Japan Seeks Maritime Coalition in The Indian Ocean

An IDC Analysis 


New Delhi, 21 April 2004

American naval historian and strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan had predicted that the Indian Ocean would gain importance in the 21st Century. 

Sixty percent of the world’s energy resources emanate from the Gulf and transit through choke points at Hormuz, Bab el Mandab, Malacca and the Sunda Straits. The Indian Ocean has been likened to a lake, unlike the Atlantic and Pacific, which are open expanses.

With terrorism plaguing the world, a seminal question that engages the minds of leaders in South East Asia, China and Japan in the East, and Iran, UAE and Pakistan in the West, was whether the growing Indian Navy alone could safely police the Indian Ocean or did the area need a multilateral approach.

Last week Admiral Thomas Fargo of US Pacific Command unveiled plans to guard the Straits of Malacca and immediately Najib Razzak Malaysia’s Dy. Prime Minister and Defence Minister objected as in his words, “it touches on the question of our national sovereignty”. The stability of most countries especially Japan and China is heavily dependant on the assured supply of gas and oil, from the Middle East.

The world experienced the wrath of terrorism on land including the recently coordinated attacks in Spain, and from the air on 9/11, but except for the boat laden explosives attack on USS Cole in Aden in 2000, and another attack on a French tanker in the same area, there had been no disruption of trade at sea, where 90% of the world’s cargo is transported.

A sinking of a large ship in the navigable channels of Hong Kong, Tokyo, Singapore, Colombo or Shanghai container terminals, if carried out with the precision that was displayed by the executors of 9/11, could disrupt exports and imports for weeks from that port. This would cause stock markets to dive, insurance premiums to rise and tourism to go into jeopardy.

It was with this background that two delegations from Japan were in India last week, including former Coast Guard and Maritime Self Defence Force Chiefs led by former Vice Defence Minister Masahiro Akiyama, to dialogue Indo–Japanese Ocean Security. The bottom line that emerged was that despite all of Japan’s economic power and its ODA help to India especially in the power, infrastructure and automotive sector, there was no clarity on how to safeguard the sea lanes of communications (SLOCs) in the Indian Ocean and South China seas.

Japan had constraints. The Constitution of Japan professes Self Defence only, and restricts export of any defence related or dual use technology item, and its pacifist attitude restricts its Self Defence Force to a 1000 mile limit. This limitation is now proving to be its own nemesis. Therefore a silent battle is raging in Japan between the aspirations of the young who wish to see Japan become more self reliant, even nuclear, and break away from the American defence umbrella, that shields it from nuclear China and now renegade N. Korea. Older Japanese are steeped in pacifism and abhor nuclearism.

Japan appreciates India’s strategic location and is aware that India’s young and new economy is set to grow with capacity to absorb Japanese investment and technologies. However, Japan cannot move swiftly because India has a record of signing over a dozen Defence cooperation agreements in the last few years, which enable dialogue, and Japan is constrained to follow that route.

Japan is also watching India’s changing attitude towards China, which is fast overtaking Japan in volume of trade. Surprisingly one learnt that there were 70,814 Chinese students in Japan and 13,806 Japanese students in China despite their prickly relationship. There are only 264 Indian students in Japan and 65 Japanese students in India.

With this backdrop of contradictions in India–Japan strategic relations, and India’s resolve to build up the Indian Navy, the challenge before strategists is to decide how to effectively police the Indian Ocean for the sake of world stability. The debate is likely to accentuate especially if a single act of terrorism takes place in the Indian Ocean.

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