Japan-US-India Defense Cooperation: Anticipating the US Withdrawal from Afghanistan

Other triangles keep drawing greater attention, but the US-Japan-India triangle has become the foundation of what is envisioned as the 21st century security framework involving the United States in the Indo-Pacific. As seen from Japan, this security triangle is acquiring an increasing role in regional strategic thinking as a result of at least three developments: 1) the intensification of the Sino-US rivalry in 2019, as a “trade war” brings in its wake confrontations in several regional arenas; 2) the intensification of US security resources for countering a rising China, while reducing burdens not essential for that strategy, and, in this context, striving to extricate the US from Afghanistan, which is linked to India putting Kashmir directly under federal control; and 3) in these circumstances, searching for ways to strengthen Japan-US-Indian security cooperation. In the cacophony of the G20 summit and its attendant, high-level meetings, one could have overlooked the second of what are seen as annual, triangular summits of the leaders of Japan, the US, and India. Here, I offer a Japanese perspective on this intensifying triangularity, considering first the impact of accelerated Sino-US tensions, then how the Afghanistan situation is affecting Japanese thinking, and finally the increasing set of military linkages with India.

Hopes have risen in Japan for India as the best option for an Asian partner capable of complementing its alliance with the United States. As security has claimed a higher priority in foreign policy, the previous images of India as the next economic powerhouse after China’s rise and the one country most sympathetic to Japan’s thinking on Asianism have taken a subordinate role to India’s rise as a security partner. It stands as a second front preventing China from concentrating its military push to the east; a guardian of the extended Indian Ocean sea lanes; a force for broadening the coalition to limit China’s expansion in the South China Sea; and an arms market or co-developer of the next generation weapons. Aspirations for the triangle are most evident in Japan, reflected in Prime Minister Abe’s initiative for a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP), which President Donald Trump later embraced. 

Japan’s aspirations for the Japan-US-India security triangle might be described as keeping China checked, keeping the US engaged, facilitating India’s rise, and forging a framework enticing to other partners—from Australia, Southeast Asian states, to external actors such as France. India is envisioned as a promising counterweight to the goliath China—in need of being coaxed gradually into a coalition that will bolster its still limited prowess. The US is seen as needing an anchor apart from Japan to invigorate its regional involvement. Wavering and hedging countries in the region are viewed as requiring a framework to draw them closer as security partners. As the closest US ally, the country most avidly wooing India and its leader Norendra Modi, and the most committed visionary to regionalism as seen in the revised Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP-2) and the FOIP, Japan plays a vital role.  

The Sino-US rivalry, Japan, and India

In August 2019, the United States decided to impose additional tariffs on China, escalating the US-China “trade war” at a time the two countries faced many other pending problems. China is ignoring international law, building military-purpose islands and heightening tensions with Vietnam in the South China Sea at the same time it is suspected of secretly transforming what was presented as a resort project in Cambodia into a naval base to be used by its forces. It has criticized US arms exports to Taiwan, raising questions about its retaliatory moves beyond a new cutoff of organized tourism. The demonstrations in Hong Kong to stop an extradition bill, which could send accused people in Hong Kong to the mainland of China, are continuing with increased potential for China to forcibly intervene. US vice president Mike Pence addressed the problem of religious freedom in Xinjiang and Tibet in July 2019.1 The extradition of Huawei’s chief financial officer from Canada to the US is pending, while the US is requesting that its allies ban the 5G system of Huawei as a security risk. In these circumstances of intensified and presumably long-lasting US-China rivalry, Washington can be expected to demand more support from its ally Japan and seek greater triangular support from India along with Japan, while China has made overtures to reduce such triangular coordination, not just in economics but in security.

The Sino-US rivalry started before the Trump administration, e.g.  the “high tech war,” including measures against China’s telecommunications companies Huawei and ZTE from 2012, when the Investigative Report on the U.S. National Security Issues Posed by Chinese Telecommunications Companies Huawei and ZTE” of the US Congress led to their exclusion. Thus, recent events are part of a long-term rivalry stemming from a view of China shared by Republicans and Democrats. What happens between the US and China has become the main agenda for countries all over the world, but especially for countries with great power aspirations and for neighbors of China, both of which attributes point unmistakably to Japan and India.

From the perspective of Japan, the security threat from China is real, and the battleground of looming importance is seen as the countries in Southeast Asia and South Asia. Infrastructure projects will shape the nature of the battles ahead—ports can be converted into naval bases, debt traps can alter security calculations, and habits of economic interaction can create predispositions with strategic consequences. Japan is taking a two-fold strategy: cooperating with China on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to steer projects in a more favorable direction and developing projects of its own and with other partners, sometimes with strategic logistical value. Japan has invested in India’s strategic road project in the Northeast of India since 2014. Japan is also building an east-west economic corridor from Vietnam to Myanmar, and this road network connects with road projects in northeastern India. If road connections were made to increase India’s trade with Southeast Asia, this might mitigate China’s influence there, Japanese analysts reason. Similar to Northeast India, Japan is pouring its energy into building up the sea route to Southeast Asia through projects including modernization of Chennai port in India.

Also, in order to counter the importance of China’s infrastructure construction, Japan is working on an infrastructure construction plan. When China proposed to construct a port at Sonadia in Bangladesh, Japan countered with a proposal for port construction a mere 25 kilometers away at Matarbari, which Bangladesh chose, leading China to abandon its project. Cases are increasing of Japan in this way countering China’s attempts to expand its influence by using infrastructure projects. Especially of late cases of Japan and India cooperating are numerous. In response to China’s construction in Sri Lanka of Hambantota port, Japan and India pursued modernization of Colombo and Trincolmalee ports. In response to Gwadar port, which China is in the midst of constructing in Pakistan, Japan and India are pursuing the construction of Chabahar port in Iran. In Africa too, Japan and India are pursuing infrastructure cooperation through the “Asia-Africa Growth Corridor” concept, which is opposing China. The joint statement fact sheet at the October 2018 Japan-India summit touched on these cases of infrastructure cooperation.2

From a military standpoint, there has been an intensified response by Japan and India. Amidst the escalating Sino-US confrontation, in consideration of the order of military priorities, the US must reallocate its strategic resources, curtailing tasks not high on the list for strategically facing China, to pursue its top priority. Thus, the US would reduce its responsibilities for security in Europe and the Middle East, while pursuing a “rebalance” toward the Indo-Pacific. At the same time, allies and like-minded friendly countries were asked to bear the burden of greater security tasks.

Currently, there are two requests from the US. First is for US allies and like-minded countries to increase their defense budget to share more of the burden. Second is for these countries to import more US-made weapons. Because of this pressure, NATO countries have started to raise their defense budgets. In the case of Japan, such pressure is one reason it decided to import 100 F-35 jets from the US and to modify the helicopter carriers “Izumo” and “Kaga” into small aircraft carriers. Both have been training in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean every year since 2017, showing Japan’s presence while responding to the growing US demand for burden sharing.

In the case of India, it is not only in the interest of the US but also in India’s interest for India to provide security in the Indian Ocean region. Recently, India has imported more weapons from the US. Because its navy lacks anti-submarine capabilities, India bought P-8 anti-submarine patrol planes. India is planning to import MH-60 anti-submarine helicopters from the US. It can also increase defense capabilities along its border with China by using US-made equipment, such as weapons for India’s 17th army troops, which have the capacity to attack toward Tibet along the Indo-Chinese border, and for India’s air force, which can transport the 17th army. From the US come C-17 large transport aircraft, C-130 mid-size transport planes, C-47 large transport helicopters, which can be used at high altitudes; AH-64 attack helicopters and M777 howitzers, which are artillery transportable by air. Also, India has purchased from the US anti-submarine weapons for the Indian Ocean, including the P-8 anti-submarine aircraft, and is considering purchasing the MH60 anti-submarine helicopter.

In the case of economic priorities, Japan and India should lessen dependence on China. Because of the escalating US-China rivalry, Japan and India must reduce this dependence, if they wish to avoid becoming “passengers on a sinking ship.” Japan has already started to do so. In 2018, Japan ended Official Development Assistance to China. Japanese companies have relocated their factories in China to Southeast or South Asia. The number of Japanese citizens living in China has decreased every year from 150,399 in 2012 to 124,162 in 2017, despite the number of Japanese in the US increasing from 410,973 in 2012 to 426,206 in 2017.3 Although China is the top trading partner for India, India’s economy mainly depends on its own market. Thus, even as the US-China rivalry escalates, India may not suffer really serious damage from the rivalry.

The US drawdown in Afghanistan as India asserts itself in Kashmir

The US army drawdown from Afghanistan is occurring amidst the escalating Sino-US conflict. During this process, the US can devote more resources to its strategy to counter China in the Indo-Pacific. However, India’s decision to put Kashmir under direct federal control is connected to this withdrawal. In August 2019, enacting a legal change in parliament, Modi withdrew the constitutionally guaranteed special autonomous status of Kashmir (separating Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh) and put it under central rule. Evacuating tourists and introducing more troops, India began large-scale military and control operations. Modi’s move on Jammu and Kashmir can be understood as connected to the changes in Afghanistan. What makes a counter-terrorism policy necessary there is the dissatisfaction of the local residents with India’s policies and the prospect of Islamic radicalism being introduced from Afghanistan. After the 9/11 terror attacks, the large-scale operations of the US forces in Afghanistan could be seen as exerting some impact, adding to the times when pacification was undertaken against terror activities in Kashmir. Now, amid the impending withdrawal of these forces, the Kashmir situation has begun to heat up, one factor prompting India’s strong move.

What will be needed after the US retreat from Afghanistan? Most importantly, the Afghan government may collapse and the situation would be seen as a major US defeat. The US expects that the country to support the Afghan government in its place is India, which maintains five consulates in addition to an embassy there, and recently has supplied armed helicopters and other equipment as well as training and servicing, cooperating with Russia in reviving factories the Soviets had established, among other activities. It positively engages in constructing infrastructure and building roads, continuing to suffer casualties from ferocious Taliban attacks.

But at the same time, the US needs to cooperate with Pakistan, too, which has close ties to the Taliban, in negotiating its drawdown. Recently, when President Imran Khan visited Washington, Trump offered to play the role of intermediary on Kashmir between India and Pakistan, which pleased Pakistan. Weaker than India, Pakistan prefers a US role rather than bilateral talks only with India. In these circumstances, India must prepare for the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the inflow of Islamic radicalism into Kashmir. One supposes that this is in the background of Modi’s move.

The Chinese advance in Ladakh

Originally, Jammu Kashmir and Ladakh were included as a single area in India in 1947. Ladakh is mostly Buddhist and experiences no terrorist attacks by Islamic extremists, but it is on the front lines of the border issue with China, and its eastern portion Aksai Chin, close to Xinjiang and Tibet, has been occupied by China since the 1962 Indo-China war. It now is an important area for the BRI, connecting Tibet and Xinjiang by road to Pakistan, where a Chinese military build-up is continuing, and the Indian side has been slow to counter and needs urgently to build up its infrastructure and armed forces. If the Indian central government were to put Ladakh under its direct control, it might accelerate infrastructure development and supply provision to military forces and be an effective countermeasure to China.

Currently, because of escalating US-China rivalry, it is not easy for China to take a strong stance toward India. However, the Chinese side could respond as it did to the nationalization of the Senkaku Islands by Japan in 2012 with retaliatory moves, such as greatly increasing Chinese forces stationed in Pakistan, conducting joint Sino-Pakistani military exercises on the Indian-Pakistan armistice line, causing trouble over the Tibet question by increasing Chinese forces stationed in Akusai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh, and road building anew invading the Doklam plateau. Thus, if China retaliated against India, it would also affect US-Japan-India cooperation.

Impact on Japan

From the point of view of Indian security, relations with Japan as well as the triangle with the US and the quadrangle with Australia, these responses to terrorism, Pakistan, and China have all had positive effects. Japan should welcome any actions toward Ladakh, but the new moves regarding Jammu and Kashmir introduce some destabilizing elements. Especially if the US were to act as an India-Pakistan intermediary over Kashmir, India might become dissatisfied with the US; or if India, in the course of countering extreme terrorism in Kashmir, were to arouse human rights concerns, it is possible that the US Congress would become involved; or if India cooperated with Russia in Afghanistan countermeasures, this would not necessarily be welcome in the US. There is a latent prospect of weakening US-Indian relations, which could possibly influence Japan-India relations. However, from the perspective of current Sino-US relations, which are now beset by a series of diplomatic crises, this is a small issue.

Even if the US and India had some differences of opinion on Afghanistan, the possibility is high that relations would not worsen materially. US intervention over Kashmir is likely to be superficial, and protests over Indian human rights violations in Kashmir would be avoided despite some noise. Only if Indo-Pakistan tension reached an extreme over Kashmir would US mediation be a possibility, and as was seen in the air war between the two in February 2019, the US would veer toward India.4 The US would even welcome India’s cooperation with Russia in Afghanistan once the US is in retreat. Thus, the Japan-US-India triangle and the quad with Australia would not be negatively affected by the situation in Afghanistan and Kashmir but would continue to advance. This is the outcome anticipated on the eve of big decisions in 2019.

Possible next steps in Japan-US-India defense cooperation

Withdrawing US forces from Afghanistan will not exert a big impact on Japan-US-India security relations, and could, in fact, deepen the triangular relationship, which already have been growing stronger. In June 2019 at the G20 summit a second trilateral meeting occurred following one in 2018. Cooperation in this triangle is advancing rapidly, as seen in US-Indian bilateral ties, Japan-Indian bilateral ties, and joint military exercises involving all types of forces on land, sea, and air, including the deployment of coast guards. US arms exports to India are increasing5 and in 2018, for the first time, Japan and India agreed to launch a joint weapons development plan.6 As triangular cooperation becomes a reality, the question arises: what comes next to make it more effective? To address this, we must ask: 1) what are the objectives of the defense cooperation of Japan, the US, and India? 2) What measures should be undertaken in order to realize these objectives? and 3) What problems could arise in implementing these measures?

What was driving the advancing trilateral security cooperation in the 2000s were questions about rising China. In adopting measures to impede China’s expansionism, the three states paid attention to the special features of its behavior. China was expanding by occupying islands and reefs in the South China Sea not long after France, the US, and the Soviet Union had retreated from the area,7 leaving a military balance favorable to China. For that reason, in order to curtail China’s advance, the primary issue was how to restore the military balance.

This brought to the forefront three cases of trilateral cooperation. The first case envisioned in the fragmentation of China’s use of defense funds in two directions—Japan’s (East China Sea) and India’s (the Indian-Chinese border)—the value of countermeasures by Japan and the US in the event of a Chinese attack on India. In this scenario, China would be obliged to leave part of its fighter aircraft behind in Japan’s direction without being able to use them in attacking India. Thus, trilateral cooperation would be an effective countermeasure or even a deterrent toward China.

In the second case the Chinese navy intensifies its advance into the Indian Ocean, as it is doing today, prompting Japan and the US to position naval vessels in the Indian Ocean in order to defend the sea lanes that traverse it. However, positioning them there would mean that fewer warships are stationed in the East and South China Seas. Japan and the US are eager for ships being dispatched from India to protect the security of the Indian Ocean, making it the security provider and freeing them instead to concentrate on the two seas. This is a division of labor that makes sense for all three defense partners.

The third case is the South China Sea, where the defense capabilities of Southeast Asian countries must be boosted in order to check China’s behavior. For that purpose, Japan, the US, and India alike have advanced plans for strengthening the defense forces of these states. By cooperating, the three can assist these countries to realize more effective defense forces. These are the kinds of objectives that Japan, the US, and India are considering in security cooperation.

What more should be done in light of these three objectives? In case China should pose a danger, the obvious response is, at an early date, to join forces to establish a system to respond. dAt least three measures are required to maintain a military balance with China. First, Japan, the US, and India can deliver a common political message to China. An example of such cooperation occurred in the so-called Doklam crisis of 2017, when India and China were locked in a military confrontation. On August 15 when military tensions were rising, Japan’s ambassador in India Hiramatsu Kenji issued a statement that the situation should not be changed by force.8 This is the sort of statement Japan uses in criticizing China and Russia. (When the Indian defense minister came to Japan in September and again when Abe visited India, the Indian side expressed its thanks.) In a similar case, in February 2019, a terror incident occurred in Indian Kashmir, and afterwards when there was an Indian air raid on a terrorist training camp inside Pakistan, Japan and the United States both demanded tougher anti-terror policies from Pakistan.9 This was something India had long urged. When Japan, the US, and India sent this message expressing the same opinion they became a stronger force for standing in the path of China’s expansionism as well as terrorism countenanced by Pakistan to which China acquiesces.

As a second measure, the three countries could undertake joint military activity toward China. When in the 2017 Doklam crisis tensions rose on the Indo-Chinese border, Japan, the US, and India undertook joint Malabar naval exercises in the Indian Ocean.10 Through them, China had to think that if it were to attack India that Japan and the US would come to India’s assistance. In the future, the three countries can raise similar expectations through joint exercises to restrain China’s military actions. Thus, it is necessary to prepare in advance for such exercises, which would be facilitated by joint coordination through agreement on sharing military information and supplies. Already, there are GSOMIAs (General Security of Military Information Agreements) between the US and India as well as Japan and India.11 In fact, when the Doklam crisis occurred, the US supplied India with information concerning the movements of Chinese forces.12 The US also supplies India information on the movements of Chinese submarines in the Indian Ocean. Such support is critical to the cause of triangularity.

The US and India have agreed to a Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) and a Communications, Compatibility and Security Agreemen (COMCASA). Negotiations are under way between Japan and India too for an Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA).  If an agreement can be reached, joint exercises will proceed more easily and quickly. Also, infrastructure maintenance is proceeding to conduct joint military operations. For example, from 2014 Japan has undertaken road construction in India’s northeast region, which speeds the movement of troops in case Indian forces need to be deployed for defense of the border area.

As another example of a countermeasure toward Chinese submarines expanding their activity from the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean, a submarine surveillance network could be established. When Chinese submarines advance from their bases in Hainan to the Indian Ocean, it would be necessary in the Andaman and Nikobar Islands, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, the Laksha Deep Islands, and elsewhere to establish submarine surveillance sensors, and a network of optical fibers to transmit information from them, along with bases that can deploy warships and aircraft used in submarine surveillance, radar, and generating stations. Some experts have already pointed to initial steps being taken, but more serious planning must go forward.13

As the third measure, the three countries are moving ahead with weapons exchanges so that they can possess the same weapons. Weapons are high-technology and roughly used, meaning they can easily be damaged. Usually there are service troops used for repairs, which makes it important to stockpile spare parts. If the three countries were to use the same weapons, they could supply each other with spare parts. Therefore, it is an important change that India has begun to buy weapons from the United States. Such transfers are the backbone of triangularity.

In 2018 Japan and India agreed on joint development of the Visual Simultaneous Localization and Mapping (SLAM) based Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) augmentation technology for UGV/robotics, equipment suitable for patrolling the Indo-Chinese border and for which the development of artificial intelligence (AI) is necessary.14 Since AI is a technology with decisive importance for the next generation on the battlefield, the fact that Japan and India will be developing it jointly has significance. Moreover, negotiations are going forward concerning the export of the ShinMaywa US-2, a Japanese large STOL amphibious aircraft designed for air-sea rescue work, to the Indian navy.15 In addition, if India should participate in the development of the Aegis ballistic missile defense system, which Japan and the US are now developing, this would lead to deepening triangularity in a critical future military technology. With the advances in development and deployment of China’s anti-ballistic missiles, India’s naval bases—where its aircraft carriers are deployed—are falling within China’s range. In order to protect its carriers, the Aegis system is seen as becoming necessary for India.16 There is much room for expansion in cooperation on weapons development and deployment.


While strengthening ties amid the escalating Sino-US confrontation, Japan and India are trying to respond to emergent conditions. They have intensified their responses in light of the most recent changes, including the possibilities connected to the withdrawal of the US forces from Afghanistan, which apparently resulted in India placing Kashmir under direct central control. The Japan-US-India security triangle can be expected to grow in importance, but there remain unanswered questions for each country: Japan’s pacifist legacy, US inconsistent support for India, and India’s tradition of neutrality.

A key aspect determining the prospects of the security triangle is Sino-US relations, which are expected to worsen and raise security tensions. Washington will press its ally Japan and its prospective defense partner India to draw closer. The second aspect is Sino-Indian relations. Beijing may expect that India is the weak link in the triangle and strive to use economic incentives to keep India on the fence in the triangle, but Beijing’s strong tilt toward Pakistan and aggressive move into the Indian Ocean make serious overtures unlikely. India’s Kashmir gambit also dims hope that the Pakistanis and Chinese, each with its own claims in the area. The third aspect is Sino-Japanese relations, which have normalized at the level of summits in 2018-19 but remain intensely competitive with regard to regional security. There is scant reason to expect that any of these three bilateral relations will be significantly transformed in the years just ahead.

Within the triangle, the relationship of Abe and Modi deserves special consideration. Abe’s focus on working closely with Modi may be the glue that binds the triangle when needed. Given the crisis in 2017 when the Indian army confronted the Chinese army on the Doklam plateau, Modi has gotten the message, as seen in the joint triangular exercises conducted since then. Yet, US-Indian trade, visa, and other issues can lead to rocky moments, which may increase the importance of Japan in keeping the triangle moving forward. Abe appears keen on doing just that.

1. US White House, “Remarks by Vice President Pence at the 2nd Annual Religious Freedom Ministerial,” July 18, 2019.

2. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, “Japan-India Summit Meeting,” October 29, 2018,

3. Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Government of Japan, “Annual Report of Statistics on Japanese Nationals Overseas,” 2018 (in Japanese, data are based on the numbers on October 1, 2017),

4. Satoru Nagao, “India’s Airstrikes Proved Greatly Successful‒Successful Case of Limited Use of Force‒,” Quarterly Report, July 2019,

5. Satoru Nagao, “Indo-Pacific Military Ties Positive Scenario I: Japan-US-India will be ‘Natural Allies,’” The Asan Forum, Vol. 4, No.3 (May 2016),

6. Embassy of Japan in India, “Japan & India initiate a cooperative research on Unmanned Ground Vehicles /Robotics,” August 1, 2018, https://www.in.emb-japan.go.jp/itpr_en/00_000647.html

7. Ministry of Defense, Government of Japan “China’s Activities in the South China Sea,” October 2018, http://www.mod.go.jp/e/d_act/sec_env/pdf/ch_d-act_201810b_e.pdf

8. “Doklam stand-off: Japan backs India, says no one should try to change status quo by force,” The Times of India, August 18, 2017,

9. Geeta Mohan, “58 nations condemn Pulwama terror attack, US names Pakistan,” India Today, February 17, 2019,
https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/58-nations-condemn-pulwama-terror-attack-us-names-pakistan-1457970-2019-02-17?fbclid=IwAR25M95df2Rop_INHsyn1Hy30ZKX40sh0bSjjh13un6mHHEBIYgVqql7L_U; Chidanand Rajghatta and Sachin Parashar, “US NSA backs India’s right to self-defence against attacks,” The Times of India, February 17, 2019,

10. “Don’t bank on US and Japan, you’ll lose: Chinese daily warns India over Doklam standoff,” Business Today, July 21, 2017,

11. Varghese K. George, “India, US sign military logistics pact,” The Hindu, August 30, 2016,

12. “US Provided India Intelligence Input on Chinese Troop Deployments during Doklam Stand-Off, Hints Report,” Swarajya, September 5, 2018,

13. Abhijit Singh, “India’s ‘Undersea Wall’ in the Eastern Indian Ocean,” Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, June 14, 2016,

14. Embassy of Japan in India, “Japan & India initiate a cooperative research on Unmanned Ground Vehicles /Robotics,” August 1, 2018,

15. Satoru Nagao, “The Importance of a Japan-India Amphibious Aircraft Deal,” The Diplomat, December 12, 2016,

16. Vinod Anand, “PLA Navy’s Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile: Challenge to India,” VIF, January 18, 2011,