other services.
India’s navy will also get access to Japanese facilities for maintenance. For the first time, the Indian Army and Japan’s Ground Self Defense Force will also conduct joint exercises at Vairengte in the northeast Indian state of Mizoram in November.
Mizoram does not border China, but it is not far from Arunachal Pradesh, an Indian state on the Chinese frontier, the most part of which is claimed by China – it was the scene of a brief and bitter war between India and China in 1962.
The area is also home to the Indian Army’s Counter Insurgency and Jungle Warfare School where the US and UK have also held joint exercises.
Under Modi and Abe, defense cooperation between India and Japan has grown close as they share a common strategic adversary in China. The Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement, as the proposed pact is called, comes as Chinese warships and submarines are beginning to appear in the Indian Ocean.
At the same time, India’s state-owned Bharat Electronics has signed a US$777 million agreement with Israel Aerospace Industries for the Barak 8 long-range surface-to-air missile system for seven of the Indian Navy’s ships.
The arms race is on in the region. In August, India fired for the first time three K-15 Sagarika sea-launched ballistic missiles from INS Arihant, the lead vessel of its nuclear-powered submarines. The test took place 10 kilometers off the coast of Visakhapatnam, the headquarters of the Indian Navy’s Eastern Command.
The short-range missiles can carry a payload of 1,000 kilograms and weigh almost 10 tons. As part of the same policy to counter China, India has also deployed additional Russian-made Su-30 fighter aircraft, spy drones and missiles along the Chinese border in Arunachal Pradesh.
China’s military presence in the Indian Ocean is supposed to be to fight piracy off the coast of Somalia, but this month a Chinese Type 039A Yuan class SSK, diesel-electric attack submarine, accompanied by a submarine rescue vessel, was spotted in the eastern Indian Ocean, nowhere near Somalia.
This was not the first Chinese submarine entering the sensitive maritime region – and a submarine would not be of much use if they were sent to chase pirates.
The Indian Ocean is fast emerging as one of the world’s most important and contested maritime areas. More than 60% of the world’s oil shipments pass through the Indian Ocean, largely exports from the Middle East to China, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea.
Up to 70% of all container traffic to and from Asia’s industrialized nations, among them China, also pass through the waterway. In other words, it is not surprising that China wants to monitor and, if necessary, defend those vital supply lines.
That was also the reason why last year China established its first overseas military base in Djibouti at the entrance to the Red Sea. Not to fight pirates.
Now, for the first time in history – or since the explorer Zheng He plied these waters in the 15th century – China is developing a merchant marine and a blue water navy.
Chinese president Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative has added a strategic dimension that is impacting the Indian Ocean’s balance of power. While officially a peaceful plan to help neighbors and others to develop their infrastructure in order to facilitate trade, the US$1-trillion scheme could lead to Chinese hegemony in the Indian Ocean region and beyond – and that is what is prompting India and Japan to establish closer defense relations.
India is not the only Indian Ocean power that is worried about China’s long-term intentions. For more than 10 years, the US and Indian navies have conducted joint exercises.
France shows its teeth
But attempts to form a four-state alliance, informally called the Quad, between India, Japan, the United States and Australia, have not been especially successful because of Australia’s reluctance to join a grouping that could be perceived as anti-Chinese.
China is Australia’s largest trading partner, while Japan comes second and the United States third.
But another, often underestimated, Indian Ocean power has started to show its teeth. France actually controls more maritime territory in the Indian Ocean region than any other country.
Its Exclusive Economic Zone encompasses 2.6 million square kilometers based on all the scattered islands in the maritime region that are under French control, among them Réunion, Mayotte, Kerguelen, the Crozet Archipelago and a string of islets around Madagascar.
On October 20, the French government announced it was sending its aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle to the Indian Ocean to protect what it said was “the inalienable right of freedom of navigation in international waters.”
That France is wary of China’s expanding influence in the region became obvious when President Emmanuel Macron and Modi entered into a defense agreement in March this year, and France has stepped up its presence in the Indian Ocean as well as the South Pacific.
Although spokesmen for the French Navy have said China is not the target, recent changes in the balance of power in the Indian Ocean is precisely the reason France is sending troops to the region and holding on to its islands there.
As early as 2001, India established the Andaman and Nicobar Command, its first and only tri-service command, to safeguard India’s strategic interests in the waters east of the subcontinent – and, more precisely, to keep a watchful eye on China’s activities in the same maritime region.
New Cold War
Headquartered in Port Blair, the capital of the union territory of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, it coordinates the activities of the navy, the army and the air force as well as the coast guards in the eastern Indian Ocean. And that is where the Japanese ships are going to dock.
Whether anyone likes it or not, a new Cold War is emerging in the Indian Ocean with India and Japan being close allies, Australia reluctantly so and the United States focusing its attention on potential trouble spots elsewhere in the world.
Right now, Japan is also initiating its first joint military technology project with India. Tokyo’s ambassador to New Delhi, Kenji Hiramatsu, revealed at a briefing about Modi’s trip to Japan: “In the field of defense technology, we will cooperate on building unmanned vehicles and robotics.”
The Cold War is heating up and the Indian Ocean is where the main contest will be played out.