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Japan: Indian Navy’s best partner?

The writer is an advocate practising in the Supreme Court. The views expressed here are personal.
Published : Oct 25, 2017, 12:48 am IST
Updated : Oct 25, 2017, 12:49 am IST

Abe’s dream to transform his country’s self-defence forces into a full-fledged military that can play a proper role in regional security.

Chinese submarines are posing a real-time threat – it has a fleet of 66 boats and at least 10 more are in the pipeline. (Photo: AP)
 Chinese submarines are posing a real-time threat – it has a fleet of 66 boats and at least 10 more are in the pipeline. (Photo: AP)

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose visit to India last month was a visible success, has just won an extraordinary sweeping two-thirds victory in parliamentary elections, leaving him in clear control of his country’s executive as well as legislature. This is important as it paves the way for him to move forward on one of his pet ambitions – to initiate a change in his country’s pacifist post-World War II constitution, imposed by the Americans, that severely limits the scope of Japan’s armed forces. It is Mr Abe’s dream to transform his country’s self-defence forces into a full-fledged military that can play a proper role in regional security. At a time of severe Asian turbulence, from the Korean peninsula to South Asia and beyond, to the Persian Gulf and the Levant, this has major implications for the proposed upgradation of Indo-Japan naval collaboration, including increased cooperation in naval ship technology.

What is so important about Indo-Japan naval collaboration at this time?

The answer lies in one word: China. An extra-erratic Beijing makes the existing Tokyo-New Delhi bilateral relationship even more important. China’s insatiable appetite for avoidable muscle-flexing is not only a matter of grave concern to India, but also to Japan and for that matter to the whole of East, Southeast and South Asia. Its increasingly abrasive naval doctrine and deployment has thrown open a grave challenge to the placid seafaring nations. From 20th-century coastal defence to 21st century “forward deployed” offensive operations, China is on a mission beyond the South and East China Sea. It has openly positioned itself to expand its role, at times ignoring the “rules of engagement”. The challenge and the threats are increasing by the day, spanning across the Indian Ocean region, giving a sense of urgency to the need for enhanced India-Japan cooperation to ensure the freedom of navigation on the high seas.

Looking back, one needs to remember that Japan is the only non-white, non-Western nation with a glorious naval history, despite catastrophic defeat in the Second World War due to the use of nuclear weapons. Japan’s sea journey began 122 years ago when Beijing was humbled by Tokyo in 1895, after the latter’s promulgation of the Meiji Constitution on February 11, 1889. Then followed the Russian Navy’s shock defeat in 1905 at the Tsushima Strait at the hands of the Japanese fleet. The Japanese naval juggernaut continued unabated, and at the end of the First World War, Tokyo emerged as Asia’s greatest naval power, with the world’s third most powerful navy, causing deep concern to the Anglo-Saxons. In the 1921-1922 Washington Naval Conference, the Japanese Navy was cut to size under Western pressure, with Tokyo allowed 60 per cent of the capital ships that the US and Britain had. Nevertheless, Japan had arrived as a seafaring power, and the December 7, 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbour undoubtedly marked the apogee of Nippon’s Navy.

The postwar constitution imposed by Gen. Douglas MacArthur severely crippled Tokyo’s fleet, but Japan was to soon prove true to its name – as the land of the rising sun – with its Navy making a spectacular recovery.

There are lessons here for the Indian Navy as it seeks to bolster its role in the immediate neighbourhood and wider region. Despite the exceptional progress in the indigenisation of New Delhi’s fighting ships, time and cost overruns are the bane of India’s indigenisation timetable. No doubt India has a series of first-class home-made vessels from its shipyards — like the 6,808-ton full-load Delhi class and the 7,292-ton Kolkata class destroyers; 6,299-ton Shivalik class, 4,277-ton Godavari class, and 4,521-ton Brahmaputra class frigates and Kora and Khukri class corvettes. But though Indian engineers and sailors did a magnificent job to produce modern, power-packed combat vessels with a blue-water capability, the 10-year conception-to-commission (November 14, 1987 to November 15, 1997) of destroyer INS Delhi certainly didn’t do any good to naval morale. No doubt things improved a bit; yet subsequent ships also took too long to build — INS Mysore (8 years, 4 months) and INS Mumbai (8 years, 1 month). Quite clearly, things need further improvement if India is to stand up to the intolerable bullies of Asia.

The problem extends to the submarine wing too. The French Scorpene took over seven years to be commissioned. This is where Japan’s time-technology management expertise comes in. As is well known, Japan is not only manufacturing superior-technology ships, but is doing so quickly, keeping pace with its arch-rival China.

In fact, both Beijing and Tokyo are making their respective fighting ships at a furious pace to outdo each other.A reality check will suffice. Two 18,289-ton full-load Hyuga class helicopter carriers took two years and 10 months each by Yokohama’s Ishikawajima Harima Industries Marine United to commission on March 18, 2009 and March 16, 2011 respectively. Again, the first of the bigger 24,000-ton Izumo class helicopter carriers took three years and two months by the same shipbuilders. The latest 11 Nippon Souryu class 4,100-ton dived submarines too are taking an average of four years per boat by two manufacturers, Mitsubishi and Kawasaki. Finally, all four Akizuki class 5,050-ton destroyers were commissioned by Mitsubishi and Mitsui, taking between two years and eight months to two years and 10 months.

What should be of deeper concern for both India and Japan is that the Chinese are doing things faster and quicker. Eight prominent Chinese shipbuilding companies – the Bohai; Wuhan; Jiangnan; Dalian; Zhoushan; Huangpu; Hudong and Liao Nan Shipyards — are building various types of boats speedily, so much so that the average manufacture time taken for 14 latest-model Yuan class 3,600 ton dived diesel-electric patrol submarines stands at less than two years per boat, thus enhancing the fleet strength and multi-theatre deployment and deploy-ability. No wonder China has extended and expanded much beyond the Arabian Sea — to the mouth of the Red Sea.

Both Japan and India need to act fast. Chinese submarines are posing a real-time threat – it has a fleet of 66 boats and at least 10 more are in the pipeline. India’s 14 and Japan’s 19 fall far below the “survival line” under the sea. Submarines aren’t just an effective platform for “sea control”, their submerged, mobile and undetected movements make them ideal for “sea denial” too. Given the inferior fleet numbers and constant time and cost overruns, it’s time India shows some urgency in starting a new collaboration effort with Japan in “time-technology management”, despite the Indian Navy’s impressive indigenisation efforts. After all, both nations face a common threat from an erratic, unstable neighbour.

Tags: shinzo abe, indian navy, japanese navy