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Japan’s Naval Pivot to the Indian Ocean

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

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

Having already undertaken a considerable capacity building against naval forces in South Asia, the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Forces (JMDSF) is now bolstering the country’s military pivot to greater influence in the region with another annual regional deployment. .

The first edition of the new Indo-Pacific deployment (prior to 2018 called the “Indo-Southeast Asia deployment”) was announced and undertaken in 2019, followed by a second in 2020 and a third in 2021.

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

The first is the enhancement of the JMSDF’s tactical capabilities in the Indo-Pacific through increased naval cooperation with partner nations, and the second is a “proactive contribution” to peace and stability.

Deployment activities testify to this. The 2019 deployment included a bilateral naval exercise with the Indian Navy, and the 2020 deployment included a JMSDF resupply visit to Sri Lanka.

The 2021 Indo-Pacific rollout, however, seems like a step forward. Between August 20 and November 25, 2021, the JMDSF launched the largest of three “Indo-Pacific” deployments to have taken place to date. It chose to include Exercise Malabar – involving the countries of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the “Quad”) – as well as other JMSDF activities in the Indian Ocean, including resupply visits to India and the Sri Lanka.

Along with 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 in aid to India for a power supply project there.

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

Naturally, this helps all countries that send legitimate trade to the region and shows how the JMSDF uses defense diplomacy to establish a Japanese presence in the Indian Ocean.

However, the JMDSF does not act with pure benevolence. Recently, news emerged that the Bangladesh Navy may acquire the Japanese-made Kawasaki P-1 maritime patrol aircraft. Japan has also cooperated with India in the Bay of Bengal to build infrastructure.

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

The Indian Ocean makes up about half of the predominantly maritime Indo-Pacific region. Moreover, India is at the center of Japan’s interests and activity in the region, and its Indo-Pacific deployments have regularly put India in the spotlight.

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

Indeed, it is clear that many of these maritime interventions by Japan make China an adversary, even when operationally focused on urgent non-traditional security threats, such as maritime piracy, terrorism shipping and natural disasters.

Each Indian Ocean country is intrinsically linked to the maritime domain and its associated “blue economy” in many ways, and involvement in the Indian Ocean aligns with the stated goals, vision, strategy and principles. of Japan in the Indo-Pacific.

JThe JMSDF deployment is an important part of Japan’s larger Indo-Pacific mission and its focus on the Indian Ocean has raised Japan’s profile and presence in the region.

Ultimately, these developments are essentially designed to do what Japan says they are – to proactively build Japan’s image as a nation working for peace while deepening the bonds of a strategic partnership. supported 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 pay off in more contested moments on the track.