India-Japan defence partnership can be a win-win

Subimal Bhattacharjee | Updated on December 05, 2019

With Japan looking to build its defence ecosystem, there’s a huge scope for both the nations to cooperate in manufacturing

India and Japan concluded their maiden ‘2+2 Foreign and Defence Ministerial Meeting’ in New Delhi on November 30, just ahead of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to India in mid-December for the 14th India-Japan Annual Summit. Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar have had wide-ranging discussions — on bilateral and multilateral cooperation and also on regional and international security — with their Japanese counterparts, Foreign Affairs Minister Motegi Toshimitsu and Minister of Defence, Kono Taro.

The clear aim has been to look closely at the prospects for further deepening bilateral security and defence cooperation between the two nations.

For India, this is the only other 2+2 dialogue apart from that with the US, which started in September 2018. This clearly shows the importance that New Delhi assigns to the relationship with Japan, which definitely has been a long-standing one, going back to pre-Independence days. But the current direction seeks to give the relationship a strategic edge. While Japan’s contribution to India’s economic development has been steady, it’s been particularly strong in the heavy industry and infrastructure sectors. And as Japan opens up its defence sector, as envisaged in the 2018 National Defence Programme Guidelines (NDPG), there could be definite areas of cooperation in this sector too.

India’s participation in the just concluded maiden defence and security exhibition in Tokyo, where it was one of the few nations to have a booth, is an indicator of the increasing focus on this sector. Also, the recent past has seen bilateral military exercises — the ‘Dharma Guardian-2019’ (between the Indian Army and Japanese Ground Self Defence Forces), the ‘SHINYUU Maitri-2019’ (between Japanese Air Self Defence Force and the Indian Air Force) — and also the trilateral Malabar exercise by India, Japan and the US.

The moot point is how to take this strategic cooperation beyond these exercises. Clearly, the scope to discuss defence and security equipment is tremendous. A beginning has been made, but it has been much slower than expected. The discussions on amphibious Shinmawya US-2 Aircraft, for instance, have been going on for quite a few years but there no signs of a deal yet.

Reports indicate that Japan has agreed to undertake a third of the aircraft’s manufacture and this could be an important step towards boosting the ‘Make in India’ initiative. Clearly, with the Japanese industry opening up to equipment manufacturing, factoring a bilateral cooperation using their precision and time-bound completion and India’s competence in design, engineering and supply chain, it could be a win-win situation.

For instance, if in the next round of armoured vehicles manufacturing India and Japan cooperate, Mitsubishi, which already is into manufacturing such vehicles, could jointly work with Indian companies that have already applied for the FICV (Futuristic Infantry Combat Vehicle) and the new FRCV (Future Ready Combat Vehicle) programmes.

Cyber security potential

Further, artificial intelligence (AI) and chip manufacturing could set the trend for cooperation in cyber security and possibly the whole gamut of equipment modernising, and these could be made a part of the battle management system. Japanese companies are known for their superior chip-manufacturing capabilities and the next generation of AI-induced chips could be developed by the two nations and deployed. Even enabling 5G secured connectivity could be an area to dwell on

The India-Japan defence and strategic tie-up will have to be two-way, unlike the India-US one which has remained buyer-seller based with most equipment coming to India through the US foreign military sales (FMS) route. While many components and supply-chain activities have improved, technology bureaucracy, despite the signing of almost all foundational agreements, continues.

Clearly, this is a lesson for the India-Japan defence relationship in its evolution and the scope for two-way traffic is phenomenal and has to be worked on. Japan’s focus and budgets for the next 10 years for equipping in the context of increasing regional threats is an opportunity for many Indian companies, including the public sector, to work out a mutually-beneficial relationship. The earlier announced $12 billion ‘Japan-India Make-in-India Special Finance Facility’ fund is a very good step to boost confidence. Clearly, the next round of 2+2 should have a roadmap for the initial areas of cooperation.

It now remains to be seen what more tangibles can be achieved during Shinzo Abe’s visit. Besides continuing the military exercises, the Japanese NDPG and India’s increasing focus on building the defence manufacturing ecosystem with thrust on ‘Make in India’ offer the best scope for improving bilateral cooperation.

The writer is a former country head of a defence multinational

Published on December 05, 2019

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