Jan 16, 2014 | 12:07 GMT

3 mins read

Japan's Naval Ambitions in the Indian Ocean

Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force ships off Sagami Bay in Japan's Kanagawa prefecture.

Japan is trying to improve its strategic position by expanding military ties with India and boosting its naval presence in the Indian Ocean. According to Indian media reports on Jan. 13, Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera has requested that Japan be allowed to participate in this year's annual Malabar naval exercise between the United States and India. Though Japan has previously participated in a few Malabar exercises, the Indians have often declined to invite the Japanese, despite U.S. pressure, in order to avoid provoking China. Japan's engagement with India is not so much tailored toward the creation of a joint Indo-Japanese front against China — a politically untenable goal at the moment — as much as it is about bolstering Japan's own position in the Indian Ocean.

Tokyo's request to participate in the naval exercises comes at a time when Japan is not only increasing its economic ties in East Africa and the Indian Ocean basin, but is also seeking to bolster its defense ties with India. The Japanese just concluded their first-ever bilateral naval exercise with the Indians in the Bay of Bengal in December 2013. The Indian government also affirmed in early January that Tokyo and New Delhi have agreed to hold more regular bilateral air and naval exercises.


A number of constraints preclude a true strategic alliance between Japan and India at the moment, but that has not stopped New Delhi and Tokyo from bolstering their ties, particularly in the military and security domains. In particular, the prospect of defense industry cooperation and joint military training programs are driving Japan's recent courting of India. Beyond the economic and industrial benefits of a closer relationship with India, an increased presence in the Indian Ocean would marginally enhance Japan's ability to protect its own sea-lanes of supply while simultaneously placing Japan in a position to independently threaten those of China.

Since the end of World War II, Japan's naval structure has been expressly geared toward the direct protection of the home islands, and Japan's meager fleet of vessels capable of resupplying ships with fuel, munitions and other supplies while at sea (known as underway replenishment in the military) is a direct result of that policy. Japan has long relied on the U.S. Navy to secure its supply lines. However, as Japan moves closer to abandoning its largely self-imposed prohibition on the use of military force, it is trying to develop an independent ability to both secure its supply lines and to better position itself against China. Japan's recent activities in the Ryukyu island chain — increasing air and naval patrols, enlarging air base infrastructure and expanding amphibious training with the U.S. military to develop the capability to take back any islands seized by another force — are only part of that policy. Japan is increasingly taking a more independent, self-sufficient approach in how it deploys its Self-Defense Forces.

Stretched thin by a global mission and a very high tempo of operations over the past decade, the United States has increasingly pushed its allies in NATO and Asia to assume a greater share of the burden in securing the global commons. Unlike many of its partners in NATO that are witnessing stagnant defense budgets, Japan is not only normalizing the status of its military but is also devoting additional resources to its forces amid the growing tensions in East Asian military and security affairs after more than a decade of shrinking defense spending.

A greater Japanese naval presence in the high seas is certainly welcomed by the United States. However, Washington is also increasingly concerned that a more assertive Japan would exacerbate tensions in East Asia, particularly with South Korea and China. The U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, for instance, has expressed its disappointment with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Dec. 26 visit to the controversial Yasukuni war shrine, the first time a Japanese leader has done so in seven years.

Both Japan and China are heavily dependent on trade traversing the Indian Ocean and the Strait of Malacca. Increasing its naval presence in the Indian Ocean would improve Japan's ability to secure its supply lines in these critical waterways, but Japanese supply lines remain vulnerable to Chinese action in the South China Sea. An enhanced Japanese presence in the Indian Ocean redresses this weakness by placing, for the first time, Chinese sea-lanes of supply under threat from independent Japanese maritime action.

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