In the Shadow of Maritime Security: India, Japan and the China Factor
In recent times maritime security has become a concern for all policy-makers and think-tanks. It is because the littoral countries are now faced with multiple challenges like arms trafficking, narco terrorism, illegal migration etc. The increased attacks by pirates on ships carrying petroleum and other vital resources have not gone down in numbers in spite of talks of international cooperation amongst several countries. These issues highlight the much needed focus to be given on the regional cooperation among more and more states, as they are involved in different economic activities for survival and increased economic prosperity through sea lines of communication (SLOCs).
The growing international trade via sea due to globalisation in the post cold war era has brought in the issue of maritime security and now it has come to the centre stage of discussion in the strategic circles. In this way, Indian Ocean and some of the straits in it like Straits of Hormuz, Straits of Malacca, Lombok and the Sunda straits have acquired strategic significance as far as global trade is concerned. Given the threat of international terrorism, the Indian Ocean Sea Lanes remain vulnerable, especially due to the presence of hostile terror outfits in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Thus any disruption in the sea traffic can spoil the growing economic prospectus of the countries in the region and others at large. Majority of energy supplies to littoral states are now through sea routes and any disruption in their free flow can have disastrous consequences. Moreover, scarce energy resources have now become a critical factor in geopolitical strategies of many countries, thus any disruption can result in serious security problems. Littoral countries, therefore, need to be sensitive about the security of the SLOCs. India, which is more energy dependent for its economic growth needs to secure SLOCs. Moreover, due to China’s rise in the Indian Ocean Region, which is also energy deficit, India needs to look seawards for alternative back up.
The Chinese presence in Asia has many security implications for both Japan and India. China is also projecting its naval power in the region. For example, China’s naval ambitions in the East China Sea region have caused unease in Tokyo. In November 2004, a Chinese nuclear submarine penetrated Japanese waters, near Okinawa. Moreover, some other problems which add to this political divide are, the territorial dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands; problems of rights over gas fields in the East China Sea; Japan’s close relations with Taiwan; China’s painful memories of atrocities created by Japan during pre-Second World War period, etc. Also, in the Indian Ocean, it is clear from China’s ‘string of pearls’ policy that China wants to protect the SLOCs in the Indian Ocean and restrain India’s naval outreach. This policy also is a clear indication of China’s intentions to maintain a dominant influence in the Indian Ocean region.
Balancing China’s Rise
The China factor in relations between India and Japan became more important after the April 2005 anti-Japan demonstrations in China. During Prime minister Junichiro Koizumi ’s visit to India in April 2005, a major step was taken in the form of an Action Plan called the ‘Eight Fold initiative for strengthening India-Japan Global Partnership’. This Action Plan clearly indicated the resolve of the two countries to enhance bilateral security dialogue and cooperation. It was decided to: (1) strengthen service to service exchanges between defence establishments of the two countries; (2) work to ensure the safety and security of Maritime traffic through joint exercises against piracy and annual Japan Coast Guard-Indian Coast Guard talks; (3) and build up cooperation between the Maritime Self-Defence Force and Indian Navy in recognition of the importance of Maritime Security.
The rising economic and political trajectory of China has brought in lot of political and strategic concerns for both India and Japan. Both countries are concerned about the growing assertive behaviour of China. The instances of docking of submarines by China in Colombo, Gwadar are indicators of ever expanding forays of People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLA-N) in the Indian Ocean Region. Also, China’s forging of extensive maritime links with eastern Africa, Seychelles, Mauritius, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Cambodia can be portrayed as a “strategic encirclement” of India. Prime Minister Modi during his visit to the smaller Indian Ocean island states in March 2015, laid out a strategic ‘blue-print’ for the Indian Ocean that includes an element of continuous maritime engagement with littoral neighbours. It must now be broadened and expanded to include an element of structured maritime engagement with key Indo-Pacific states.
The regional security situation has been on a downhill path in recent years in the Indo-Pacific region. China’s rapid rise has been causing anxieties in New Delhi. Japan has been sparring with China in the East China Sea while India was recently engaged in a long stand-off with China on the Doklam Plateau. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is a part of One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative of China and other strategies of China for the influence in South Asia, necessitates India to look for allies. Beijing’s ‘string of pearls’ policy consists of setting up of military and naval facilities in India’s immediate neighbourhood like Myanmar, Pakistan and Bangladesh, and has raised fears in New Delhi about naval encirclement of India. China’s masculine foreign policy is making it imperative for regional powers to collaborate and cooperate.
The South China Sea issue and the stand that China has shown by refusing to accept the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling shows how important it is for India and Japan to come together so as to protect their strategic national interest. The increasing tension on the Korean Peninsula and the security threat emerging from the recent nuclear tests by North Korea has prompted Japan to look for allies in order to balance the changing security architecture in Asia. This gives India an opportunity to play a role befitting its rising status and subsequently pursue its national interest.