Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi listen to a speaker at the India-Japan annual summit on September 14, 2017. Photo: AFP / Prakash Singh

Defense white papers are vital official releases that offer both a past review and future blueprint of a country’s defense sector. Japan’s 2020 Defense White Paper, like previous papers, offers a strategic overview of its changing perception of the global security environment, and contextualizes Tokyo’s defense strategy accordingly.

An alarmist yet rightful concern regarding China’s maritime-military posturing across the Senkakus, continual thrust on its partnership with the United States, concerns over North Korea’s missile postures and better defense planning are the highlights of the paper released this week.

In addition, the paper reinforces the US perception of China as a “revisionist power,” strengthening Japan’s security solidarity with the administration of President Donald Trump. 

India has emerged as a significant partner in Tokyo’s renewed pledge to build defense-partnership cooperation and exchanges with a host of countries that are key to its security mandate. While mention of India is minimal in the 2020 Defense White Paper, it is considerable in substance.

There is reference to “advance the bilateral security cooperation” with India, with the paper outlining the defense ministerial meeting in September 2019 and the 2+2 foreign and defense ministerial meeting of November 2019, indicating the seriousness with which Japan holds its defense partnership with India. 

For long, Tokyo under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been aiming to overcome and revise its post-World War II constitution that has always constrained Japan’s security choices in an age of information warfare and, more important, in the backdrop of China’s fast emergence as a “revisionist power” in the Indo-Pacific region. This has propelled Japan to explore new partnerships, where India fits both as an “oceanic” and “Indo-Pacific” partner in Abe’s regional and global defense outlook.

Under Abe, while Japan debates between transforming its outlook from age-old “passive pacifism” to “active pacifism,” his approach of “proactive contributions to peace” promotes the latter. This has resulted in stronger regional undercurrents that search for Japan’s own security in the region; India is accorded a special status in this security mission of Japan. 

In other words, Abe has established a strategic consonance with India for proactive military engagement and exchanges keeping in view India’s long-term strategic and defense planning, vis-à-vis the Indo-Pacific region. Such complementarity enabled India to feature in Japan’s first National Security Strategy 2013 as an emerging power.

Amid the current scenario of uncertainty due to China’s increasingly unilateral and assertive activities in the East China Sea (ECS) and South China Sea (SCS), along the India-China border, and in the Indo-Pacific, and the complex case of denuclearization in the Korean Peninsula, the imperatives for Japan to partner with India have only grown. 

While highlighting security trends in the region, the white paper states that the “regional security framework” has not been “sufficiently institutionalized” in the Indo-Pacific region, with a nod to China’s aggressive posturing amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

The ambit of Japan’s regional security framework has expanded over the years where “alliance management” with the US is a priority, while staying engaged in the trilaterals – India-Japan-Australia, India-Japan-US and Japan-US-Australia. In fact, the importance of promoting trilateral dialogues with the US and India, particularly in the post-Covid-19 period, was underscored in the Japan-Australia leaders’ video teleconference held on July 9. 

In this context, with India and Australia upgrading their bilateral relations to “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership” coupled with arrangements concerning mutual logistics support (MLSA), India and Japan too should seek to finalize the “Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement” (ACSA) to strengthen bilateral relations further, as well as Australia-India-Japan trilateral ties.

A speedy finalization of ACSA would also strengthen the agreements on Transfer of the Defense Equipment and Technology and Security Measures for the Protection of Classified Military Information that India and Japan already share. 

Importantly, even as India-Japan ties have matured while taking on an increasingly structured outlook, the defense partnership has not grown at par. Hence, to achieve the full potential of the Special Strategic and Global Partnership between India and Japan, evolution and expansion of defense security ties is a strategic prerequisite.

The 2+2 meeting in 2019 allowed Japan to have a greater understanding of the Indian defense market, especially considering the fact that India is engaging in a multi-mode procurement policy by looking to purchase arms and ammunitions from countries other than Russia and the US.

The importance of the SCS in India-Japan ties was stressed in 2016 during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit to Japan; being the rim of Southeast Asia and a zone critical to India-Japan’s sea lanes of communication. However, even as the “Confluence of the Two Seas” led to increased maritime cooperation, the SCS and ECS synergy is still mainly at a diplomatic and political level.

Naval cooperation in the SCS and ECS between India and Japan could provide strategic backup to Southeast Asian nations, with Japan’s infrastructure-building capabilities and India’s personnel-training capacity enhancing research, security and interoperability in the region. The Trump administration’s recent announcement denouncing the Chinese claim on the SCS reinforces such a context. 

Under its Make in India initiative, a shift toward indigenous manufacturing has also begun to take shape in India. With optimization of defense procurement serving as a major pillar of Japan’s new white paper, synergy in this sector must be exploited, and closer collaborative ventures with foreign firms in Japan to build manufacturing capabilities are possible.

Japan wishes to enter the global arms market by leaving behind all remnants of its self-imposed 1967 arms export ban, otherwise known as the Three Principles Exports Ban. Abe is keen to reinvent national-security paradigms in the pacifist constitution and normalize removal of restrictions the country has placed on itself. India can prove to be a vital partner in the rebirth of the Japanese defense industry. 

The current context also expedites the ongoing cooperation in the field of defense technology: the Japanese amphibian aircraft ShinMaywa US-2i. India’s Mahindra Defense and ShinMaywa Industries Ltd of Japan inked a memorandum of understanding that allows for complete transfer of technology to India coupled with an agreement to manufacture the vessels in India itself in October 2019.

Sharing of defense technology has been one point of success between Japan’s Acquisition, Technology and Logistical Agency and India’s Defense Research and Development Organization. Enhancement of this relationship in strengthening the Indo-Pacific security architecture must be given primacy. 

Additionally, the 2020 White Paper stresses strengthening cyber-domain systems and networks while aiming for better utilization of cutting-edge technologies. India could emerge as a partner to this effect. In fact, collaborating in the cyber domain was a central theme of the strategic dialogue between Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and his Japanese counterpart Taro Kono on the sidelines of the Group of Twenty summit last year.

Further, Japan and India could also collaborate to enhance capabilities in the space domain. India’s capabilities through the Indian Space Research Organization and the nation’s successful anti-satellite weapons (ASAT) test are already known.

Japan is looking for a new direction to its national-security strategy after the suspension of the Aegis Ashore missile defense system in June. Implementation of a first-strike capability would allow Japan to step up its military posture in the region and contribute to active pacifism. 

Both the US and Australia are strong partners for Japan. Yet building a security partnership in the Pacific Ocean region would require a concentrated partnership in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). This opens a greater prospect for India in Japan’s defense outlook.

The process has already begun, but the challenge is to expedite and build greater strategic synergy in India-Japan Indo-Pacific cooperation. For instance, the Japanese and Indian Coast Guards have maintained bilateral dialogue and exercises between the Coast Guards and each of the tri-services; the latest joint exercise, Sahyog-Kaijin, in January further strengthened their ability to work together in protecting mutual interests at sea.

The opening of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to Japan by India, under the Tri-services Andaman and Nicobar Command, must be encouraged in order to strengthen the security of the region through which a large amount of Chinese trade passes. The focus should be on building strategic infrastructure that will facilitate naval and maritime ventures in the IOR for the Japanese and Indian navies. 

Japan is on a cusp of strategic change. Abe’s long-standing prime-ministership has revived Japan’s search for new security measures through partnership cooperation to meet the challenges vis-à-vis China, if not North Korea. A partnership with India is on the rise and the 2020 Defense White Paper hints at that.

The challenge would be how the new leadership in Tokyo after Abe’s retirement in September 2021, likely along with the end of his leadership of the Liberal Democratic Party, will look at India as a defense partner and how New Delhi would consolidate further this ascending partnership with Japan. 

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Jagannath Panda

Jagannath Panda is a research fellow and center coordinator for East Asia at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. He is the series editor for Routledge Studies on Think Asia.