The India-Japan 2+2 dialogue added strategic heft to the special relationship in the wake of growing Chinese assertiveness on regional affairs, points out Dr Rajaram Panda.
India-Japan bilateral ties reached another milestone when the maiden foreign and defence ministerial dialogue (2+2) was held on November 30 in New Delhi during which the two sides discussed boosting defence and security ties besides other issues of mutual interest.
While the Indian delegation was led by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and Foreign Minister Dr Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, Japan's Foreign Affairs Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and Defence Minister Taro Kono led the Japanese side.
The 2+2 ministerial dialogue is seen as an upgrade of the meeting between foreign and defence secretaries of the two countries, the first round of which took place in 2010.
The upgrade to the ministerial level talks follows an agreement reached between Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi and his Japanese counterpart Abe Shinzo during the 13th India-Japan annual summit in Japan in October 2018.
So far, India holds a similar ministerial level 2+2 dialogue only with the US and with the start of similar format with Japan, the strategic congruence between the three countries comes into focus.
The significance of this bilateral ministerial meeting can be deciphered from the fact that it came a few weeks ahead of the annual summit of the two prime ministers, the 14th summit, scheduled to be held in Guwahati in December.
The choice of Guwahati as the summit venue is in line with the Modi government's policy to hold such high-profile meets outside Delhi to give glimpses of India's rich cultural history to visiting dignitaries.
The Japanese prime minister may also visit Imphal in neighbouring Manipur, once a battlefield between Japan and the Allied forces during World War II, and pray for peace.
The 2+2 meeting provided an opportunity for the two sides to review the status and exchange further views on strengthening defence and security cooperation between the two countries and also aimed to give stronger spine to the existing India-Japan special strategic and global partnership.
Besides, the two sides exchanged views on the situation in the Indo-Pacific region and their respective efforts under India's 'Act East Policy' and Japan's 'Free and Open Indo-Pacific Vision' for achieving their shared objective of peace, prosperity and progress to realise a better future for the people of the two countries and the region.
The 2+2 ministerial dialogue reflects the growing relations between the two countries, especially on strategic and security issues.
The focus was on seeking ways to advance cooperation for peace and progress in the Indo-Pacific region and the desire of both countries to create a rules-based framework to ensure the Indo-Pacific region remains free, fair and inclusive.
The two countries, both major importers of energy, are keen to ensure freedom of navigation in regional waters against the backdrop of China's increasingly assertive behaviour.
India and Japan have also made progress in efforts aimed at maritime domain awareness in regional waters and are currently engaged in negotiations for an acquisition and cross-servicing agreement, which is aimed at boosting joint efforts on military hardware.
The armies and air forces of the two countries held their first bilateral exercises in 2018.
Though there is a great deal of convergence of interests in the strategic and security domains, a Japanese proposal to sell the ShinMaywa US-2 amphibious aircraft to the Indian Navy appears to have run into trouble, largely due to the cost of the aircraft.
If an agreement on this strategic asset is concluded enabling India to purchase the aircraft, it could enhance India's capability mix in the context of the humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) efforts.
It would also be a good addition to India's recent maritime capability acquisitions including the P-8I maritime patrol aircraft and the potential acquisition of the Sea Guardian armed drone.
Japan is keen that an agreement on this is reached as soon as possible.
In order to entice India for this acquisition, Japan has committed to manufacture 30% of the aircraft in India and this could eventually help improve Indian defense manufacturing.
The two have also established a working group to study the possibilities in visual simultaneous localisation and mapping based global navigation satellite system augmentation technology for UGV/robotics.
Opportunities in the areas of technology collaboration are significant.
Defence electronics is particularly important for India since its domestic defence electronic manufacturing segment is still at a nascent stage and it has to partner with its strategic partners in building a domestic capability base but also direct procurement of those capabilities in the interim.
At the last 2+2 dialogue at the official level in 2018, the two sides had 'discussed measures to strengthen cooperation in fields such as counterterrorism, maritime security, defence equipment and technology (and) peacekeeping operations'.
These issues were taken up at a higher level at the ministerial level dialogue.
During the India-Japan defence dialogue last September, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and his Japanese counterpart Takeshi Iwaya had stressed that peace and stability in the Indian and Pacific Oceans are 'crucial for ensuring prosperity of the Indo-Pacific region'.
They had also discussed the security situation in the Indo-Pacific, including developments on the Korean peninsula and the South China Sea.
The prime ministers of India and Japan in their Vision Statement in October 2018 had reiterated their commitments to working together towards a free and open Indo-Pacific.
Both sides have an inclusive approach in the region and defined their emerging Asian strategic framework with that goal in mind.
Both see China's approach in the region as being exclusivist.
There is a clear clash between their two visions of the region.
This time around, the ministerial dialogue added strategic heft to the special relationship in the wake of growing Chinese assertiveness on regional affairs.
No wonder, maritime cooperation in the Indo-Pacific topped in the ministerial talks.
There is strategic congruence between the Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force and the Indian Navy demonstrated by participation in multilateral exercises, including participation as observers.
Both the Japan-India-US trilateral maritime exercise 'Malabar 2019' held from late September to early October 2019, and the second Japan-India-US trilateral mine-countermeasures exercise held in July 2019 are aimed at deepening cooperation in the maritime domain.
Similar trilateral exercises in the same framework are likely to continue at an annual basis.
Besides, the Indian and Japanese armies and air forces held their first bilateral exercises, Dharma Guardian and Shinyuu Maitri in 2018.
Last year, Japan also joined the India-US air forces exercise Cope India as an observer for the first time.
The two countries have made steady progress in maritime domain awareness based on implementing the arrangement for deeper cooperation between the two navies, signed in 2018.
With an eye on China, both countries are also close to concluding negotiations on an acquisition and cross-servicing agreement, a military logistics sharing pact.
Such an agreement could expand the strategic reach and influence of both militaries that would allow both countries to access each others's naval bases.
While Japan could gain access to Indian facilities in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, India could have access to Japan's naval facility in Djibouti.
India took more than a decade to finalise such an agreement with the United States, but now that it has been done once, New Delhi has found it less problematic to do others.
It has now concluded such deals also with France and South Korea; talks for a similar deal with Australia are at an advanced stage.
The negotiations for the ASCA with Japan commenced after the October 2018 summit meeting.
Discussions on global commons including maritime, outer space, and cyber space have been key themes in the dialogue process.
When India opted to stay out of the RCEP at the Bangkok summit in November, reports surfaced that Japan would make a big push to convince India to join the mega pact.
But it soon transpired that Japan itself would not be a part of the RCEP without India.
Japan's Deputy Minister for Economy, Trade and Industry Hideki Makihara made it clear that Japan was at the moment thinking only of negotiations.
China has sought to accelerate the RCEP deal, but India is unwilling without adequate safeguards and commensurate market access to the rest of the 15 RCEP members for its IT and services sector.
It remains unclear at the moment if India will be willing to change its stance on the RCEP.
War against terror is a common issue between India and Japan.
In strong words on Pakistan's sponsorship of terrorism, the ministers from both sides asked Islamabad to take 'resolute and irreversible' steps against terror networks operating from its soil.
The two countries called upon Islamabad to 'fully comply' with its international commitments to deal with terrorism including the steps prescribed by the Financial Action Task Force.
The Indian defence and foreign ministers will meet their US counterparts Mark Esper and Mike Pompeo for the next round of the 2+2 dialogue on December 18.
It is likely that some of the issues discussed with the Japanese counterparts would be shared with Esper and Pompeo, contributing further towards mutual understanding.
The India-Japan ministerial level 2+2 strategic dialogue is an important initiative.
It emphasises the deep interest that both sides have to further strengthen their security and strategic engagements.
Unlike Japan's relations with China, the Koreas and some ASEAN countries which suffer from the shadow of history, India-Japan ties have no such historical baggage, the only aberration being when Japan reacted harshly after India detonated a nuclear bomb in 1998.
The China factor also propels both to see common grounds and their worldviews are shaped accordingly.
India and Japan alone are unlikely to be able to cope with the China challenge. They need a larger coalition to balance China effectively. The Quad initiative could be a possible channel that can address issues in larger Asia and the world.
Dr Rajaram Panda, former Senior Fellow at IDSA, was until recently ICCR India Chair at Reitaku University, Japan. He is currently Lok Sabha Research Fellow, Parliament of India, and Member of Governing Council, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.