On September 9, India and Japan signed an “Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement” that would allow the militaries of the two countries to exchange supplies and services on a reciprocal basis during exercises in which both participate, U.N. and humanitarian assistance operations, as well as visits to each other’s ports. Japan becomes the sixth country with which India has such an arrangement, adding to the United States, France, Singapore, South Korea, and Australia.
Since 2015, Japan has participated in the U.S.-India Malabar naval exercises, which have grown considerably more sophisticated over the years.
In a press statement, the Indian foreign ministry noted that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his counterpart, the outgoing Abe Shinzo, “…concurred that the Agreement will further enhance the depth of defense cooperation between the two countries and contribute to peace and security in the Indo-Pacific region.” Interestingly, the Japanese foreign ministry spoke of the agreement’s ability to enable Japanese and Indian militaries contribute to “international peace and security,” not mentioning any theater in particular.
Agreements such as the one India just signed with Japan systematize the procedure of mutual supply of goods and services relevant to the two militaries’ operations, within predetermined parameters, in terms of bookkeeping. This is different from such exchanges happening in an ad hoc fashion, as has been the case in the past. Plainly put, these agreements, while important, are far from being a “military pact,” (with all its connotations) as the Nikkei Asian Review described it, except in perhaps a very literal sense. The fact that India and Japan signed this agreement – under negotiation for some time – amid the India-China crisis in eastern Ladakh provided an exciting backdrop to a bland arrangement.
And we know it is bland because unlike other formal military logistics arrangements India is part of, the text of the agreement with Japan is publicly available through Japan’s foreign ministry website.
Writing on August 24 in these pages, I had noted that one of the reasons why India’s “foundational” defense cooperation agreements with the U.S. – including a logistics agreement – draw so much political attention domestically is because “texts of these agreements – or even, official summaries – remain classified fuel[ing] suspicion in a country deeply protective of its sovereignty and independent foreign policy.” Indeed, absent a publicly available draft of the 2016 U.S.-India Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement, certain analysts have confused it with a “status of forces” agreement around basing rights and all that would entail.
But this is simply not a matter of placating a prickly domestic constituency overzealous about sovereignty issues. It is also a matter of communicating intent (or lack thereof) in precise terms to the adversary. Shrouding a routine, albeit important, arrangement in secrecy does not serve India’s (or its partner’s) interests when it comes to China. Transparency has its own strategic payoff.