India has 272 Su-30MKI fightersmost of which were assembled under license in India by the Indian aerospace manufacturer HAL. Indian aircraft have Israeli and French avionics and electronic warfare systems, while China’s Su-30MKK and MK2 are taking on limited functions from the even more advanced Su-35, another flanker derivative that flies with China and Russia’s air forces in limited numbers.
Indeed, the symbolic value of the Indo-Japanese aerial exercises may outweigh the military benefits. India and Japan along with the United States and Australia comprise the Four-way security dialogue (The Quad), an informal security alliance that essentially aims to contain China. With India on China’s southwestern border, Japan on China’s northeastern border, and the United States, Australia, and Taiwan to the east and south, Beijing could feel encircled. Closer defense cooperation between India and Japan will only reinforce that feeling.
“This is a very clear diplomatic signal from two quad partners whose relationship has promised a lot but has not yet been kept,” noted Wallace.
Indian Su-30s in Japan could be the start of something bigger: Indian and Japanese troops share their military bases. Wallace points out the aerial exercises as well as the Acquisition and Cross-Service Agreement (ACSA) signed by India and Japan in September 2020, which allows the armed forces of both nations to share services and supplies.
“The broader strategic importance of this agreement is that it gives the Indian military access to Japanese bases in Japan, but also to Japan’s Djibouti base near major sea routes in the Middle East,” Wallace said. “In return, it gives the Japanese better access to the most important Indian bases on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal, which lie astride the west of the Strait of Malacca.”
Historically, Japan has been reluctant to project military power abroad since 1945. That’s partly because Article 9 of Japan’s post-war constitution, as drafted by the United Stateswho renounced war and offensive skills, although these Inhibitions can subside how Japan faces growing Chinese power. While operating from Indian bases might be politically sensitive, it would allow Japan to protect key sea trade routes – and also to worry China.
Still, such a strategy may not be operationalized consistently in the near future, it could be done during a crisis, or eventually in support of Japan’s new efforts to project sea power abroad. Tarapore also doubts that India would agree to such a joint establishment in the long term. “This is because India is giving priority to so-called ‘strategic autonomy’ or not making any binding security commitments,” said Tarapore. “And you can’t be much more involved than deploying troops in another country’s territory or having them deployed on your territory.”
Regardless, multinational exercises are an invaluable tool for training. U.S. pilots, for example, have benefited greatly from practicing against Indian Su-30s during the recent Cope India exercises, not only because of exposure to foreign equipment, but also because of the opportunity to observe cunning foreign tactics. And in the case of Japan, if similar exercises send a signal to potential opponents like China, so much the better.