JAI (Japan-America-India) sharing MDA data on a single page will provide real time surveillance necessary for responding to any crisis situations in the Indo-Pacific. 



On 30 November 2018, in Argentina’s capital Buenos Aires a landmark meeting took place on the sidelines of the G20 summit. The heads of government of Japan, America and India met for the first time in a trilateral which was christened JAI by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. India made a firm commitment to make the Indo-Pacific a region for shared economic growth. This landmark meeting took place at a time when China has been flexing its muscles in the region.

PM Modi asserted that India would continue to work together on shared values. He went on to say “when you look at the acronym of our three countries—Japan, America and India— it is JAI, which stands for success in Hindi”. He mentioned that the JAI meeting was a reflection of the convergence of vision of the three countries.

A close examination of this combination will probably reveal far reaching transformation. These three democratic countries have shared values since they will play big and important roles for world peace, prosperity and stability essential for economic growth. 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 PM Modi. These would serve the common interest of promoting peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region.

US President Donald Trump appreciated India’s growth story during the meeting and said, “The relationships between our three countries is extremely good and extremely strong with India, may be stronger than ever…we are doing a lot of trade together. We are doing a lot of defence together.”

It is also true that the United States has made concessions for India in the S-400 purchase from Russia, which would have otherwise attracted the CAATSA. There was much speculation in India that it may not escape from secondary sanctions for buying oil from Iran. Our diplomatic and political effort to convince the US that India has refineries which can accept only Iranian crude, paid off. Also, imports are decided by examining long term benefits of pricing. These two factors were taken into consideration by the US for exemption from secondary sanctions. One would recall the statement made by the then Secretary Defense, James Mattis: “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 made the day after CAATSA was evoked by a Presidential executive order. This is significant since it reflects the importance of India for its primacy in the Indo-Pacific.

With respect to the pronouncement of JAI on the sidelines of the G-20 meeting, it is not coincidental that US, Japan and India together also have an operational framework called MALABAR. These are annual naval exercises that have grown in complexity over the last two decades. While it began with simple passage exercises (PASSEX), it now encompasses a very complex anti-submarine, anti-surface and air interception exercise. With the inclusion of Japan, the three countries would have the same 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. The US and India have also signed LEMOA and COMCASA agreements that 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 agreement with Japan is in the pipeline.

China’s assertive behaviour is more visible now. Creation of bases and facilities in the Indian Ocean—Kyaukpyuin 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 has 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 the Gwadar port is effectively under China’s control. China is also funding the 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 Strait of Hormuz. It may be recalled that India is also developing a few berths in Duqm port, which could facilitate joint operations.

The ambassador of Japan in Delhi, Hiroshi Hirabayashi, had underscored the responsibility 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, which was christened as a “dance of democracies”.

Possibly, the time is ripe for this trilateral agreement to precipitate into logical conclusion. The first achievable prospect could be to operate together on a common Maritime Domain Awareness network. The US has complete awareness of the maritime domain in the Indo-Pacific and the Western Indian Ocean, with the help of its allies Japan and Australia. The network of satellites, reports from maritime aircraft, ships and submarines are fused and put together on a single chart. Under the aegis of JAI, the three countries could share the whereabouts of white (traders) and grey (warships) shipping movements in the larger Indo-Pacific area, on a single network and on real-time. This is essential for responding to the exigencies of merchantmen and warships in the larger Indo-Pacific. Presently, India has an NC3I fusion centre in Delhi with 36 (probably) participating countries sharing their real-time ship movement data on one page, providing a large area MDA (Maritime Domain Awareness). JAI (Japan-America-India) sharing MDA data on a single page will provide real time surveillance necessary for responding to any crisis situations in the Indo-Pacific. Crisis management could be delegated to any of the three Navies or collectively subject to location. The pledge to defend freedom of navigation at choke points in the Indian Ocean can be operationalised by sharing real time MDA picture. Enabling agreements with the US and Japan, bilaterally, are already in place. It is just a matter of time that a common MDA and common SOPs of MALABAR could provide a framework for a security architecture in the Indo Pacific. As far as interoperability is concerned, it has been addressed by enabling agreements amongst three countries. The time has come to say JAI (victory) for the establishment of a framework for a security architecture in the Indo-Pacific.

Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha is a former Commander in Chief, Western Naval Command and Chief of Integrated Defence Staff , and Member, Board of Trustees, India Foundation.