Maritime security, safety and cooperation within ocean spaces and its linkages to forging closer foreign policy ties between nations sharing converging ideals is well recognised. The latest trilateral maritime exercise undertaken by India, Japan and the United States in the Bay of Bengal in October 2015 is a manifestation of the same. Participating along with the Indian Navy and the 7th Fleet of the US Navy (based at Yokosuka, Japan) was the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) represented by JS Fuyuzuki — a missile destroyer with SH 60K integral helicopter — at the invitation extended by India.
It has been two decades ever since India executed a calibrated shift in its foreign policy orientation in the Indo-Pacific region, by pronouncing the “Look East” policy in 1991, and today, the Narendra Modi government has accentuated its resolve to provide momentum, direction and consequently elevate the policy into a robust “Act East” initiative. India’s accreditation of its ambassador to the separate and dedicated diplomatic mission at ASEAN is being considered an important step towards providing a strong foundation for the ASEAN-India dialogue.
In a significant move that credited greater political significance and legitimacy to the exercise, India’s Foreign Secretary, S. Jaishankar flew to Tokyo just hours before the naval trilateral kicked off, in what was considered diplomatic signalling, paving way for the smooth passage of the drill, in addition to finalising preparatory ground work for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s forthcoming visit to New Delhi in December 2015.
Sensing the wind’s direction, unlike in earlier instances, when China issued a demarche to protest against Japanese participation in Indo-US naval drills, the tone of Beijing’s response this time round was far more cautious and moderate. This can be attributed to India’s resolute posture in highlighting the growing convergence of political, economic and security interests with stakeholders in the Indo-Pacific and Indian Ocean Regions, which remain critical to Indian strategic objectives. Departing from its past stand of officially protesting against trilateral naval exercises between India, Japan and the US, China instead stated, “Countries around the world have all kinds of activities and cooperation... you are worrying too much when you ask whether the joint naval drill is aimed at China...” according to Hua Chunying, spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry, in response to a question from journalists in Beijing during a press briefing.
India will not be a reluctant player in its strategic backyard.
What becomes more pronounced is that New Delhi will continue to pursue a sovereign foreign policy path and undertake decisions that best suit Indian national security interests. It needs to be recalled here that in 2007, China had lodged a protest against the proposed Japanese participation in the Malabar 2007 exercises between India and the US, following which India took a call to limit the exercise to just a bilateral one between Washington and New Delhi. The September 2014 Tokyo Declaration on the Special Strategic and Global Partnership acknowledged converging global interests and critical maritime inter-connection between India and Japan. It was in this declaration that both sides attached importance to the regularisation of bilateral maritime exercises as well as Japan’s continued participation in the India-US Malabar series of exercises. Tokyo and New Delhi affirm their commitment to maritime security, freedom of navigation and overflight, and peaceful settlement of disputes in accordance with international law. Earlier, speaking many years back while addressing the Indian Parliament in August 2007, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe averred, “... a strong India is in the best interest of Japan, and a strong Japan is in the best interest of India.”
India’s growing maritime thrust towards the Indo-Pacific is visible and firm, with the first ever India-Australia joint naval drills including anti-submarine warfare and coordinated anti-submarine drills held in the Bay of Bengal in September 2015. Besides, corresponding with the “Act East” policy approach and course, the dispatch of four warships, including a frontline destroyer and a stealth frigate, on a long overseas deployment to the Indian Ocean and South China Sea in May 2015 to kick off exercises with Singapore, followed by making port calls at Jakarta (Indonesia), Freemantle (Australia), Kuantan (Malaysia), Sattahip (Thailand) and Sihanoukville (Cambodia), verifies India’s renewed maritime intent.
The noticeable presence of the Indian flag on all these strategically vital points, only reiterates that New Delhi is fully cognizant of the ongoing movements in its strategic backyard, being a major stakeholder there, and is all set to emerge as a geared up and not a reluctant player on the scene. Given its 7,500 km coastline, 1,200 islands and 2.4 million sq km exclusive economic zone (EEZ), India’s reorientation and demonstration of being a consistent security partner for the region highlights its maritime interests and stakes in the larger Indo-Pacific.