International relations, National security | Asia, East Asia, South Asia

10 May 2022

Increasing deployments of Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Forces are focused on peaceful projects, but they also serve to bolster the country’s presence in the strategically critical Indian Ocean region, Jay Maniyar writes.

As a key maritime power in the Indo-Pacific, Japan is looking to improve its naval relations with the countries of South Asia.

Having already undertaken considerable capacity building compared to the naval forces of South Asia, Japan Maritime Self-Defense Forces (JMDSF) are now furthering the country’s military pivot toward greater influence in the area with another annual regional deployment.

The first edition of the newly minted Indo-Pacific deployment (before 2018 called the ‘Indo-Southeast Asia deployment’) was announced and undertaken in 2019, with a second following in 2020, and a third in 2021.

According to the government, these deployments further two main objectives.

The first is the improvement of JMSDF tactical capabilities in the Indo-Pacific through increased naval cooperation with partner countries, and the second is a ‘proactive contribution’ to peace and stability.

The deployment’s activities reflect this. The 2019 deployment featured a bilateral naval exercise with the Indian Navy, and the 2020 deployment included a JMSDF replenishment visit to Sri Lanka.

The 2021 Indo-Pacific deployment, however, seems a step up. Between August 20 and November 25 of 2021, the JMDSF launched the most extensive of the three ‘Indo-Pacific’ deployments to have taken place to date. It opted to include Exercise Malabar – involving countries of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the ‘Quad’) – along with other JMSDF activities in the Indian Ocean, including replenishment visits to India and Sri Lanka.

More on this: The Indian triangle

Alongside the deployment, Japan has donated patrol vessels to the Sri Lankan navy and made regular port visits. Japan is also getting involved in the development of India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands – recently signing an agreement to provide $133 million of aid to India for a power supply project there.

Across the Indian Ocean, Japan has a naval base in Djibouti, which is in part intended to protect its vast trade, comprising mainly of non-renewable energy, from the Middle East. The government has expanded the base’s operations in recent years, and for two years between 2020 and 2022 a JMSDF information-gathering deployment was sent to the Persian Gulf to monitor piracy activities.

Naturally, this helps all countries sending legitimate trade through the area, and shows how the JMSDF is using defence diplomacy to build a Japanese presence in the Indian Ocean.

Still, the JMDSF is not acting with pure benevolence. Recently, news emerged that the Bangladesh navy could acquire the Japanese-made Kawasaki P-1 Maritime Patrol Aircraft. Japan has also been cooperating with India in the Bay of Bengal to build infrastructure.

More on this: A shifting maritime landscape

But why is the Northeast Asian giant so interested in the Indian Ocean?

The Indian Ocean constitutes roughly half of the predominantly maritime Indo-Pacific region. On top of this, India is at the centre of Japan’s interests and activity in the area, and its Indo-Pacific deployments have featured India regularly.

It is likely that future JMSDF Indo-Pacific missions will also focus on the Indian Ocean because it values other countries in South Asia, such as Sri Lanka and Maldives, as they approach a crucial decision point about China’s role in their futures.

Indeed, it is clear that many of these maritime interventions by Japan do situate China as an adversary, even while operationally focused on pressing non-traditional security threats, such as sea piracy, maritime terrorism, and natural disasters.

Each country in the Indian Ocean is intrinsically linked to the maritime domain and its associated ‘blue economy’ in a number of ways, and involvement in the Indian Ocean aligns with Japan’s stated aims, vision, strategy, and principles in the Indo-Pacific.

The JMSDF deployment is an important part of Japan’s broader Indo-Pacific mission and shifting its focus to the Indian Ocean has strengthened Japan’s profile and presence in the area.

At the end of the day, these developments are basically designed to do what Japan says they are – to proactively build Japan’s image as a peace-furthering nation while deepening the bonds of sustained strategic partnership in the Indo-Pacific. Still, other countries in the region should note the success of Japan’s efforts to build partnerships – especially with India. They may just bear fruit in more contested times down the track.

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