India-Japan air exercises are aimed at belligerent, expansionist China First Post 13 Jan 2023 Maj Gen Harsha Kakar


India-Japan air exercises are aimed at belligerent, expansionist China First Post 13 Jan 2023

          ‘Veer Guardian 2023,’ an Indo-Japan joint air exercise, is being conducted at Japan’s Hyakuri air base from 12 to 26 Jan. India will be fielding four Su-30 MKI jets, two C-17 and one IL-78 aircraft, while the JASDF (Japan Air Self Defence Force) will participate with eight aircraft, four each of F-2 and F-15 varieties. The official aim of the exercise is to strengthen air defence cooperation between the two states, while sending a message of increased Indo-Japanese defence collaboration. The decision to conduct this exercise was taken at the 2+2 meeting between the two nations, involving the defence and foreign affairs ministers in Sept last year at Tokyo.

Indo-Japan joint air training commenced in 2018 involving transport aircraft. However air combat exercises, though planned, were not held due to COVID. India and Japan had already been conducting a series of joint naval manoeuvres termed as the Japan-India Maritime Exercise since 2012. The last edition was held in Sept last year in the Bay of Bengal. In Feb-Mar 2022, the two nations also held an army exercise termed as Dharma Guardian 2022 in Belgaum. The Malabar exercise of the QUAD, involving India, US, Australia and Japan was last hosted by Japan in Nov last year.

          India and Japan have a logistics agreement in place termed as the Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement which came into effect in Jul 2021. It enables both nations o provide supplies and services to the other. The agreement enhances the reach and capability of both nations armed forces as ports and bases are available for replenishment, maintenance and rest. It also supports conduct of joint exercises.

India and Japan are also collaborating in defence R and D, procurements and manufacture. There are joint initiatives in defence Projects such as UAVs, anti-drone systems, robotics and underwater communication.  Japan currently spends 13% of its defence budget on R and D as compared to India’s 1-2%. Similarly, India is cooperating with Taiwan in establishing a semiconductor industry in India. 

          The major challenge for both nations is China. India-China relations are currently at an ebb on account of tensions along the LAC. While the Ladakh standoff continues with no end in sight, the Yangtse attempted intrusion displayed Chinese intent of continuing with its strategy of salami slicing. India building infrastructure along the LAC signals its intent of challenging China and refusing to back down. Chinese attempts to normalize bilateral ties with ongoing border tensions have been rejected by the government of India.

For Japan, China is a major adversary. Chinese exercises including firing of missiles around Taiwan, post the visit of US Speaker Nancy Pelosi, resulted in few landing in Japan’s EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone). China disregarded Japanese protests. Its spokesperson stated, ‘China and Japan have yet to carry out maritime delimitation in relevant waters, how could areas there be called Japan’s EEZ.’ China and Japan are already in dispute over the Senkaku islands, administered by Japan and termed as Diaoyus by China.

Japan has announced increasing is defence budget from the existing 1% of GDP to 2% by 2027-28, basically to counter the Chinese threat. Yearly increases to reach that figure are being implemented. Japan is also expanding its military base on Yonaguni, a remote outpost in Southern Okinawa, off whose coast six Chinese missiles landed, in Aug last year, during China’s show of force, post visit of Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan. Okinawa is also home to US forces deployed as part of its defence agreement with the US.

If China captured Taiwan, Japan’s southern most islands would become indefensible. China could also constrict Japanese trade routes severely impacting its economy. Senkaku islands would also fall to China easily. It is for this reason that any Chinese attempt on Taiwan would draw in Japan and possibly subsequently the US and Australia, both of whom have a defence pact with Japan. No wonder, Japan’s National Security Strategy states, ‘China’s current external stance, military activities, and other activities have become a matter of serious concern for Japan.’ Simultaneously, Japan faces missile threats from China’s ally North Korea.

While both India and Japan consider China a strong threat, for the US, China remains an essential but distant threat. It therefore becomes imperative for the two major Asian powers, India and Japan, to jointly collaborate towards countering China. And that is exactly what these joint exercises seek to convey. India could have sent its Rafale or Tejas aircraft but decided on the Su-30 as China operates the same and has reverse engineered the JF-16 from the Su-30. Thus the JASDF would be applying its skill against the possible capabilities of Chinese aircraft.

Within China, Xi has cemented himself as the undisputed king and placed his close aides, all with experience of the LAC and Taiwan in strategic positions in the Central Military Commission (CMC) which will guide operations against both disputed regions. For Xi, to cement his legacy as China’s greatest ruler, he must regain one of the disputed regions, Taiwan or its claim lines in Ladakh or Arunachal during his rule. Thus, China will act against either nation in some timeframe. Taiwan, which has faced the brunt of Chinese pressures has backed both India and Japan in their dispute with China. There is a belief that China may attempt a Ukraine on Taiwan in the near future. 

A fact remains that China will not seek to activate both fronts, India and Taiwan simultaneously, though this option would be regularly discussed in Chinese strategic circles. However, both India and Japan can act to ease tensions against the other. Added would be the weight of the QUAD restricting Chinese naval capabilities to close to their shores. China has regularly objected to the QUAD naval exercises and its meetings, claiming they are Chinese centric.

For China, Indo-Japan proximity is a threat, after all the common foe is them. This was conveyed by the Global Times in an article titled, ‘China shouldn’t be targeted as India, Japan eye to strengthen ties on diplomacy, security,’ of 25th Aug last year. It stated, ‘In recent years, the two Asian countries have enhanced their relationship especially during Abe’s tenure with an evident major purpose – trying hard to contain China’s peaceful development in the region. The closer ties between Japan and India on defence, which apparently target China, would largely increase the uncertainties and concerns over security in the region.’

The Japan Times confirmed the intent of the two nations in an article of Sept last year, titled, ‘India and Japan to deepen ties amid growing Indo-Pacific tensions.’ It stated, ‘Both India and Japan are enhancing their defence capabilities amid concerns over what they view as increasing threats to national security, particularly those posed by China’s growing military might and assertiveness. One of the key factors driving the partnership in recent years is the shared concern over the impact of China’s rise in the region.’  

‘Veer Guardian 2023,’ may in this version, only involve India and Japan but with time is likely to draw in other members of the QUAD, US and Australia. China is a threat and to counter it like-minded nations need to unite. ‘Veer Guardian 2023’ is the right message and must become a regular feature. The exercise, likely to be held in India next year, must be held close to the LAC to further cement the message.