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Japan’s Naval Diplomacy in the Bay of Bengal: In Pursuit of a Sound Peacetime Commitment Strategy in Establishing a Stable Maritime Order

Vindu Mai Chotani is a Ph. D. Candidate at the Graduate School of Public Policy, The University of Tokyo; and a Visiting Associate at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. 

Dr. Shutaro Sano is Professor and Deputy Director at the Center for International Exchange, National Defense Academy of Japan.


Today, Japan’s naval diplomacy has become one of the key elements in securing peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region. Notably, the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force (MSDF) has focused on strengthening its peacetime commitment strategy which is designed to establish a more stable international security environment and to deter armed attack(1), rather than to exert itself in the traditional so-called “gunboat diplomacy.” This strategy is pursued directly and indirectly by means of bilateral and multilateral cooperation in the realm of maritime security with the U.S. as well as other likeminded countries including the Republic of Korea, Australia, ASEAN countries and India.(2) This article explores the growing importance of Japan’s peacetime maritime commitment strategy, specifically in the Bay of Bengal which has increasingly become an area of strategic and economic competition between rising regional powers such as China and India in the midst of relative decline of the U.S. influence in the region. 

This article first address the pressing need to focus on the Bay of Bengal. Secondly, amidst some challenges, it asses how Japan is using key areas in its naval diplomacy to promote and enhance its commitment strategy with Bay of Bengal States. Finally, it will provide some recommendations for the next step toward a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ region. In doing so, it goes on to suggest that while Japan’s ties with India would be of utmost importance, another Bay state for Japan to reckon closely with is Sri Lanka.

Why the Bay of Bengal?

The Bay of Bengal is increasingly emerging as one of the most economically and strategically significant regions in the world. For Japan specifically, the Bay is important for a number of reasons. (3)Firstly, the Bay, which hosts approximately 100 trillion cubic feet, or one percent of the world's total unexploited oil and gas reserves, plays a significant role in meeting Japan’s growing energy demands especially after the Great East Japan earthquake in 2011.(4) After the U.S. and China, Japan has become the third largest importer of oil from this sub-region, importing 4.4 million barrels of oil per day. 

Additionally, stability within, and extending from the Bay of Bengal becomes important for Japan not only because it is situated close to the Strait of Malacca, but also because the area involves China’s geo-strategic Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which constitutes both the sea and land routes involving the Indian Ocean States. Thus, Japan’s naval diplomacy in this sub-region, would enable Japan to have an increased presence in the IOR, extending into the Indo-Pacific region. This would marginally enhance Japan's ability to protect its own sea-lanes of supply, as well as work towards establishing a broader rule based maritime order.

Finally, this part of the Asian littoral hosts a huge population and many Bay states - Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Myanmar - could provide cheap labor making them attractive manufacturing investment destinations, and future consumer markets for Japan. This would not only enable Japan to deepen its engagements in Asia, but it would also enable Japan to diversify from its traditional area of focus, Southeast Asia. 

That said, the Bay of Bengal is subject to a number of threatening issues which could have a huge destabilizing effect on the region. Widespread piracy and smuggling, especially for Bangladesh, has been on the rise. (5)Also, environmental security concerns, such as the serious threat of rising sea levels in the littoral could potentially displace millions. Further, Chinese assertive forays into the Bay of Bengal and its engagements with some Bay states carries with it the potential to impact its power projection capabilities in the South China Sea, IOR and Indo-Pacific.(6)This poses issues for Japan and India, as well as smaller littoral states.

Key Areas for Japan’s Commitment Strategy in the Bay of Bengal – Prospects and Challenges 

An increased MSDF commitment could thus be extremely beneficial, not only for the Bay of Bengal, but also for the extended IOR and Indo-Pacific. However, the question then arises as to how is Japan using its naval diplomacy in the Bay of Bengal to create a stable, rule based order in the Indo-Pacific? If one assesses the MSDF activities in the more recent years (primarily the last ten years), the uniqueness in their deepening commitment can be seen by their interactions with Bay states in a number of key areas.

Growing number of port calls 

Japan is one of the few countries that still possess training squadrons. While traditionally, the MSDF Training Squadrons have made port calls to the U.S., Central America and from the 1960s, Europe as well, this is now changing. Demonstrating their growing commitment, it could be said that Japan is boosting the number of its vessels making "strategic port calls," to encourage defense cooperation, as well as promote better relations with states in the Bay of Bengal.

While India - Japan relations have shown an upswing and defence cooperation in particular has attained a soaring trajectory through an increased number of ships, high-level delegation visits and training exchanges, the MSDF has also initiated efforts with smaller Bay states. With Sri Lanka, a key partner especially with regard to maintaining free and open SLOCs, since 2009, the MSDF and Japan Coast Guard (JCG) ships have made 55 port calls.(7)

Further, in 2013 as a precursor to further cooperation between Myanmar and Japan, the MSDF training vessels docked in Myanmar for a five-day mission, marking the first-ever port call by a MSDF vessel to the country.(8) In another first, in September 2012 a training squadron of the MSDF docked at Chittagong Port, Bangladesh commemorating the 40th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

However, an increasing number of port calls in itself does not address the challenge MSDF faces with regards to its maritime power projection capabilities in the Indian Ocean:, i.e., in striking a balance between its focus on the East/South China Seas and the Bay of Bengal. As such, if Japan is to work successfully toward establishing a rule based maritime order in the Bay of Bengal, the joint development of India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands in  the eastern Indian Ocean becomes essential as the island chain is located northwest of the maritime chokepoint at Strait of Malacca. (9) As an important ally of the U.S., Japan may also benefit from utilizing the U.S. base in Diego Garcia as a future stronghold in order to reinforce its operations in the Indian Ocean including the Bay of Bengal. (10)

In addition, the role and support of the Ground Self Defence Force (GSDF) and the Air Self Defence Force (ASDF) to supplement and complement the activities of the MSDF is crucial. A good example in possibly taking this forward has been set by India and Japan. It has been reported that the defense ministers of both states have agreed to hold the first-ever military exercise involving the Indian Army and GSDF, and also to hold a joint air combat drill involving the Indian Air Force and ASDF.(11) This could eventually be expanded to encompass other Bay states as well.

Strengthening of Capacity Building Assistance 

In order to create a shared deeper understanding of importance for enhancing disaster resilience, as well as a free and open maritime order, the MSDF has begun to actively support the capacity building of states in the Bay of Bengal, especially with regards to maritime security, coastguard capacities, humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HA/DR) and military medicine. 

With Myanmar, starting 2014, the Japanese Self Defense Forces (SDF) have undertaken a number of capacity building exercises, including aviation meteorology. Other assistance conducted by the MSDF were underwater medicine in 2014, 2015, 2016; and HA/DR in 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018.(12) With Sri Lanka, in April 2018, the Japanese Ministry of Defense (JMOD) held its first Search and Rescue Seminar in Hambantota, and in June 2018, the JMOD and SDF invited seven Sri Lankan Navy medical professionals and conducted a briefing on military medicine at GSDF Medical Service School and the SDF Central Hospital.(13)

However, expanding the scope of its capacity development is crucial as this is one of the key elements of Japan’s naval diplomacy. In early 2018, Japan’s Defense Ministry released a statement on its plans to expand the scope of the capacity-building assistance by the SDF to other nations’ militaries, with a particular reference to those in South Asia.(14) While this is a big step forward, in terms of deliverables there is still much to be achieved. The chart below highlights that while Japan has many engagements with Southeast Asian and even Central Asian nations, more can still be done with the Bay of Bengal states, with only a mention of Myanmar.

Source: Ministry of Defense, Japan

Enhancing Coast Guard capabilities 

With the rapid emergence of coast guards since 1998, coast guards are now being used more widely to promote a state’s national interests, as well as instruments of foreign policy in waters beyond the limits of national jurisdiction.(15)  And nowhere is this trend emerging more clearly than the Indo-Pacific region. 

For its part, Tokyo has also been using its “coast guard diplomacy” as an effective tool to propagate a peaceful maritime order, fight piracy, secure sea trade, and provide equipment. However, while the Japanese government has been very active with, and mainly donated patrol boats to Coast Guards of ASEAN countries such as Indonesia, Philippines, and Vietnam, there remains space for it to deepen relations with Bay states and enhance its engagements on this front.
With the Indian Coast Guard (ICG), the Japan Coast Guard (JCG) has a long-standing partnership; starting from 2000 both the JCG and ICG have been regularly taking part in joint training sessions, and have also begun to work together in building maritime domain awareness (MDA). With Bangladesh, in 2018 it was reported that the Japanese Government has approved the transfer of Japanese offshore patrol vessel and various types of patrol crafts to the Bangladesh Coast Guard, alongside funding to acquire newly built patrol boats. (16) 

More recently though, a huge emphasis has been placed on Sri Lanka, which only re-established and inaugurated its Coast Guard in 2010. (17) In 2016, Japan agreed to provide Sri Lanka with a grant of up to U.S. $18 million for the Sri Lanka Coast Guard to receive two new patrol boats. (18)Further, based on a Grant Agreement signed by Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and the Sri Lankan Government in June 2016, (19)Japan may also export used P-3C patrol planes to Sri Lanka. (20) Keeping this momentum going, in 2017 Prime Minister Abe was instrumental in initiating the coast guards of Sri Lanka and Maldives to participate for the first time as observers during a joint training session involving the coast guards of Japan and India in January 2018.(21)

Increase of Bilateral and trilateral exercises

In 2013, the first Japan-India Maritime Exercise (JIMEX) was conducted in the Bay of Bengal, and since then this has become a regular exercise between both countries. However, what is probably one of the biggest steps forward was Japan’s inclusion in 2015 as a permanent/regular member of the Malabar Exercise, which since its inception in 1992 was initially a bilateral (U.S. – India) exercise. 

Apart from the increasing engagements mentioned above, Japan has also demonstrated its willingness to bolster strategic ties with the Bay states, notably Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka’s location next to some of the most important SLOCs, as well as its willingness to engage with Japan, makes it a key component of Japan’s increasing naval diplomacy in the Bay of Bengal. In August this year, Itsunori Onodera became the first Japanese defense minister to visit Sri Lanka. This visit comes at a time when port development has become an economic necessity for Sri Lanka and the strategic dimension of foreign investment in this type of infrastructure has started to attract much attention in the Indian Ocean region. During this visit, Onodera toured the island’s three major ports, including the Trincomalee harbor and the controversial Hambantota port, which was formally handed over to a Chinese firm on a 99-year lease last year. 

In spite of this progress, it must be kept in mind that certain obstacles do exist. With regards to India-Japan cooperation, one key example is the difference in the perception of threat primarily toward China.(22) While recognizing the growing assertiveness of China in the East and South China Seas and the Indian Ocean, it is equally important to acknowledge that the Japanese government has never officially deemed China as a “threat”, instead opting to use the phrase “concern.” Notably, Tokyo has recently become more supportive towards China’s Belt and Road Initiative than New Delhi which perceives the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) an apparent challenge to its own security.(23) Additionally, the different political foundations of the two countries directly affects the question of strategy, i.e., Japan’s reliance on the Japan-U.S. alliance and India’s emphasis on its strategic autonomy will always linger in the background. 

With regards to Sri Lanka, while studies have shown that bandwagoning alliance theories themselves do not adequately describe Sri Lanka’s policy with regional powers, (24) both bandwagoning and balancing policies have helped Sri Lanka derive specific advantages and protect its national interests.(25) As such, one can see Sri Lanka comprehensively struggling to balance its relationship with China, Japan and India as well. Further, Japan also has to bear in mind that, though former President Rajapaksa was ousted by a coalition between President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, this coalition is proving to be all but stable.(26) These issues are likely to affect Sri Lanka’s determination to deepen ties with Tokyo, which will in turn affect the degree of Japan’s naval involvement with Sri Lanka. 

The Next Step toward a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’

With an increasing strategy of maritime presence in the Bay of Bengal by the MSDF, a question then posed is whether Japan’s naval diplomacy in this sub-region carries with it enough heft that would enable it to successfully establish a rule based maritime order in the IOR and broader Indo-Pacific? Here, Japan’s strong relationship with India in a number of areas would be important in taking this forward. (27)

Firstly, in order for it to deepen its success, the future of Japan’s naval diplomacy needs to be tackled two dimensionally, i.e., by deepening simultaneously its bilateral relations and its presence in multilateral institutional frameworks.

  • Bilaterally, the ‘special strategic and global partnership’ that Japan shares with India, is a key partnership for Japan, India and the sub-region as well. After all, the Bay of Bengal is where India’s Act East Policy and Japan’s ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ Strategy converge. Additionally, this partnership serves as a good reference point for Japan’s deepening ties with other Bay states. Japan-India bilateral cooperation can also be strengthened with the Asia Africa Growth Corridor which also involves the Bay states.

  • Multilaterally, Japan has always been a staunch supporter of important institutions such as Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP), and is also an observer member of others such as Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS). As such, if Japan is to extend its outreach from the Bay into the Indo-Pacific, its greater participation in a key regional organization such as Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) would be important. (28)‘Environment & Disaster Management’; Counter-Terrorism & Transnational Crime; and Transport and Communication are a few the 14 identified key priority sectors of BIMSTEC(29), and here the MSDF in the maritime realm could increase capacity building activities and participation. 

Secondly, Tokyo will need to converge more extensively the MSDF’s commitment strategy with Japan’s economic development assistance which has increasingly gained greater strategic significance with the various cross border infrastructure developments in the Indo-Pacific region. As one scholar noted, to project sea power into a given region, “one must ensure local control of the sea along the naval forces’ transit route as well as in the operating areas in the vicinity of the objective.”(30) Here, a key partner like India, in spite of its limited financial resources, can play a key role. New Delhi and Tokyo have been working to use infrastructure development to advance their strategic maritime goals in the Indo-Pacific. A past example, Delhi has already used its diplomatic influence in Bangladesh’s decision to award the Matarbari port project to Japan. 

Thirdly, defence industrial showcasing that would enable Japan to make its first defense sale is an important area to be promoted by Japan’s naval diplomacy, and here again, India plays an important role. As India seeks to facilitate Japan’s emergence as a ‘normal’ military power, and China increases its forays into the Indian Ocean Region, India’s purchase of Japan’s US-2i amphibious planes would enable it to project a stronger presence in the IOR and Indo-Pacific. It further carries with it the important effects as a symbolic first trade, and this would be an important political step in Japan’s “normalization”, and for Japan to contribute more pro-actively to the broader Indo-Pacific strategy.


The primary mission of the MSDF has been and will continue to be to prepare itself in case of national emergencies. With the growing importance of the Bay of Bengal, however, it has become increasingly important for the MSDF to establish a more stable international security environment in the region through its peacetime commitment strategy. Ultimately, it is naval diplomacy that consolidates relationships with seagoing allies and partners, wins friends among neutrals, and faces down prospective antagonists.(31) Notably for Japan, emphasis should be placed on enhancing the capabilities of Indian Ocean States notably the Bay states as well as on strengthening its ‘special strategic and global partnership’ with India. Meanwhile, converging MSDF’s commitment strategy with Japan’s economic development assistance is also essential with the growing importance of the strategic dimension of development cooperation. These efforts, pursued together, would enable Japan to contribute to the establishment of a more stable maritime order in the Bay of Bengal based on its comprehensive ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ Strategy. 

(This is an updated version of a paper which was initially published by the Indian Military Review in September 2018, Republished by the National Security Think Tank of Sri Lanka INSSSL).

1 Japan’s Maritime Self Defense Force strategies consist of a peacetime commitment strategy and wartime contingency response strategy. RADM Tomohisa Takei, “Japan Maritime Self Defense Force in the New Maritime Era,” Hatou, November 2008.

2 The 2013 National Security Strategy of Japan lists these countries in this order.

3 This is not the first time that the importance of the Bay of Bengal has been expressed in Japanese naval discourse. On 3 September 1939, Captain Nakahara Yoshimasa of the Imperial Japanese Army (IJN), nicknamed “the King of the South Seas” wrote, “Today is the moment for maritime Japan to carry its flag as far as the Bay of Bengal”. Assessing the outbreak of hostilities between Britain and Germany in Europe at that time, he believed that “If our [Japan’s] sea power is expanded, the East Asian continent will automatically be stabilized and Japan will be able to expand its interests there”. Though the contextual interpretation has completely changed, mainly due to Japan’s place and role as a leading Pacifist nation, two things remain true for Japan in terms of geography and engagement with the Bay of Bengal. First, is the importance of diplomatic naval engagements of Japan’s Maritime Self Defense Force with Bay of Bengal states, and second is the use of this naval diplomacy to stabilize and support the new – founded policy of the ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’.

4 After the Great East Japan earthquake, the Japanese government is aiming to move away from nuclear energy, and thus the middle east and the Bay of Bengal play a crucial role, in meeting this growing demand.

5 According to a report by the AsianAge, despite the intensified raids of Bangladesh Coast Guard (BCG) and Bangladesh Navy (BN) on the waterways in the country and RAB on the land, incidents of piracy and attacking on seamen at the cargo and fishing trawlers and engine boats on the sea way are increasing day by day. Available at -

6 Devin Thorne and Ben Spevack, “Harbored Ambitions: How China’s Port Investments Are Strategically Reshaping the Indo-Pacific,” C4ADS (2017).

7 “Japanese assistance to improve capabilities of Sri Lanka Coast Guard”,

Available at -

8 “MSDF ships make first port call in Myanmar”, The Japan Times, 1 October 2013.Available at -

9 Shutaro Sano, “Japan-India Security Cooperation: Building a Solid Foundation amid Uncertainty,” CSIS Japan Chair (2017), pp.8-9. Available at 

10 Noboru Yamaguchi and Shutaro Sano, “Japan-India Security Cooperation: In Pursuit of a Sound and Pragmatic Partnership,” in Rohan Mukherjee and Anthony Yazaki (eds.), Poised for Partnership: Deepening India-Japan Relations in the Asian Century (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2016), pp.169-170.

11 Franz-Stefan Gady, “India, Japan to Hold First-Ever Military Exercises Involving Ground Troops”, The Diplomat, 23 July, 2018 Available at -

12 “Myanmar”, Ministry of Defence, Japan, Available at -

13 “Sri Lanka”, Ministry of Defence, Japan, Available at -

14 “Japan Expands Self-Defense Forces Assistance to Include South Asia”, Japan Forward, 3 April 2018. Originally published in Japanese by the Sankei Shimbun. Available at -

15 Sam Bateman, “Coast Guards: New Forces for Regional Order and Security”, Asia-Pacific Issues, No. 65, East West Centre, January 2003.Available at -

16 “Bangladesh Coast Guard to Receive Patrol Vessels from Japan”, Bangladesh Military,21 February 2018.Available at -

17 The Sri Lanka Coast Guard (SLCG) was initially established in the late 1990s, however, the department was disbanded in 2002 and its responsibilities were transferred to the Coast Conservation Department. The SLCG, in its current form was reestablished through the Department of Coast Guard Act, No. 41 of 2009 and inaugurated on 4 March 2010.Available at -

18 “Sri Lanka is helping Japan contain an increasingly assertive China. Can it afford to?”, 12 August 2018. Available at -

19 “Signing of Grant Agreement with Sri Lanka: Providing patrol boats to support stronger marine safety capacity for marine rescue, marine crime prevention and other operations”, Japan International Cooperation Agency, 1 July 2016.

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20 Satoru Nagao, “Is Japan Truly a Powerful country”? The Diplomat, 13 May 2017.

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21 Japan-Sri Lanka Summit Meeting, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan,Available at -

22 Vindu Mai Chotani, “India-Japan Ties Getting a Boost under Modi and Abe”, Issue No. 205, The Observer Research Foundation, November 2017.

23 Shutaro Sano, “Japan’s Engagement in China’s Belt and Road Initiative,” Australian Outlook, February 23, 2018.

24 Polly Diven, “Superpowers and Small States: U.S., China, and India Vie for Influence in Sri Lanka”. Paper prepared for the Annual Meeting of the European Consortium on Political Research. Available at: a190b9ce9069.pdf.

25 Sandya Nishanthi Gunasekara, “Bandwagoning, Balancing, and Small States: A Case of Sri Lanka”, Asian Social Science, Volume 11, No. 28, 2015.

26 Promises to move away from Rajapaksa's pro-China policy have been all but forgotten with the controversial Port City project, which Wickremesinghe had promised to scrap once in office, going ahead full steam. The Hambantota Port, too, has been handed over to a Chinese company amid protests from local workers. “The Return of Rajapaksa”, India Today, 1 March 2018.

27  It is important to note that while Japan and Sri Lanka sets a good example for smaller littoral states to deepen engagement, New Delhi’s engagement with Tokyo is on a higher economic and strategic level than what smaller states including Sri Lanka can do with Japan.

28 This brief argues that given Japan’s enduring relationship with many states in the Bay of Bengal, there is a case for deeper engagements between them. The brief pivots on Japan’s strong relationship with India, and India’s key role in BIMSTEC — owing not only to its geographical location but also its capabilities. Vindu Mai Chotani, “BIMSTEC and Japan: Exploring Prospects for Renewed Cooperation”, Issue No. 236, The Observer Research Foundation, April 2018.

29 BIMSTEC Website Available at -

30 Alvin J. Cottrell, “The Employment of Sea Power as an Instrument of National Policy,” in Uri Ra’anan, Robert l. Pfaltzgraff, Jr., and Geoffrey Kemp (eds.), Projection of Power: Perspectives, Perceptions and Problems (Hamden, Connecticut: Archon Book, 1982), p.94.

31 James Holmes, “Speak Softly and Carry a Big Ship; Why Teddy Roosevelt would have sent a carrier strike group to China” Foreign Policy, 11 February 2015.