India, US forces to hold air exercises with Japan as observer

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NEW DELHI – The Indian and US air forces will hold exercises with Japan as an observer, keeping up the high pace of multilateral and bilateral military drills among the countries of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or the Quad.

India, the United States, Japan and Australia make up the Quad.

Called Cope India, the exercises are being held after a gap of four years for 11 days starting on Monday at the Kalaikunda airbase in West Bengal.

The Indian Air Force will participate with its fighter jets Su-30MKI and Rafale apart from its indigenous light combat aircraft Tejas, while reports say the US Air Force is expected to bring in F-15 fighter jets.

Cope India includes fighter training exercises between the air forces of the two countries, as well as “expert exchanges, air mobility training and airdrop training”, said an Indian Air Force description.

As an observer, the Japanese Air Self-Defence Force, which was also an observer in Cope India 2018, will not participate in the air exercises.

The Indian Air Force also said the exercises showcased the countries’ “commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific region”.

The military exercises come just weeks after the Indian and Japanese militaries concluded a joint exercise in Japan that included platoon-level training on operations in jungle, and semi-urban and urban terrain.

Called Ex Dharma Guardian, the exercise was held from Feb 17 to March 2 at Camp Imazu in Shiga province, and involved troops from the Garhwal Rifles regiment of the Indian Army and an infantry regiment from the Middle Army of the Japan Ground Self-Defence Force.

The Indian Defence Ministry at the time said that the India-Japan exercise was “crucial and significant in terms of security challenges faced by both nations against the backdrop of the current global situation”.

The Quad countries, analysts said, are united over growing concerns about the rise of China.

Against the backdrop of territorial disputes between China and several countries in the South China Sea, the grouping has often reiterated the importance of the “peaceful settlement of disputes without resorting to threat or use of force, any unilateral attempt to change the status quo”.

China and Japan are embroiled in a dispute over islands in the East China Sea, while India has a land border row with China amid overlapping claims along an undemarcated border.

Analysts said that the exercises with Japan as an observer would also send a message to China about the growing synergies militarily among the Quad countries and the effort to further military interoperability. 

China views the increased activities between the Quad countries with suspicion and sees the Quad as an Asian Nato aimed at thwarting China’s rise. 

“Japan joining Cope as an observer has two kinds of relevance. The first is the symbolism – of Japan, till now perceived as a pacifist nation taking a proactive step in air power related activities – albeit as an observer,” said retired commodore C. Uday Bhaskar, the director of the Society for Policy Studies, a New Delhi-based independent think-tank.

“The other is substantive – of creating a framework for triangular interoperability apropos air power. India has bilateral exercises with both the US and Japan. It is likely this will evolve into a triangular engagement – with Japan moving from observer to full participant. The politico-military signals of such a development will be significant… when this happens.” 

The Quad countries have stressed that the grouping is not against any country and is not a military alliance, and its members have continued to push for greater military interoperability. 

In August, the four countries will take part in the annual Malabar Exercise, which started off between India and US, but expanded to include Japan in 2015 and Australia in 2020. This year, the exercise will be hosted by Australia.

But ahead of that, India, for the first time, will take part in Australia’s Exercise Talisman Sabre, a biennial, multinational military exercise that is led either by the US or Australia. This year, it is being held from July 21 to Aug 4.

Experts said that India will continue to boost military exercises, particularly with the Quad members, against the backdrop of concerns over China.

“Despite the public rhetoric (about the Quad not being a military grouping), I think there is a considerable set of concerns about China’s growing military power and aggressive designs in the Indo-Pacific, whether in the waters or on land,” said Dr Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan. She is the director of the Centre for Security, Strategy and Technology at the Observer Research Foundation, a New Delhi-based think-tank.

“If India has to manage the China problem, it needs other partners; therefore, more inter-agency military coordination. The number of exercises with the US has gone up significantly. That is the trend. More and more engagement and security consultations will happen,” she added.

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