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Japan and India to Strengthen Military Ties, Which Means … What for the United States?

Japan and India to Strengthen Military Ties, Which Means … What for the United States?

Indian Defense Minister Arun Jaitley agreed in Tokyo on Monday to increase military cooperation with Japan, which could potentially complicate U.S. policy in the region.

Jaitley, who doubles as India’s finance minister, told Tomomi Inada, his Japanese counterpart, that India intends to pursue a strategic partnership with Japan. “This is all reflective of the level of cooperation our armed forces have with each other,” Jaitley said.

And, in a sign of that deepened cooperation, the two will join with the United States for a trilateral naval exercise in July.

Traditionally, the United States has cheered closer Indian and Japanese military cooperation, and previous U.S. administrations have tried to push this policy, Sarah Watson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies told Foreign Policy. India is sometimes hesitant to work with the United States, a hegemon, but has fewer issues with Japan, a close U.S. ally with constitutional limits on military engagement.

That may be changing, however. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has already pushed through reforms to make Japan more able to defend itself or engage its military. Abe said on May 1 he believes the 70-year-old constitution should be changed to amend the article that specifies Japanese pacifism.

There’s another potential key player in the Japanese-Indian-U.S. relationship: China.

“For Japan and India,” Watson said, “obviously China is in the background of all these discussions.”

Abe has sought to bolster Japan’s military capabilities in light of rising threats from China and North Korea. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also sparred with Beijing over cyber threats, Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean, China’s relationship with Pakistan, and even a recent Dalai Lama visit to northern India.

U.S. President Donald Trump, however, has said he now wants to work with China to put pressure on North Korea. Following his early April meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Trump has softened his rhetoric on Chinese trade and military buildup in the South China Sea. Could that mean that this administration looks less fondly on Indian-Japanese cooperation than his predecessors have?

It doesn’t seem to, Watson said. And if it does, the people who would be making and taking that decision aren’t in their offices yet. Trump has yet to nominate anyone for 465 of the the 556 key positions requiring Senate confirmation.

But when they do come in, they will likely support closer military ties between India and Japan, even with the softer stance on China. “If you’re within the universe that previous administrations have been in, or in the ballpark,” Watson said, “this is something the U.S. would support.”

Photo credit: MONEY SHARMA/AFP/Getty Images