On 30 Nov 2018 in Argentina’s capital Buenos Aires a landmark meeting took place on the sidelines of G 20 summit at a time when China has been flexing its muscle in the region. Heads of State of Japan, America and India met for the first time in a trilateral named ‘JAI’ by Prime Minister Modi in which India made a firm commitment to make Indo-Pacific a region for shared economic growth. The Indian Premier stated, “when you look at the acronym ‘JAI’, it stands for our three countries—Japan, America and India—and ‘JAI’ in Hindi means success”. The meeting, he added, reflected a convergence of vision of the three countries. This is probably the first step towards building consensus on an architecture in the Indo-Pacific based on mutual benefit and respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity. Five action points were suggested by Mr Modi to serve the common interest of promoting peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region. President Trump stated, “The relationships between our three countries is extremely good and extremely strong with India, maybe stronger than ever… we are doing a lot of trade together. We are doing a lot of defense together.”
The US has made dispensation for India in S 400 purchase from Russia which would have attracted CAATSA. The US also exempted India from secondary sanctions for buying oil from Iran, with the then Secretary Defence, James Mattis stating, “…we will have to consider cases of few of our allies and strategic partners for exemption from CAATSA since it could not be in strategic interest of the US”. This statement was significant and reflected the importance of India for its primacy in the Indo-Pacific.
It is not coincidental that US Japan and India together also have an operational framework called MALABAR. These are annual naval exercises which have grown in complexity over last two decades. Beginning with a simple passage exercises (PASSEX) , it now encompasses very complex anti-submarine, anti-surface and air interception exercises. With the inclusion of Japan, the three countries would have similar SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures) for all their operations in the maritime domain. These exercises have been conducted in the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea in the past. India and the US have also signed LEMOA and COMCASA agreements which permit interoperability with each other’s platforms, such as combat ships, submarines and aircraft. US-India relationship has been further elevated to 2+2 ministerial level. Agreements also provide for access to each other’s naval and airbases on the basis of reciprocity and case to case examination. A similar agreements with Japan is in the pipeline.
Creation of bases and facilities in the Indian Ocean, ie, Kyaukpyu in Myanmar, Colombo, Hambantota, Male, Djibouti and Gwadar are but a few examples of China’s growing footprint which has the US and Japan worried. Japan, like India, is heavily dependent on crude imports from the Gulf. All Japanese trade have to pass through the choke points at Straits of Hormuz and Malacca which adds to Japanese insecurity given its relations with China. US warships based in Bahrain could get severely constrained in their operations in and around the Persian Gulf now that Gwadar port is effectively under China’s control. China is also funding construction of a new airport at Gwadar which will give China capability to airlift its troops at the mouth of the Gulf. Oman has given access to US naval combatants at Duqm port which will act as an alternate base to Bahrain and remain out of Chinese surveillance in the vicinity of straits of Hormuz. It may be recalled that India is also developing few berths in Duqm port which could facilitate joint operations.
The Ambassador of Japan in Delhi, Hiroshi Hirabayashi, has spoken of the need to‘secure peace and stability along sea lanes’ in India-Japan relationship. A similar understanding exists between US and India. The three democracies are working together in what has been named as ‘dance of democracies’ and the time is now ripe for this trilateral agreement to precipitate into logical conclusion.
The first achievable prospect could be to operate together on common Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) network. Under the aegis of JAI, the network of satellites, reports from maritime aircraft, ships and submarines can be fused and put together on a single chart and the whereabouts of white(traders) and grey (warships) shipping movements in the Indo-Pacific can be known real time on a single network. Presently India has a NC3I fusion centre in Delhi with 36 (probably) participating countries sharing their real-time ship movement data on one page providing large area MDA. This will provide real time surveillance necessary for responding to any crisis situations in the Indo-Pacific or for defending freedom of navigation at choke points in the Indian Ocean. Enabling agreements with the US and Japan, bilaterally are already in place. Common MDA and common SOPs of MALABAR could provide framework for a security architecture in the Indo Pacific through enabling agreements. It is time now to say JAI (victory) for establishment of such an architecture in the Indo-Pacific.
Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha, PVSM, AVSM, NM and Bar is the former Chief of Integrated Defence Staff & former Commander in Chief Western Naval Command. Presently, he is Member, Board of Trustees, India Foundation.
A version of this article was first published in Sunday Guardian from Manipal