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Japan has a naval deployment in the Indian Ocean. This is a milestone for deeper Naval cooperation.
In the last week of July and the first week of August 2023, the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) sent one of its destroyers, JS Samidare on a deployment into the Indian Ocean that marked two important milestones. The first was the destroyer’s visit and five-day berthing at the Colombo Shipyard in Sri Lanka for what was described as the first time a Japanese naval warship underwent maintenance in an overseas shipyard. The second was the same JMSDF warship visiting one of India’s most prized military facilities at Port Blair Port in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands immediately after its previous maintenance stopover in Sri Lanka, accompanied by news of USD28 million to be invested in a new power supply project at Port Blair by Japan’s International Cooperation Agency.
These latest naval interactions between India and Japan, two members of the US-led “Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad)” are significant for historical and current geopolitical reasons. They highlight a key point of cooperation regarding an often overlooked but key piece of hardware which is a force multiplier and enabler in naval strategy and planning: drydocks. They also provide a tantalising positive example of how regional Indo-Pacific security partners within the broader US security alliance network are beginning to proactively take steps towards increased cooperation and greater integration with each other, something which takes pressure off the US from constantly being the main party pushing for deepened security alliance ties within its network of allies and partner countries.
The Importance of Dry Docks
Drydocks and shipyards have featured heavily throughout naval history as key force multipliers and enablers for navies and the effective sustained projection of their power on the high seas. The earliest example of this can be found during the ending period of the Roman Republic, when Octavian (later to become Emperor Augustus) ordered his friend and renowned naval strategist Agrippa to build him a new shipyard and harbour on the Italian west coast. The construction of Portus Julius within Lake Avernus provided for such facilities to be hidden away from enemy eyes, safe to construct and train a fresh naval fleet with which Octavian could then later effectively use to strike at his enemies and protect Rome’s grain ship supply routes from Egypt.
Both world wars in the 20th century featured significant strategic importance and single actions surrounding shipyards and drydocks. During the Anglo-German Naval Arms Race between 1898 to 1912, the British Empire invested heavily into building up existing and new shipyards and drydock facilities at places such as Rosyth, Scapa Flow, and Devonport so as to keep its numerical superiority in capital ship construction over the German Kaiserreich. US desires during WWI to build up a naval capacity “second to none” drove it to massively expand its naval shipbuilding facilities at Newport News and construct new drydock facilities at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii; the destruction of the US Pacific Fleet at anchor in Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 was only mitigated by the relative preservation of the US navy shipyard and various other port facilities there, without which US naval power in the Pacific would have had to be based and projected out from as far back as the US west coast.
The famous St Nazaire Raid (Operation Chariot) was conducted by British amphibious forces on the Normandie drydock in German-occupied France, with its successful breaching resulting in the loss of the largest drydock in German hands that could have repaired and serviced German capital ship units including the battleships KMS Bismarck and Tirpitz on the French Atlantic coast, allowing for their power projection into the Atlantic for convoy raiding purposes. On the other side of the world, the British Empire based its entire naval defence strategy in the Far East on the construction of a naval base at Singapore in lieu of a permanently deployed Far East Fleet. Central to this naval base was the construction of two drydocks: a permanent graving dock and a floating drydock, both of which were the largest such facilities capable of servicing and repairing British capital ships east of Malta. The capture of both drydocks was an important priority for the Japanese Empire during the early stages of WWII, and saw continued usage by the Imperial Japanese Navy up till war’s end.
Japan’s Naval Return to the Indian Ocean
Japan has not had a naval presence in the Indian Ocean since WWII when it sent its carrier divisions on the famous “Indian Ocean Raid” against British naval facilities in the region shortly after Pearl Harbor. Today however, Japan has no need for aggressive action in order to secure or deny access to such facilities, given that a Japanese shipbuilding company (Onomichi Dockyard) has owned Colombo Dockyard in Sri Lanka with its four graving drydocks and repair berths since the early 1990s. The largest of these four drydocks at Colombo Dockyard is capable of handling ships up to 125 thousand deadweight tonnes, making these facilities are more than capable of servicing all navy ships in service for both India and Japan, potentially even US supercarriers if the necessity arose.
In the same pattern of peaceful return to areas previously earmarked for hostile military action in the past, the Indian Navy has also invited Japan to invest in, and send its warships to visit its sensitive naval facilities in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. These islands were occupied under the Japanese Empire during WWII as well as part of its tripwire defence against British naval forces sortieing from India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). The strategic value of these islands as gatekeepers to the Malacca Straits (as well as Chinese trade and naval power projection) continues to be appreciated, but the nature of their usage now is very much collaborative in nature as opposed to coercive.
Japan’s naval return to the Indian Ocean was first initiated in 2016 by the late former prime minister Shinzo Abe under his “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” policy push. This policy built on a previous Japanese defence policy back in 2010 which called for the overall Japanese Self-Defence Forces (JSDF) to begin conducting capacity-building missions such as ship deployments with foreign military partners and allies. Japan and India’s membership in the newly-formed “Quad” dovetails nicely with both countries’ individual concerns regarding surging Chinese naval power and power projection efforts in the wider Indo-Pacific region. Chinese naval vessels have been making more far-ranging sorties into the Indian Ocean, facilitated in no small part by their first overseas military base at Djibouti. The innocuously-termed “support base” at Djibouti was constructed in 2017 and last expanded in 2020 with the completion of a pier long enough to fit the Chinese Navy’s new aircraft carriers or several of its nuclear-powered submarines.
Such facilities provide a force enabling and multiplier effect for navies to operate in strategic maritime theatres far away from home without being restricted to their homeport drydocks and port facilities for maintenance or repairs during times of conflict, allowing for increased endurance and power projection capabilities. The Indian Navy in particular is extremely concerned about future Chinese submarine deployments (including potential deterrent patrols by Chinese ballistic missile submarines) into the Indian Ocean, and is therefore more than happy to deepen cooperation with naval partners such as the JMSDF in areas of force integration, capability building, and infrastructure building for its own naval facilities in the region.
Setting an Example
Calls for deeper military cooperation between US security partners and allies in a more proactive fashion without US “handholding” have been growing for some time. A June 2020 report by the Sydney-based United States Studies Centre (USSC) called for what it described as a “collective approach” towards maritime security amongst the “Quad”, specifically in the area of integrating maritime logistics capabilities to allow for seamless support for all its member states’ naval ships and aircraft. The US is also stepping up similar efforts with ideas being mooted for Japanese shipyards to perform maintenance and repair functions on US naval ships based out of Japan, as opposed to sending them all the way across the Pacific back to Pearl Harbor or Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. Such efforts might also be expanded by the US to its regional naval partners such as the Philippines or Singapore.
In theory, such integration if successfully introduced and regularly practiced would allow for a more varied selection of naval support options for “Quad” navies and other friendly navies operating in the Indo-Pacific, and reduce the possibility of any “single point of failure” or logistical bottleneck during times of conflict should any such facilities or maritime passageway be blockaded or destroyed. The visit by JS Samidare to Colombo Dockyard and Port Blair is an important milestone in this regard, both for the JMSDF in confidence-building for future long-range deployments outside of East Asia as well as for India in inviting support and access from “Quad” militaries to help bolster its own naval facilities and capabilities in the Indian Ocean.
The latest Japanese naval deployment also provides a positive example of two countries with historical baggage being able to move past them and look towards a deeper collective security partnership out of mutual interest. Note in stark contrast the security cooperation between Japan and South Korea under a much more formal “Trilateral Alliance” with the US, where both Japan and South Korea still have major issues with mutual trust and proactive military cooperation due to historical grievances dating back to WWII, requiring constant “man-managing” by the US to effectively engage and cooperate.
Andy Wong is a Joint (Hons) Politics and History graduate from the University of Hull. He specialises in Asia-Pacific history and international geopolitical issues, as well as maritime and naval strategy, with an interest in nuclear warfare. He has recently been awared a Masters in International Security from the University of Bath.