Underlining New Delhi’s growing strategic stakes in the Asia-Pacific, Japan could soon be the second country after the US with which India has a logistics support agreement (LSA). In New Delhi on Monday, Japan’s envoy to India Kenji Hiramatsu revealed that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s annual summit meeting next week with his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe could kick off negotiations for an LSA, which would allow Indian and Japanese military units to replenish from each other’s bases, with accounts to be settled later.
“We are hoping to start a formal negotiation process that will enable us to sign an Acquisition and cross-service agreement (ACSA), a mutual logistics support agreement. It is natural that two countries, which have such a large number of exercises, should implement an LSA,” said Hiramatsu at a briefing on Modi's visit to Tokyo on October 28-29.
ACSA is the traditional term for a mutual LSA, which military partners sign to share logistics. An Indo-Japanese ACSA would allow Indian warships, operating off the coast of China, to refuel and replenish supplies from Japanese military bases. Similarly, Japanese warships in the Indian Ocean could replenish at Indian bases.
The only country with which India has a formal LSA is the US. In 2016, New Delhi and Washington signed the so-called Logistic Exchange Memorandum of Agreement, a custom-designed US-India LSA.
Analysts said India and Singapore had an effective LSA, which had not been publicly acknowledged, but was part of a classified enhanced defence cooperation agreement the two countries signed in 2015. By replenishing from Singapore bases, the Indian Navy can operate for long durations in the South China Sea.
An ACSA/LSA would visibly boost the low-key India-Japan defence relationship. At the Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore in June, Prime Minister Narendra Modi described relations between New Delhi and Tokyo as “a partnership of great substance and purpose that is a cornerstone of India’s Act East Policy.”
Besides initiating an ACSA/LSA, Hiramatsu said India and Japan might also sign a maritime domain awareness (MDA) agreement, which would enable the two navies to share information about their respective areas of interest. For example, if a Japanese P-1 maritime patrol aircraft detects a Chinese submarine in the Indian Ocean, it would pass on the information to the Indian Navy. An MDA agreement puts more eyes on the job of monitoring an oceanic area of interest. “We are expecting to sign an agreement between Indian and Japanese navies on MDA and maritime security, which will enable more cooperation in this domain,” he said.
The spadework for these agreements was done by Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman during her visit to Japan in August.
Joint training exercises, involving India’s and Japan’s militaries, has also been boosted. From November 1 to14, a battalion from both armies (the Japanese called their military self -defence forces) will train together at the Counter Insurgency and Jungle Warfare School in Vairengte, Mizoram.
This will be the first time the two ground forces will exercise together.
In another first, Hiramatsu revealed that Japanese air force observers would attend the upcoming Cope India exercise, which the US and Indian air forces conduct annually. For the last two years, Japan has participated in the annual Malabar naval exercise, which used to be a bilateral US-India affair, but is now trilateral with the inclusion of Japan.
Recognising the Indian defence establishment's eagerness for technology partnership, Japan is also initiating the first joint military technology project with India. “In the field of defence technology cooperation, we will cooperate on building unmanned vehicles and robotics,” said Hiramatsu.
Japan is keen on selling the Indian Navy its sophisticated US-2 seaplane, but the deal has remained hanging for years. “Last year, we decided to convene a meeting to discuss this very high technology, state-of-the-art aircraft. There is no doubt about the quality of the US-2. It can be used for rescue operations, transportation (and) logistics. Discussions are on, and I hope some progress will be made in this,” said Hiramatsu.
While Japan has offered India “industrial participation” in building the US-2 in India, the navy has been unable to muster funding for this expensive aircraft. Surprisingly, Tokyo has remained passive on what could be a game-changer for the India-Japan defence relationship — a contract to co-manufacture six Japanese Soryu-class submarines for the Indian Navy. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which builds the Soryu class vessels, did not respond to an Indian request for information.
Asked about this silence, Hiramatsu responded that the Japanese government was discussing the matter internally. However, given that Tokyo was willing to supply the Soryu-class submarines to Australia (which instead selected the French DCNS Short Fin Barracuda), the reluctance to supply India the Soryu-class vessel is intriguing.