The new government that will take charge in New Delhi next month has been given a clear message from Japan’s top-most naval official: Tokyo hopes the Indian political establishment – which under two terms of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) has generally been cautious on boosting military ties with Japan keeping China’s concerns in mind– will do “much more” to build closer relations.
Admiral Katsutoshi Kawano, Chief of Staff of Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF), said his country has been “wanting very much” to re-join the bilateral Malabar sea exercises between the United States and India. Japan was last invited to join the exercise in 2007, but has subsequently been kept out after China protested the three-way exercises and suggested they were aimed at Beijing.
“We have been wanting very much to join the Malabar sea exercises, with United States and India,” Admiral Kawano said. “As I understand, the Indian Navy is keen and willing. But Indian politics is very complicated,” he said, speaking to The Hindu.
Admiral Kawano was among top naval officials from the U.S., China, Canada, France and New Zealand present at a reception Tuesday evening on board India's missile frigate INS Shivalik, which is in this northeastern Chinese port city – the headquarters of the Chinese Navy’s North Sea Fleet – to participate in multilateral maritime exercises to mark the 65th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).
“We very frequently hold exchanges with the Indian Navy, but we want to do much more,” Admiral Kawano said.
While he did not elaborate further, the Admiral appeared to be referencing the Indian government’s caution about going forward with the trilateral exercises. After a five-year hiatus, the Indian government told Japanese officials in January, when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited New Delhi, that Japan would be included in exercises later this year. The change in stance comes as the UPA’s second-term comes to an end.
The Admiral’s comments about the “complicated” politics in New Delhi however suggested that from the Japanese point of view, there was still some uncertainty about how committed the Indian government was to the idea amid different prevailing views in the government.
Some officials in New Delhi acknowledge that the government may have been excessively cautious in this regard. The policy now, they say, is to actively develop and improve ties with both Japan and China. One observer noted how “tabled have turned” in the past decade, when Japan was initially focused on mending ties with China and lukewarm towards India’s proposals to enhance then-limited naval drills between coast guards.
But under Mr. Abe, ties with China have plummeted over disputed East China Sea islands and questions of wartime history.
While Admiral Kawano was hosted as a member of the 21-country Western Pacific Naval Symposium (WPNS) which was held here this week, Japan was not invited to participated in maritime exercises held on Wednesday alongside the meeting to mark the PLA Navy’s anniversary.
While the PLAN’s commander Admiral Wu Shengli met with visiting naval chiefs – he also visited India’s INS Shivalik on Tuesday – he did not hold talks with Admiral Kawano. The Chinese Defence Ministry said the reason was “a series of inappropriate actions by the Japanese government and leaders”.
Admiral Kawano said he was “very concerned” and “worried” about the implications of China’s rapidly growing military strength on the region. But Japan, he said, was taking overdue steps to boost its military – which still is called a “self-defence force” in keeping with Japan’s post-war Pacifist Constitution.
Mr. Abe wants Japan to become a “normal country” with a proper military, citing China’s rise as a prime reason. China, however, has accused him of seeking to rewrite Japan’s wartime atrocities and post-war commitments.
On Saturday, Japan broke ground on a new radar station on an island close to those disputed with China – the first such move in four decades.
“Our Navy is not small,” Admiral Kawano said. “China has 1 billion people, so it will have a sizeable navy. We plan to expand a lot more.”
Japan also wanted to expand ties with India’s “very good navy” through more exchanges and port calls.
“We are very interested to help India develop its naval technology,” he added, pointing to the recent agreement for India to purchase 15 US-2 amphibious aircraft from Japan, which will mark the first instance of Japan selling major military hardware after the Second World War.